After visiting his family in North Carolina and Virginia over the holiday season, Christopher Joyner said the transition back to Colorado altitude hit him harder than he expected.
Joyner is the public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Colorado Northwest District. Upon his return to Colorado this past December, he said he had lost some of his acclimation, and a slip and fall into a canyon while snowshoeing revealed the struggle in his lungs.
“One of the things that I picked up on really quickly was that elevation was a concern for me,” he said in a recent phone interview. “After being gone for a week at an elevation of about 100 feet, I had lost some acclimation.”
He explained how he had taken a little too much confidence in his skills.
“Because I live here and spend a lot of time outdoors, a lot of time at elevation, I got a little too comfortable with my abilities,” he said. “I normally have that acclimation, but put myself in not the best situation.”
Joyner made it out of his predicament just fine, but the situation exemplifies what can happen to anyone amidst a rapid rise in altitude.
The BLM’s Northwest District has the greatest diversity of elevation of all the districts of Colorado, Joyner explained. The elevation in it ranges from as low as Grand Junction, at about 4,500 feet, all the way up to alpine areas up to 12,000 feet around the Kremmling and Little Snake BLM field offices.
Chris Pitkin, outdoor recreation planner for the Grand Junction field office, said trouble at altitude comes from not being prepared.
“A lot of times people are not prepared in the right ways,” he said, also on the phone interview. “People often don’t have enough water, especially in the winter. Also, they are not clear with other folks about letting them know where they are headed.”
A lot of warm, dry layers are vital to have with you on winter adventures, and Pitkin said fundamental navigation skills are key, even beyond the gadgets we can carry.
“I think the more information people can have before they go out, the better,” he said. “We encourage people to take advantage of resources that are available online, but to also have basic map, compass and navigational skills.”
“Proper planning is the best thing to do to make sure you don’t get in that situation,” Joyner said, reflecting on his own risky situation of recent. “But once you’re in it, remain calm and take your actions more slowly and deliberately, as opposed to rushing.
Avenza Systems Inc. (company of mobile mapping and geographic software), in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Northwest District, recommends the following as ways to avoid altitude sickness:
Ascend at a Reasonable Pace
Spend one to two days at a reasonably high altitude before your final destination. Even those in tip top shape can feel the effects of altitude sickness if no precautions are taken. There is 29 percent less oxygen in the air at 9,000 feet compared with sea level. At 14,000 feet the air has 43 percent less oxygen than at sea level.
Don’t Look Down
A simple way to reduce vertigo or that “unbalanced” feeling, is to avoid looking down if trekking through steep terrain. As you rise in elevation, the body is more susceptible to dizziness due to lack of oxygen. Keep your focus straight ahead to avoid feeling woozy.
Caffeine and alcohol dehydrates virtually every part of your body. Pumping your body with ample hydration is the most effective and important measure you can take before and during your adventure. Avoid hitting the resort’s bar or a cup of Joe at least 24 hours before ascending, as the effects of alcohol are much greater when you rise in elevation.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Lastly, it may seem obvious, but a wise rule of thumb to remember is to pack more water than needed. Your body’s expenditure increases significantly at high altitude, resulting in the need for extra hydration. Even if you are not feeling thirsty, continuously replenishing yourself will make the difference between feeling sick and conquering the day. Additionally, fueling your body with sports drinks is an excellent method for replenishing the loss of electrolytes.