9 Ways Prepare for High Altitude Skiing

by Simon Knott | Posted On: February 9th, 2022
High Altitude Skiing

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Most people live either close to ground level or slightly above it and their bodies physically adjust to the air pressure and oxygen level in the air. The human body isn’t designed to accommodate large changes in altitude in a short space of time and consequently simply driving up to a high-altitude ski resort can be enough to cause some people altitude sickness. So, what’s the answer? What’s the best way to prepare for high-altitude skiing?

Anyone can prepare for high-altitude skiing with a bit of planning. Checking the altitude of your resort, staggering your arrival at the resort, keeping hydrated, and taking it easy are all good plans. Likewise, starting an aerobic exercise program well before your vacation will improve your circulation.

Highest Resorts

Breckenridge in the USA hosts the highest runs in the world at 12,800ft or 3,914m, with

Zermatt in Switzerland follows close behind at 12,790ft or 3,899m.

At these sorts of altitudes, the effects on the human body can be quite acute. Strangely the air has the same percentage of oxygen as at sea level, however, the air pressure is considerably lower meaning the molecules of gas are more spread out.

Being less dense humans must breathe a lot more of the air into their lungs to get the same intake of oxygen.

If you are planning on taking a trip that involves skiing at an altitude it makes sense to prepare beforehand so you are well equipped for the task ahead.

1. Do Your Research

According to research 15-40% of visitors to resorts above 8,000 feet will start to feel the effects of altitude sickness. Find out the base resort height where you are visiting, as well as the height of the top runs.

You may well be fine but do your own research to find out the symptoms of altitude sickness, as well as the best treatments. You can then plan accordingly. Make sure you have easy access to medical help if you need it.

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2. Take it easy

Woman Skiing
Photo by Barney Moss licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you watch Sherpas and climbers setting out on a high ascent you will notice their pace is slow and deliberate. This isn’t connected with them being tired but more an understanding that their bodies are continually under stress working at such high altitudes.

With the lower air pressure, there is less oxygen available with every breath you take. It follows that red blood cells are unable to get as much oxygen as they are used to. It’s this lack of oxygen in the circulation of blood that leads to the symptoms of altitude sickness.

The body cleverly realizes the situation and starts to produce many more red blood cells, which will then be able to harvest the available oxygen. However, these new red blood cells are not produced overnight, it’s a gradual transition. This is the reason why Sherpas and climbers move slowly, to enable their bodies to constantly adapt to their circulatory system.

It also demonstrates that the body is slow to acclimatize to the falling air pressure. By walking slowly, the body is exposed to the changes in pressure gradually, so that the body can adapt. This is also a good philosophy for skiers to follow when they embark on a high-altitude ski trip.

3. Stagger your Climb

If possible, when you are heading to your resort trying to spend the first night at a lower altitude. This will give your body more than eight hours to acclimatize to a higher altitude. You will be much less likely to experience altitude sickness problems if you give your body a break by not exposing it to the full extent of the altitude all at once.

4. Sleep Low Down

Some resorts understand the effects of altitude on visitors and consequently build accommodation at a lower altitude, enabling skiers to rest and recover overnight from the effects of the high-altitude ski runs.

5. Keep Hydrated

Several factors linked with dehydration come together for skiers at high altitudes. Firstly, skiing is a physical sport, so whether skiing down a run or carrying your skis uphill you will be using muscle power, which will, in turn, cause you to breathe harder and sweat.

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With every breath you take moisture is lost from the body. Secondly, experiencing the lower air pressure will also make you breathe harder, as you try to find oxygen in the rarefied air. This also adds to the loss of moisture from the body.

Thirdly, most people like to enjoy a drink on vacation, however, alcohol is a strong diuretic.

This makes you want to go to the bathroom more often and so your body loses more and more water.

A hangover is mostly caused by experiencing dehydration in the brain. With your body already under duress from the altitude, it makes sense to take it easy with the alcohol.

6. Give yourself a Break

Given how infrequently most people go skiing it’s not surprising everyone wants to be on the runs from morning till dusk. However, try to understand your body is being put through its paces by the altitude, even if you’re not experiencing any negative symptoms.

Even if it’s just for this high-altitude trip, give yourself a break and do something relaxing that you enjoy, to give your body a chance to recover.

7. Physical training to Acclimatise to the Altitude

Improving your body’s endurance, circulation, and aerobic fitness goes a long way to making you better prepared for a high-altitude ski trip. It would be best to let your body acclimatize to the altitude gradually over a period of weeks. However, for most people, this is simply not practical but luckily it is possible to imitate acclimatization using a range of fitness exercises.

The sooner you start the better adapted your body will be however even starting a fitness program six weeks before your trip will put you in a much better position than most.

8. Breathing control

We are so used to breathing happening we often don’t even notice it goes on continually.

Breathing enables us to bring fresh oxygen into the lungs, which gets transported into the bloodstream, where it is used in many physiological mechanisms. Waste carbon dioxide is transported back to the lungs, where it is expelled on an outward breath.

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By learning to control breathing we can make each breath more effective, providing extra oxygen to the circulatory system. Several Eastern religions have adopted breathing control as part of their discipline, they understand the physiological advantages but also the effects breathing control has on reducing stress.

Breathe and Hold and Breathe

This simple exercise can be done anywhere, and it will gradually train your mind to breathe more effectively and in a relaxed manner. Holding the breath will allow more of the oxygen to transfer across to the red blood cells.

  1. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds
  3. Breathe out through your mouth for four seconds

Repeat 10 times

9. Aerobic Training

Aerobic training usually consists of low-intensity activity, while the body is being supplied with oxygen as the exercise continues. Good examples of aerobic training are jogging, rowing, cycling, and skiing. Undertaking a longer program of aerobic training before a high-altitude ski trip will improve your circulation, muscle tone, as well as fitness of the joints and ligaments.

Set aside a certain amount of time each day to practice. 20 minutes per day or every other day is a good start, so long as you can keep to it. For a beginner aim for 5 miles per week and increase your distance up to 10 miles per week.

What are the symptons of Altitude sickness

Altitude sickness can affect anyone staying at 6000 feet and above. The symptoms are like those of a hangover, usually start after 6-48 hours and can include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath

The symptoms are usually worse at night and are caused by the low oxygen levels in your body.

Treatment

Ideally, it’s best to move to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen. If this is impractical drink extra water and painkillers for the headaches. If the symptoms worsen, such as slurred speech or impaired motor skills then make an appointment to see a doctor as soon as possible.

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