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mineralbelttrail

Colorado has elevations of 3,317 to 14,439 feet above sea level. Both local residents and visitors should learn the signs of high altitude sickness to stay safe while enjoying the outdoors in our beautiful state.

Even if you are only driving along the I-70 corridor, you will reach elevations of 10,662 feet while going over Vail Pass. If you are driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, you will reach an elevation of 11,796 feet. If you get out of the car to look around at these elevations, you might notice a shortness of breath or dizziness. If you are exercising at our higher elevations, high altitudes will effect you even more acutely.

Many of Colorado's mountain towns and resorts are at 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. If you are riding a ski lift, you may well get above 11,000 feet. Stay aware of your own physical condition and that of your family members and companions.

At our higher elevations, there is less oxygen in the air. Less available oxygen places stress on your body. The air is also drier and the sun is more intense the higher you go. People are more easily dehydrated and their skin will burn more easily as well.

Here are a few things that you should know about being at high altitudes:

  • Visitors from lower elevations may feel a range of symptoms from the altitude, even at elevations as low as 5,000.
  • High Altitude Sickness can occur even with those people that are generally physically fit.
  • High Altitude Sickness can effect people of any age.
  • Effects of altitude may occur with a rapid gain in altitude, such as a car going over a mountain pass, a ski lift taking you to the top of the mountain or a tourist arriving by plane from lower altitudes.
  • The negative effects of high altitude generally diminish with time spent at higher altitude, say over a few days.
  • Physical exertion, such as hiking or other exercise, may exacerbate the symptoms of High Altitude Sickness.
  • Even people that live in Colorado year-round may experience symptoms when visiting the mountains.
  • Alcohol can increase the symptoms of High Altitude Sickness.
  • You do not have to be high on a mountain slope to experience symptoms.

High Altitude Sickness should not be taken lightly. It can be severe and even deadly. Watch for symptoms in yourself and those around you.

The symptoms of High Altitude Sickness

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With High Altitude Sickness, the body is experiencing Hypoxia, a condition in which the body is not receiving adequate oxygen. Some of the early symptoms of High Altitude Sickness include:

  • headache
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of appetite
  • light headedness
  • nausea
  • weakness and tiredness
  • inability to sleep
  • dizziness
  • clumsiness

More severe symptoms include:

  • disorientation
  • tremors
  • vomiting
  • ataxia (staggering, loss of balance)
  • fainting, loss of consciousness
  • blue lips and fingertips

What to do for treating and avoiding High Altitude Sickness

If you are just arriving in Colorado from lower elevations, or you live at a lower elevation and are visiting the mountains, give yourself a day or two before doing any exercise, if at all possible. You need to give your body time to acclimate. Stay hydrated by drinking adequate amounts of water and avoid alcohol. Drinking alcohol dehydrates you and makes other symptoms of high altitude sickness even worse.

Watch for symptoms. If they are mild, try just taking it easy for a couple hours. Stay hydrated, stay in the shade and refrain from exercise. Breathe deeply and be sure to exhale thoroughly.

If you are hiking or doing other exercise and think you might be suffering from the symptoms, do not continue going any higher. If you are with a group, get someone to head down the mountain with you and to stay with you in the case the symptoms worsen. Keep an eye on your hiking companions. They may not realize that they are becoming disoriented.

Do not leave a person that is exhibiting the symptoms alone by themselves.

If you or someone is disoriented or dizzy, find a shady place to rest before heading down the trail. Sip water, do not gulp it down and breathe deeply. 

If the symptoms are bad enough, call emergency resources. Many locations in Colorado are out of reach of cell phones. If this is the case, if possible get a couple of group members or other hikers to get back to a location with cell service to call for help.

High Altitude Sickness can be very serious. Take precautions and be aware of the symptoms.

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