Breathless Heights: Conquering Altitude Sickness

Travel Tips — By julietrevelyan on April 6, 2010 at 4:21 am

One would hardly think a great visit to a southern Utah national park might spark altitude sickness. Doesn’t that only happen to climbers on Everest?

Back off a minute there, mountain climbing super champs. Altitude sickness can happen at as little as 4,000 feet above sea level (although that low of an elevation is fairly uncommon for this illness to occur). More typically, it can strike between 6,500-8,000 feet above sea level. The worst cases usually happen above 8,000 feet. Frankly, you probably don’t have much to worry about. (Phew!) But let’s take a look at this potential situation just for a moment.

picture courtesy of HikingArtist

What exactly is altitude sickness? Basically, it’s hypoxia, which just means you’re not getting enough oxygen to operate at your full function. How do you know if you have it? Some classic symptoms include headache, sleeplessness, dizziness, serious fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea and vomiting (yeah, not fun). Generally, problems breathing during exercise also crop up. Who gets it? Anyone is a potential candidate. Oddly enough, though, the more fit you are, the higher your risk. This is probably because people in better shape tend to ascend heights more quickly than those who might need a few more regular rounds on the treadmill. Go slowly if in doubt. Might as well smell the flowers and take in the views anyway, right?

How bad can this be? It can be just annoying (that darn headache that won’t leave), to┬áreally, really bad (as in, this is the end). Don’t get too worried, though! Most people with altitude sickness get better. How soon might you feel it coming on? Anywhere from an hour to 10 hours after you arrive at your elevated destination. And what the heck do you do for it? In a nutshell: go back down to a lower elevation. Don’t go any higher in elevation unless your symptoms lessen or go away completely.

What can you do to avoid or conquer altitude sickness? Drink plenty of water. Stay away from alcohol, at least for first few days, as well as anything else that may depress your system, like a sleeping pill. Eat hearty, mateys! High-calorie diets give you more energy to climb anyway, so don’t necessarily shirk your meal portions.

Stats on southern Utah parks:

Arches is 4,085 to 5,653 feet in elevation. This means you’re probably fairly unlikely to contract more than mere windedness during a visit there.

Bryce Canyon: at 9,000 feet, this might be a place that knocks you down if you’re from the lowlands. Pace yourself in order to fully enjoy the astounding beauties of this Park.

Canyonlands: This gorgeous maze of red rocks ranges 3,700-7,200 feet above those shining seas.

Zion: 3,800 to nearly 9,000 feet in elevation. Plenty of range here!

Altitude sickness can find you even at these fairly tame elevations. Should you let that scare you away from visiting some of our nation’s most amazing pieces of land? Not at all! Remember, you most likely won’t even have a moment of anything but awe at being in such gorgeous countryside. Yet being aware of what might shake up your vacation is never a bad thing. If you feel a headache coming on, drink your water, take it easy without getting couch potato-ish, and gaze up at that towering sandstone wall with admiration but perhaps the desire to tackle it another day–after you’re sure you’re still in mountain-conquering shape.

photo courtesy of Julie Trevelyan

Tags: Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, National Park, Utah, Zion

    4 Comments

  • RachelW says:

    Yes, altitude sickness can also be a factor when you are driving across the USA (no kidding) and take the trip from the flat midwest to the elevations described in your oh-so-fast-moving vehicle. Good advice to stop and smell the roses and stay at a spot in an intermediary elevation. Also, be very careful if you have any kind of lung disease. May be best to keep away from elevated spots if you have COPD. Just a thought…

  • Yes indeed. Good point too about lung diseases. Those suffering from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) are certainly possible candidates for altitude sickness. Taking your time to take in the views is a great idea no matter what.

    Thanks for stopping by, Rachel!

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