When Andrew Councell, a guide at the Colorado Mountain School, leads hikes, he’s always careful to watch for signs of altitude sickness.
What seems like just an annoying headache and an upset stomach are actually signs of acute mountain sickness, more commonly called altitude sickness.
“We never ignore those things,” Councell said.
And with good reason.
Altitude sickness can lead to much more serious conditions such as high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).
HACE, which has a relatively quick onset, can cause slurred speech, poor coordination, blue lips and a very serious headache. People suffering from HAPE might begin coughing up a pinkish phlegm caused by their lungs filling with fluid.
Councell guides groups on some of the state’s tallest peaks, but he’s seen people suffering from HAPE at relatively low elevations, such as 9,000-foot ski resorts.
Councell has seen many people underestimate the effects of altitude, especially when traveling from sea level.
“People climb pretty hard at sea level and they come to altitude and they get humbled,” Councell said. “Altitude is a great equalizer.”
Students coming to Boulder from low elevations won’t have to worry about altitude issues just sitting in class. But if they’re like many University of Colorado students and crave a little outdoor physical activity, they can expect to feel sluggish at first.
What seems like a simple exercise routine at sea level will feel more intense in Boulder. The body consumes less oxygen at higher altitudes, said Robert Mazzeo, an associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology at CU.
Once the body begins producing more red-blood cells, it can consume more oxygen and begin to acclimate. This process takes about a week for people at moderate altitudes who are not physically exerting themselves, a little longer once exercise is thrown in the mix.
Men tend to acclimate more quickly than women because their bodies produce more red-blood cells. Mazzeo suggests women take an iron supplement the first month living at a higher altitude to help jump-start their red-blood cell production.
For students eager to continue their exercise programs or to start exploring the surrounding mountains, Mazzeo recommends caution.
“If they’re feeling some symptoms of acute mountain sickness, they should definitely take it easy a couple of days until they start to acclimate,” Mazzeo said.
Some symptoms of altitude sickness include nausea, headaches and fatigue. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol can help with these symptoms said Alison Wagner, director of personal training at the Flatirons Athletic Club in Boulder.
If you can’t avoid alcohol, moderation is a good idea.
“Alcohol tolerance is greatly lowered at higher altitudes,” Wagner said. “If you’re someone that can slam back 10 beers in Santa Barbara, you probably can’t do that here.”
Eating lots of complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, also will help fight fatigue, giving you more energy to power through your workouts and hikes.
While these behaviors can help, acclimatization doesn’t happen overnight, Councell said. For hiking and climbing at higher altitudes, it’s important to give yourself as much time as possible to get acclimated beforehand and to not underestimate the effects of altitude, Councell said.
The biggest factor in getting acclimated is personal physiology and variable factors like sleep, diet and hydration, Councell said. Feeling great on one hike won’t guarantee you’ll feel as good next time.
“For me, every time I get to 20,000 feet I feel different,” Councell said. “Sometimes I feel great and sometimes I feel like the worst hangover I’ve ever had.
“And that’s a good way to describe it — a hangover.”