THE DANGERS AND DELIGHTS OF SKIING
THE FULL-BODY EXPERIENCE
Going skiing this winter? Or does the thought of altitude sickness give you cold feet? Helen Knowles explains why going too high can really bring you down – and what to do about it.
When you first arrive, your body quickly adapts to high altitude by increasing your rate and depth of breathing, as well as increasing your blood pressure and heart rate. If you pause for a moment and take your pulse when you get to the lodge, you may even notice that your heart has sped up. As the days pass, the body will start to produce more of the hormone called erythropoietin (better known as EPO). It is a powerful substance: many Tour de France cyclists, Lance Armstrong included, have injected extra EPO doses to improve their performance in the mountains. EPO stimulates the production of more red blood cells, which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, increasing oxygen delivery to the muscles and therefore making you more ‘fit’. It naturally takes a while, but by the end of the week, you’ll be flying down those slopes! It’s just cruel fortune that, by then, it’ll be time to head back home.
From highs to lows: mountain sickness
So while most of us get out of puff and tired more than usual, an unlucky, but relatively small, number of people experience something much worse when arriving at the ski resort – altitude sickness. If you get it, you will know about it in the first day: symptoms usually start within ten hours of ascent. A bad headache is usually the main symptom, and it can feel like you’ve caught the ‘flu: fatigue, feeling sick, lack of appetite, not sleeping well and light-headedness. Unfortunately, this is made all the worse for the keen skier suffering from altitude sickness by a rapid ascent (as you experience on the road transfer to the resort), exertion (skiing), and alcohol (due to the knock-on effects of dehydration). The best way to avoid altitude sickness would therefore be to ski gently (if at all), eat lots of starchy foods, drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol for the first few days of your trip – even if this may lead to a relatively dull start to the holiday. It’ll be worth it because getting altitude sickness can be serious and can only be ‘cured’ by descending to a lower altitude. And needing to leave the resort would make you a real partypooper.
Beating down the cold
One of the other challenges with being on a mountainside in winter is that it is cold. Very cold. This chill keeps all the snow light and fluffy and makes for fantastic skiing – which is great, as long as you can keep warm. Shivering with cold will seriously hinder your skiing ability, no matter how fit and acclimatised you are. Under normal conditions, your body is brilliant at keeping its inner body temperature at about 37 oC. oC. In cold environments (just like at high altitudes) the body needs to make several internal adjustments to help keep you alive. The first – and probably the most important – change is what what
you you do. do. When your brain tells you that it’s cold enough to freeze the nose off a polar bear, you put on warm, insulating clothes to keep you feeling cosy (which, if you’re a skier, come in lots of bright colours you wouldn’t normally be seen dead in…).
If you’re no t warmly wrapped up enough, your body’s first reaction is to narrow the surface blood vessels to reduce blood flow through the skin. This makes your skin look pale and means
that less heat is lost from your skin. Unfor tunately this occurs at the cost of progressively painful cooling of the extremities, especially the hands and feet. Some people are more prone to this painful numbing than others. Personally, I take this as an opportunity to rapidly bring out the boot-warmers! The next response to cold involves you doing odd things: you jump up and down, flap your arms, stamp your feet, and generally look silly in order to increase your activity level. This is very effective in the short-term: increased muscle activity produces heat and makes you feel more comfortable again. Shivering has the same sort of effect. However too much activity, especially under all those clothes, will cause you to sweat. And sweating will cool you down further. You just can’t win sometimes! If you’ve reached this sweaty, shivery point then now is the time to declare that enough is enough and point your skis down the mountain. There really is no better excuse for really needing needing a hot chocolate or vin chaud.
But it’s worth it…
After all that, it might seem like my conclusion is that altitude and cold are horrible, can make you ill, and are generally uncomfortable. Maybe… but taking it easy, being prepared and making the most of a few bits of comforting technology (otherwise known as hot chocolate stops, heading for home when you get too cold and getting quality ski clothing and boot warmers) are more than up to the task of combatting these environments. And let’s face it, these high, cold, snowy places really are the perfect winter playground for grown-up kids. I, for one, cannot wait to step into my skis at the top of the world in search of a winter adrenaline-rush.
Dhillon, S. (2012) Environmental hazards: hot, cold altitude and sun. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America