DANGERS AND DELIGHTS OF SKIING
Is it unreasonable to get excited when the leaves start to fall, simply because it means that the ski season is coming? Helen Knowles thinks not! In eager anticipation of doing some shoop, shoop-ing, she considers what the mountaintop experience does to our bodies.
As soon as there is a chill in the air, I find myself dreaming of fresh powder, cold blue skies and the adrenaline rush that comes from hurtling down a snowy slope. But before I head off to the log cabin, I wonder what I can do to help counteract the ‘I am SO unfit!’ feeling that I experience in the first few days after arriving at
altitude… My fitness concern came about during my first summer trip to the French Alps. A flight of stairs that I would normally bound up left me gasping for breath. Talking during the gentle walk up to the hotel was almost impossible without stopping to gather breath. My summer resolution to continue jogging while on holiday (slightly optimistic, I admit) dissolved as I collapsed in a breathless, weary heap less than 100 metres from the start.
There is some nothing in the air…
Few of us can charge up a mountain-side like Aragorn and friends in Lord of the Rings. Luckily, I have an excuse – and so do you: each lung-full of has much less oxygen at higher altitudes than at lower ones. But contrary to popular belief,
the concentration of oxygen in the air is the same on the top of a mountain (it remains at 21%, no matter what the altitude is); there is simply less
air up there. The air pressure at the top of Mount Everest, for example, is only a third of that at sea level. As a result, mountaineers aiming for the top of the world only take in a third the amount of ‘air’, and so a third the amount of oxygen, with each gasp. Just imagine doing even moderate exercise and taking only one out of every three breaths… However, a winter excursion in the Alps won’t be at Everest height – the ski-able slopes usually top out at around 3,500 metres. At this altitude, the available oxygen is about two-thirds of that at sea level – still enough of a drop to render you and me more than a little breathless. Being weak and breathless is an unpleasant experience. With less oxygen in the lungs, there is less oxygen in the blood. And less oxygen in the blood means less oxygen getting to the muscles. And oxygen-deprived muscles are less able to produce energy – making them tire much more quickly, and making you feel like you’re carrying lead in your pockets. So, what can you do to combat these altitude effects? Acclimatisation is the key (in other words, ‘go easy on yourself’).