This is the second in a series of posts from my roadtrip across Colorado.
When I heard that TBEX was going to be held in Keystone this year, I grew nervous. I didn’t want to miss the conference, which has become a must-do for travel bloggers seeking to network and connect with companies interested in sponsorship. But my last high-altitude experience – where I ended up in the Aspen hospital with dangerously low blood oxygen levels – made me a little leery of going back to Colorado, let alone Keystone, which sits at 9,280 feet in elevation. I didn’t want to end up in bed with an oxygen tank again.
With TBEX over and my road trip finished, I’m happy to report that I made it through without a major medical incident. Because I was so paranoid of not being able to function, I probably overcompensated. My path took me from Denver to Keystone to the heights of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road, and then down to Estes Park, Lyons, Fort Collins and Boulder.
Here’s a few things that I did to prevent altitude sickness in Colorado – which I’ll repeat the next time I go above 8,000 feet (which is usually when altitude sickness sets in).
1. Drink water. As you ascend in altitude, the atmosphere becomes drier – and your body quickly becomes dehydrated, which leads to headaches, chapped lips, dizziness, and nausea . To prepare, I started chugging water a few days before my flight left for Colorado -and didn’t stop once I landed in Denver.
The Mile-High City sits at 5,000 feet, and I could feel the altitude a little bit at the TBEX Speaker events. But I kept swigging water and didn’t let up as the shuttle took us up, up, up over the Loveland Pass, and the Continental Divide (11,991 feet).
2. Avoid alcohol. The first TBEX party up on Keystone mountain, where we took gondolas to 11,000 feet plus, was amazing. No one who was there will ever forget the dessert tent (hamburger cupcakes! chocolate tacos!) or the food stations manned by chefs from around the Vail Resort properties.
I’m sure there were some fantastic Colorado microbrews there too. But as I said above, I spent the night swigging lemon water from the plastic bottle provided by Visit Denver – and kept drinking the rest of the weekend. Every time my head started to hurt, I drank more water. The tactic worked, and I found plenty of of time for the state’s famous craft beers once I reached Estes Park, which sits at the far friendlier elevation of 7,522 feet.
(One side effect: You go to the bathroom more often. Which apparently would have happened even if I hadn’t drank enough water to float a small island. To increase the amount of oxygen in your blood, your kidneys start dumping water. No wonder some of the bathroom lines were long!)
3. Eat carbs. This tip came courtesy of one of the Keystone workers, who told us to avoid red meat, if possible. That’s because the body slows down the digestive process at high altitude, diverting its energy toward more essential tasks, such as keeping your heart beating and blood flowing to the brain. The result is a range of gastro-intestinal symptoms, ranging from diarreaha, constipation, and gas. Mindful of my companions, I ate light and stuck to carbs, which are easier to digest.
4. Bring Ambien. It can be hard to sleep at high altitudes, and I found myself waking up frequently on my first night. Most sleeping pills suppress respiration, and so doctors do not recommend using them at high altitudes when your body is already struggling for oxygen.
But Ambien (or zolpidem) is a different class of drug, and has been deemed safe for mountaineers to use (as well as Lunesta). I broke my pills in half so I didn’t feel groggy the next day. (Note: Ambien has other side effects and you can’t take it with alcohol; make sure you know how you’ll react before you use it at high altitudes).
5. A few other OTC drugs also don’t hurt. I already take aspirin on a daily basis to prevent blood clots. During those crucial first few days, I doubled my dose. I also took some ginger supplements and had ibuprofen at the ready, although I didn’t need it.
6. Take it easy. Like most of Colorado’s highest mountain country, Keystone’s views are gorgeous. When you get there, your first response is to run outside and play. But I concentrated on acclimating during those initial 24 hours, heeding the advice of a guide I met in South America who told me to take small steps if I ever felt out of breath. It helped.
7. Acclimate at lower levels. Last time I went to Colorado, I flew directly from sea level into Aspen. Big mistake. This time, I stayed in Denver for a night before heading up. I still felt the altitude, but I would have been hurting much more.
Climbers are often told to train high, sleep low. While I will never be in that category, I found that I could handle the highest altitudes of Rocky Mountain National Park after nights spent in lower Estes Park.
8. Buy puffer cans of oxygen. These little babies only cost $3.50 each. I had several at the ready, although I only used them when I woke up at night. To get the most out of them, you treat them the same way that asthmatics use an inhaler, by taking short puffs.
9. Put a humidifier in your room. Most ski resorts and many upscale rental properties come with these machines, which add moisture to the air. This by itself won’t eliminate your reaction to high altitude, but I did enjoy coming back to a room where I felt like my skin could rejuvenate.
So thus I survived! By the middle of my 10 day trip, I felt pretty good – and was able to do everything that people go to Colorado to do. And I’ve checked: The elevation of Costa Brava, Spain, where TBEX Europe will be held in September, is a much friendlier 249 feet above sea level. Bring on the Rioja!