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Don't make these two mistakes when you head for the mountains this winter

Don't make these two mistakes when you head for the mountains this winter

“You can’t get on top of altitude sickness once you are experiencing it…you have to get ahead of it before you even see the mountain in the distance.”

How not to make my two elementary weekend-wrecking mistakes when you head for the mountains this year.

At 3:00 AM on a cold mid-November Saturday in 2014 I was cowering in a cold, itchy nylon-sheeted bed in a Super 8 motel halfway between Denver and Breckenridge, clothed head to finger, to toe in every piece of ski gear I had. Exhausted, shivering and with a splitting headache wondering if I was going to see any skiing at all on my hastily thrown together first-ever weekend in Colorado. 

I was supposed, by now, to be sleeping soundly in a generously appointed condo in Breckenridge, with a view of the mountain and sunrise in the offing. Instead, I was 60 miles away, snowed in at a miserable, cheap motel, wondering if I would even make it to the resort and berating myself for a very personal failing.

The failure to prepare in any way at all for the weekend. Or to do much of any research on the Rockies generally and Breckenridge specifically.

In fairness, I had the brainwave to make use of the first solo weekend in 6 years only the day before and decided to fly to Denver and drive up to Breckenridge literally at the last minute.

My planning consisted of checking that some of the skiing was open (it was). That I had enough SkyMiles points to get me there (I’m cheap) and that a last-minute deal on a 2WD compact hire car was cheaper than the resort shuttle. (It was…and I’m cheap).

All booked up and ready to go I headed to the airport, neglecting to read a weather report and with no idea really of just how HIGH Breckenridge is.

By now, I suspect that you know where this is going. When I arrived at the hire car desk in Denver the agent asked me where I was going, and suggested that an upgrade to a 4WD car would be prudent…given the fact that it was snowing in the pass and in Breckenridge.

As someone who is never-knowingly upsold, I declined firmly. Somehow muscled my skis, boots and bag into the compact and headed up HWY 9 expecting to be in Breck for dinner within 2 hours.

And here I was in a Super 8 miles from Breck 7 hours later, not knowing if I would make it at all. As we say in England…”a real shambles”.

So, the first lesson of this story is, if you’re driving to the Rockies at night, in winter, take the 4WD upgrade. It’s simple really.

Now as luck would have it, the snow passed quickly, and I was able to roll into Breck by 11am the next day. Over 12 hours late and with 3-4 precious hours of skiing lost in what was after all a very quick weekend…but nothing I couldn’t make up with some aggressive skiing and by running around the mountain as much as I could with the remaining day and a half.

And this is where the more serious mistake bit me.

I had completely failed to account for the altitude. Breckenridge is at 9,600 feet. With a summit at 13,000 feet. Compare this to the 5,000 feet I was used to in Europe where I had never felt the ill-effects of altitude…and 9000 feet higher than Minneapolis, where I had just arrived from.

I simply wasn’t ready for the change in elevation and spent the rest of the weekend in a haze of mental fog, headache and dehydration desperately playing catch up with the debilitating effects of altitude illness. Trying to chase it away with an expensive concoction of Tylenol, water and O2 bottles. At no point did I ever feel on top of it.

The truth is you can’t get on top of altitude sickness once you are experiencing it. You have to get ahead of it before you even see the mountain in the distance.

Ideally, you would have a chance to acclimate to the altitude at some intermediate altitude, such as a few days in Denver. But unless you’re spending the whole season in the hills, the reality is that you’ll likely be coming from some elevation near sea level to something like 9,000 feet with as much time to acclimate as I had. None.

So you need a plan of action to make sure you don’t squander your time as I did. That plan should involve keeping really well hydrated. Which is the first essential of any healthy endeavor. And that hydration plan should involve water…and electrolytes.

At altitude you will sweat when you are active and you’ll breathe faster as your body tries to make up for the lower levels of oxygen. That accelerated breathing exacerbates dehydration. Once you are in the mountains you need to keep on top of hydration, to keep on top of altitude sickness.

You can learn more about our electrolyte powders and how they can keep you at your best here.

Before leaving you can get ahead of the game by taking an Altitude Supplement like Go Condition’s Altitude Support Plus which is formulated to lower stress levels (which calms your mind and body, helps you remain focused and prevents hyper-ventilating) and to increase the availability of oxygen to your tissues as you acclimate.

Go Condition Altitude Support Plus is a supplement comprising 6 natural adaptogens and herbs in a combination and dosage that makes it truly effective at prepping your body for the stress of altitude, so it can respond adaptively and quickly to the environment. It is not a pain killer. We believe that your body’s natural signaling and ability to adapt should be supported and not impeded. So, it’s as natural as we can make it to help you get acclimated as quickly as possible.

You can learn more about our Altitude Support Plus here. You should start taking it up to 5 days before you head for the hills and keep taking it while you are there, to stay ahead of the game.