Working at High Altitude

Over the past few years I have had training classes for the maintenance personnel at several ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains.

These are some of the most memorable training trips I have had.  But apart from the beauty of these areas, there is one downside for some: the high altitude.  These resorts are typically between 10,000 feet and 13,000 feet in elevation.

Working at higher altitudes poses certain health risks for some people due to the thin air (lack of oxygen).  Altitude sickness is a very real thing, and it can be fatal.  Altitude sickness is our body’s response to the low air pressure and oxygen typically occurring at altitudes over 8,000 ft. There are some behaviors you should avoid if you are not acclimated to high altitudes. Do not go over 9,000 feet in altitude in 1 day. Do not sleep 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the altitude you slept at the previous night.

It is recommended to spend an extra day acclimating for every 3,300 ft in altitude; however, when traveling for work this is not always possible–it’s often straight to the job-site in one day.  No time to acclimate.  Here is a list of altitude sickness symptoms to lookout for.

If you experience any of these symptoms, the best solution would be to immediately descend down to a lower altitude until you feel better.

Experiences will vary depending upon what altitude you live in. For myself, I live close to sea level, so there are things I have to be aware of and precautions I have to take when traveling to these elevationsWhen I travel to 10,000+ feet in one day, it is very hard on my body. Breathing becomes hard, my energy levels are very low, and sleeping is difficult.  There are steps I have learned to take to make transition to high altitudes easier.

Staying hydrated is the top priority.  Dehydration reduces your body’s ability to acclimate to new altitudes. Drink two to three liters of water daily starting the day before your trip.  Personally, I drink lots of coconut water while up at these altitudes.  Coconut water is very hydrating and provides minerals and natural sugars your body can use.

Do not drink any alcohol and avoid it for the first 48 hours of your trip. Alcohol is a depressant and can slow down your breathing rate and cause dehydration.  You will also feel the effects of the alcohol MUCH faster and stronger!  1-2 drinks may cause a hangover which you don’t want at these high elevations.

Avoid caffeinated products, such as energy drinks and sodas. Caffeine can lead to the dehydration of your muscles. Another good solution is “canned oxygen”.  These are available at almost all stores in these areas.  They are a little expensive ($15each) but are quite effective and last a long time.  A couple of deep breaths from a can will almost immediately make you feel better.  I carry them with me every time I am working at high altitudes.

There are certain foods that you should eat to get ready for your trip to minimize altitude sickness. High carbohydrate diets have shown in some studies to alleviate acute mountain sickness symptoms as well as improve mood and performance. Other studies have shown improved oxygen saturation in the blood during simulated high-altitude experiments from the carbohydrates as well. It is believed that high carbohydrate diets can improve energy balance. Eat a high carbohydrate diet before and during the acclimation periods. This can include pastas, breads, fruits, and potato-based meals.

In addition, excess salt should be avoided. Too much salt will cause the dehydration of your body’s tissues. Physical endurance and conditioning may appear to be a good idea before mountain climbing. However, studies have shown there is no evidence that physical fitness protects against altitude sickness.

Please remember to take precautions such as these to insure a safe and enjoyable trip!

by Acoem contributor | September 6, 2022
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