Nightmare in paradise
Snowbird, Utah, can be a skier’s paradise: The accommodations are luxurious; the air, pristine; the scenery, breathtaking; the people, the friendliest you’ll ever meet. Its slopes are packed with powder, and the skiing is challenging, even for the most advanced.
It can also, however, be a skier’s nightmare, if you happen to be among those visitors who, like myself and my sister-in-law, Barb, become stricken with altitude sickness.
Snowbird is nestled in Little Cottonwood Canyon of the Wasatch Mountains, a range of the western Rockies that extend about 160 miles from southeastern Idaho to central Utah. The resort was built in 1971 about a half-hour outside Salt Lake City, joining the nearby resorts of Alta, Brighton, Solitude, Canyons, Deer Valley, Park City, and Robert Redford’s Sundance. But Snowbird offers the most challenging (read that steep and rocky) slopes of them all.
Locals say if you want to shop, go to Park City, but if you really want to ski, go to Snowbird: 27 percent of its runs are rated “green,” or easiest; but 73 percent are “blue” (intermediate), to “double black” (super expert). And one Vermont native who grew up skiing Killington told us at the ski school “out here, the greens are like blues out East ...” and so forth. So, essentially, there are no easy runs.
That alone was enough to strike a little apprehension, with a 7-year-old newbie in tow, about the mountain we had never navigated before. And that was before the altitude sickness set in.
Both Barb and I had had it once before, on separate trips to Vail, Colo. But this bout struck us both unlike either of those attacks, and definitely worse.
It could have been the temperatures, which locals assured us were the lowest they’d had in 25 years — 3 degrees at the 8,110-foot base and a frigid minus 32, with wind chills, at the 11,000-foot summit.
It could have been the extremely dry Utah air, for which the resort provides humidifiers in every room.
It could have been the swift eight-minute ascent on Snowbird’s 125-person tram to the summit, or the slow descent to lower altitudes because, as we and other skiers learned, skis (and boards) actually stick to ultra-cold snow.
But likely, it was all those things combined that generated what we perceived as either intense anxiety attacks or oncoming heart attacks. On the plus side, our halting descent gave us plenty of time to gaze over the stunning frozen vistas of evergreen forests provided by a rollicking storm just days before we arrived.
We eventually learned enough about the illness to get through the week with carb-loading, rest, eucalyptus steams and an over-the-counter supplement we quickly named The Miracle Pill. Still, we both agreed we couldn’t wait to get back to Ohio air.
So in the interest of never having to experience that again, I set out to learn more. And what I’ve learned is, an estimated 20 percent of people visiting or passing through America’s western mountains suffer at least some symptoms of altitude sickness, but few seek treatment because their symptoms clear up with descent, or they attribute them to the conditions it mimics: flu, anxiety attacks, dehydration, hangovers.
But Barb and I, according to Dr. Troy Madsen, should definitely have seen a doctor.
Dr. Madsen is assistant professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine and research director in its emergency department, which he said sees only a “handful” of cases of the malady a year. Those are actually Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), he said, which includes high- altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema.
Both, Dr. Madsen said, are serious and, at advanced stages, can require intubation to restore oxygen to the body. Untreated, they can lead to death.
Pulmonary edema causes symptoms similar to congestive heart failure — severe difficulty breathing, crackly breathing and possibly, fever. Anyone with lungs previously compromised by pneumonia, asthma or COPD, will probably be more at risk of contracting it, he said.
Cerebral edema is indicated if you’re experiencing confusion or difficulty concentrating. At its worst, he said, it can cause the brain to swell so much that it herniates.
Cerebral edema likely was part of my and Barb’s problem, Dr. Madsen said, since both of us were having difficulty focusing while reading or playing board and video games. We also certainly had pulmonary edema, he said, given our difficulty breathing and the heart palpitations.
Had Barb and I arrived at his ER, we likely would have received Diamox, a prescription drug also used to treat glaucoma and congestive heart failure, and possibly even a short course of steroids to reduce the swelling, he said.
According to The Institute for Altitude Medicine (www.altitudemedicine.org) several other prescription drugs also can be effective in reversing symptoms, but Dr. Madsen said Diamox is advisable even as a preventative for anyone who has previously experienced AMS. Start taking it a couple days before arrival, he said.
Ibuprofen also helps, he said, and naproxen may too, since both are anti- inflammatories, so will reduce swelling.
In addition, Dr. Madsen said, some studies have suggested that ginko biloba may help. That, in fact, was one ingredient in the “Miracle Pill” called Altitude Adjustment which I found in The Cliff’s general store. It worked immediately the first day, but slower and less effectively the second. The third and last dose came the day we were leaving and descended the 3,780 feet to the airport.
The store clerk who sold it to me said she had recommended it to hundreds of guests, and wondered why the resort didn’t advertise it in its rooms. I wondered the same.
Dr. Madsen also noted that anyone who plans to spend extended periods at high elevations may want to carry gamma bags, which inflate and simulate an immediate descent of about 2,000 feet once you step inside.
He also advises ascending to high elevations in stages, over days, rather than within hours, as we did. And once up there, he said, take a couple of days without exertion in order to acclimate.
We took a full day off before hitting the slopes the next morning, but Snowbird suggests two days, and some sources suggest up to five days’ rest.
Making the quick 3,000-foot ascent our first run out, then over-exerting ourselves on snow made sticky by the cold, likely heightened the possibility of contracting AMS by straining our lungs even further, Dr. Madsen said.
But anyone can experience at least some symptoms, even if you’re simply driving over a mountain pass at 8,000 feet, according to WebMD. Your fitness level and gender play no role in getting it. It is simply caused by breathing too little oxygen in the thin air.
Descending to the airport provided Barb and me some welcome relief, and in the end, Snowbird’s picture- perfect mountain vistas of white forests, craggy mountains and frozen waterfalls were worth the week of scratchy throats, skin and eyes. And The Cliff offered a host of plush amenities that made our stay enjoyable, nevertheless. But next time, we’ll take extra precautions. And if we do experience those symptoms, Dr. Madsen suggested we make our way to an ER.
I’ll definitely take his advice.