High and Dry: Tips for Brits in High Altitude

Be sure to pack water even if just going for a short hike like these guys in Yellowstone. (Backroads)

Be sure to pack water even if just going for a short hike. (Backroads)

Chances are, while you’re in the U.S., you’ll visit somewhere that’s higher than you’ve ever been if you’re not a skier or a serious climber. For reference, the highest point in the U.K. is Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) Mont Blanc is 15,782 feet (4,810 meters), Chamonix is 12,598 feet (3,840 meters) and Les Arcs is 10,662 feet (3,250 meters).

There are 67 “fourteeners” in the U.S. (mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet high), and many more ranges above 10,000 feet. You don’t even have to ski to experience these heights; the highest point in the Sierra Nevada range is over 14,000 feet; Alpine, in Arizona, is 8,050 feet high and both the Adirondack and Catskill mountain ranges boast peaks of over 4,000 feet.

With these high altitudes can come health challenges, usually in the form of altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness). This can vary from a mild, hangover-like headache to more serious conditions requiring medical attention. AMS is more common once you’re over 8,000 feet but I witnessed it for the first time at around 6,000 feet and, with a hospital visit and a rented oxygen tank in the bedroom, it wasn’t pretty.

If you’re going to a high altitude destination, I strongly advise you to read up on what you can do to prepare yourself and what to watch out for when you’re there. It’s hard to predict just who will get AMS but, as a perennial sufferer, I have resorted to prescription Diamox which, for me, works wonders.

In most cases, the main cause of the general unwell feeling is simple dehydration, so drinking as much water as you can stomach both before and during your visit and avoiding alcohol (yes, really) help a lot. You will also find yourself absolutely pooped at the slightest physical exertion until you get used to things. The first time I visited Colorado I could barely get up two flights of stairs and wondered what on earth was wrong with me.

If you’re a typical Brit used to a temperate climate, your skin may take a dive at high altitudes too. I swear I age about ten years in the mountains so I advise lathering on the thickest cream you can find to stop your face and hands turning into crepe.

High altitudes also mean dry air, which in turn can lead to annoying nosebleeds. (Yes it’s true, your nose really does bleed at great heights.) One trick to help prevent this is to shove saline gel up each nostril to protect the nasal membranes. Running a humidifier as much as possible also alleviates symptoms of extreme dryness.

If you’re skiing it’s going to be cold as well as high, and this can present more challenges. As with all cold weather in the U.S., your nostril hair freezes, but that’ll be the least of your worries. The extreme cold and high elevation combo can produce asthma or bronchitis even if you’ve never had it before. Again, don’t ignore these symptoms if they appear severe or worsen; local doctors can prescribe inhalers and advise on the best treatment options.

At such heights, temps can dip dangerously so frostbite is another danger; learn to recognize the symptoms and don’t ignore numb fingers and toes. Also, don’t be cheap. Spend the money (on gloves, socks, good ski attire) to keep yourself warm and dry.

In many high altitude places, even in the summer, it can get a lot colder in the evening and first thing in the morning. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to run out and buy a tourist sweatshirt because the denim jacket just wasn’t cutting it after about 7 pm.  In Arizona, for example, while daily summer temps in the mountains can be in the 80’s, the evenings will dip to the 40 degrees and below.

Cooking at high altitude also demands some adjustment, particularly when baking. Cooking/baking times may need to be longer and ingredients tinkered with. Here’s a great web site giving adjustments at different altitudes.

Probably one of the best tips for high altitude living is to open creams, yogurts and other runny stuff away from your person as they tend to explode a little on opening.

Do you have any other tips for traveling to high altitudes? Tell us below:

See more:
10 Must-Have Items for an Extreme U.S. Winter
Winter is Coming: How to Cope With the Cold, American Style