A Skier Experiences Altitude Sickness at Copper Mountain: a Prescription for Thin air at 9,752 ft
By Sonja Stark
While many gathered inside the small eatery to enjoy a basket of bourbon smoked brisket and side of slaw, others waited their turn to stuff a plastic tube in each nostril and breathe oxygen-rich air.
The Eagle BBQ, at the base of Copper Mountain Resort in Center Village, doubles as what is known as an “oxygen bar.” Though the machines aren’t medical-issued they are a wildly popular trend at high altitude resorts that do seem to make a difference for sea-level skiers like Angela Cangemi of Saratoga Springs.
Cangemi dropped $20 to inhale an infusion of lavender-scented oxygen aromatherapy that, she hoped, would relieve her acute mountain sickness or AMS for short. “Anything to help me return to the slopes,” she admitted.
Unlike in the Northeast, the snow in Colorado is forgiving when you fall and Cangemi didn’t want to risk missing out on the fun. 20-minutes later, feeling alert, and breathing better, she admitted that her headache was gone too.
Even guests already acclimated to thin air, like Summit County locals, snow-bike enthusiasts, Zac Baker and Fernando Carreon, seek-out a hit of pure oxygen to calm their nerves.
Both millennials are converts to the sport that had them riding on a metal frame welded to a pair of short skis when I met them.
“Snow biking is more of a thrill than traditional skiing and Copper makes us feel welcome because the lifts accommodate the bikes.” Older skiers like to snow-bike too because it’s easier on the joints.
Christine and Kyle Simpson, a married couple from New Hampshire came to Copper to celebrate their babymoon: a term coined for the last hurrah before adopting a baby.
The first-time Copper guests were sucking down a High Rockies margarita at the bar inside El Zacatecano Mexican restaurant in Center Village when they volunteered to share their cocktail. It came in a gigantic glass the size of a ski helmet.
Diamox Just in Case
They admitted they didn’t experience any short-term altitude-woes yet but knew enough to drink plenty of liquids though alcohol is not one of them. The pair carried Diamox medicine with them, just in case.
The staff inside the ski and snowboard rental shop pointed me to a tall display of canisters of supplemental bottled oxygen. “Why suffer when you don’t have to,” they said.
It seems everybody I talked to at Copper Mountain was privy to the negative effects of playing at high altitudes and took precautions to avoid it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it was happening to me until it was a little too late, however, the resort came to my rescue.
I pride myself on being a shining beacon of health so I when I arrived at Copper Mountain four days earlier I was already feeling a little fatigued. I blamed it on the early morning flight.
Heart of the Village
The Summit Express Shuttle driver dropped me off at Passage Point, a six-floor lodge in the heart of Center Village within walking distance to chairlifts, restaurants, and après-ski nightlife.
Weak and disoriented, I struggled to lift my suitcase, and find the elevator. I waved the magnetic key at the door and stumbled in with my bags upon entry. Unable to enjoy the condo’s cozy amenities – gas fireplace, balcony views, and squeaky clean kitchen – I pulled the shades and recoiled under the bed covers.
Perhaps skipping the afternoon and evening itinerary would help? But, come the next morning, I felt worse.
My itinerary of skiing, skating and riding a horse-drawn sleigh ride under the stars was careening down the mountain like an avalanche of misery.
More Fresh Snow
Outside the window, freshly-fallen snow blanketed miles of unspoiled, serpentine trails. Crowds of terrain-junkies lined up for the new high-speed gondola and blue bubble chair.
And, despite the cold, even the new Rocky Mountain alpine coaster, a one-person bobsled, was open for rides.
My PR contact, Taylor Prather, encouraged me to triage myself to the nearby St. Anthony Copper Mountain clinic where a team of physicians and staff could help diagnose and treat the cause of my chills and extreme malaise.
“We pride ourselves on quality care,” she said.
A Guest in Labor
A few weeks earlier, the clinic responded to a guest in active labor by helping deliver a healthy 5-pound, 7-ounce baby girl. The mom so grateful she christened her child with the middle name ‘Copper’ as a tribute to the resort.
During check-in, the couple ahead of me said that they had driven all the way from Breckenridge to get help at Copper because the service was “so outstanding.”
Since the clinic opened in the early 80s, doctors like Steve Yarberry have treated guests who struggle with the onset of headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, and loss of appetite: symptoms clearly associated with Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.
“The symptoms are common. Roughly twenty-five percent of our guest population is affected,” said Yarberry. The severity of the condition goes up dramatically when someone ascends to over 9,000 feet.
Nine-thousand feet is significant for Copper because basecamp at Center Village alone sits at 9,752 ft. If you ascend the summit, you’re at 12,313 ft. Copper is considered one of the top 10 highest places to ski in the United States.
With the same urgency and compassion as was shown other patients, I was diagnosed with hypoxemia and flu-like symptoms.
A regiment of oxygen therapy inside my condo and portable tanks for the next 48 hours helped to put the color back in my cheeks, sleep better and improve my appetite.
When Taylor went so far as to volunteer to drive to the nearest drug store for a goodie bag of homeopathic remedies that the doctor prescribed, I knew I was in a resort unlike any other. My cold chills abated and I felt like new again but still in no condition to push the envelope.
Because I’m susceptible to AMS, Yarberry’s parting words for me: “Ski high and sleep low” the next time you’re in Colorado.
Back at Center Village, a playground of happy guests surrounded a gas-fueled warming station. The clouds lifted revealing stunning views of the surrounding mountains and bowls.
Suddenly, a young girl sporting the coolest dreadlocks and munching down on a hummus wrap jumped in front of my camera lens and asked: “Hey, where did you get that hat? I want it! Can I have it?”
My new grey fleece beanie had the words “POWDR” emblazoned on one side. (POWDR is one of the last standing independent ski companies that owns Copper and eight other world-class, year-round mountain resorts.)
“It’s a gift from the PR folks. Why?” I asked.
“Because that hat is limited-edition. It’s only worn by the coolest people – the employees of Copper Mountain! ”
(I couldn’t agree more.)
Despite how miserable I felt leaving the resort sans enjoying its true purpose it was comforting knowing that I still looked like I belonged.
The 2018-2019 ski season at Copper Mountain closes on April 21.
Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.