Thin air kills 31-year-old
The man, Paul Parmeley, suffered pulmonary and cerebral edemas, or filling of the lungs and brain with fluid. In addition, a toxicology report found methadone in his body, although the methadone did not cause his death, Gunnison County Coroner Frank Vader said. The resort is located at an elevation of about 9,400 feet, although the ski area’s top elevation surpasses 12,000 feet.
Thin air was a factor in about half the natural deaths in Gunnison County last year, says Vader. In many of those cases, people had pre-existing heart conditions and when they traveled to high elevations while elk hunting, mountain climbing or during other outings, the exertion of thin air created too much stress on their hearts.
Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal recently ran a story about altitude sickness – also known as mountain sickness – under the headline, “At Colorado Resorts, Ski Fever Often Comes with Case of Nausea.”
Symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to the flu, and often include headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath and insomnia. In about 1 percent of cases, the sickness turns into life-threatening pulmonary edema. Administration of oxygen or moving the patient to a lower elevation can alleviate the symptoms.
Many Colorado resorts are at high elevations, and the bulk of their customers come from near sea level. Arriving without acclimatization, the vacationers often consume too much alcohol and too little water before heading to ride to the mountain’s high elevations.
At Breckenridge, for example, the town’s base elevation is 9,600 and the lifts service terrain to 13,000 feet. The problem is most severe at resorts at 9,000 feet and above, such as Copper Mountain, Keystone and Crested Butte. However, visitors at resorts 8,000 feet and above, such Aspen/Snowmass, Vail/Beaver Creek and Winter Park, also have problems.
At Telluride, where the resort-oriented town of Mountain Village is at an elevation of 9,545 feet, Dr. Peter Hackett told the Journal that on a busy day he will treat three to five fractures and five to seven cases of acute mountain sickness. For every skier who goes to a clinic, he estimates 100 others simply tough it out on the slopes or vomit in their rooms.
A physician renowned for his work at Mt. Everest and Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley), Hackett says visitors can prevent some problems by avoiding alcohol and antihistamines, eating more carbohydrates and drinking more water. Some research shows that ginkgo biloba, an antioxidant, may help, as can Viagra, which blocks vasoconstriction. Doctors sometimes also prescribe Diamox.