Factoring in the Impact of Altitude for Coming to Estes Park

By Peter Kummerfeldt

A number of you have expressed concerns regarding the impact of the altitude when you travel to Estes Park later this year. The town sits at 7500 feet above sea level and should you wish to explore Rocky Mountain National Park you could find yourself on Trail Ridge Road crossing the Rocky Mountain divide at over 12,000 feet. The air gets a lot “thinner” up there! Not to worry – you can still attend the conference and have an enjoyable time if you attend to a couple of suggestions from those of us that live here.

    For example, the first thing you should do, especially if you have had problems at higher altitudes in the past, is get a thorough medical check-up with particular attention to your heart and lung function. Tell your doctor where you are going and what you hope to do while you’re there. The doctor will not be able to determine your susceptibility to altitude sickness (more correctly called Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS for short) but will be able to evaluate your general state of health and recommend steps for you to take to ensure your medical well-being while you are attending the conference. Talk to the doctor about any drugs that could be prescribed that would make your transition to Estes Park easier – Diamox is a commonly prescribed medication.

    Plan on spending a couple of nights in Denver or other lower altitude location before ascending to Estes Park. This is especially important for those of you who are flying to Colorado. If you travel too high, too quickly and are too active when you get there you will probably become altitude sick!On the other hand, if you give your body a chance to acclimate by slowing your ascent you may not feel ill at all.

    Before we go any further let me answer the question “What causes altitude illness?”As you climb higher the barometric pressure decreases, which results in you having to move a lot more air through your lungs to get the oxygen your body needs to function properly. You have to breath harder. You become hypoxic. Over time, usually within 48 hours, your body adjusts to this new environment and the symptoms you have been experiencing go away. Anyone can be affected by altitude illness – even those who have traveled to higher altitudes in the past and have not experienced any difficulties! Age, gender, physical fitness do not make a difference.

    How do I know if I’m altitude ill?If you have a headache and are experiencing any of the following you are altitude ill:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty sleeping 

    A headache is the key. Headaches can be caused by many things, however if you are higher than where you normally live, have a headache and are experiencing any of the other symptoms listed above, you are altitude ill until a doctor tells you otherwise!

    So if I’m altitude ill what should I do about it?In dire cases the only real solution is to descend to lower altitudes. If you have transitioned to Estes Park slowly and find that, after a couple of days there, you are still not feeling better it may be time to go down to Denver for a night or two until you are feeling better. If you’ve been up on Trail Ridge Road all day photographing sheep, dropping down to Estes may be enough to cure your ills. For mild cases descending is not usually necessary. Take things easy for a day or two; increase the quantity of fluids (not alcohol) you’re drinking and take a mild analgesic to ease the headache until your symptoms subside. If you are not getting better, descend and seek medical attention. Remaining at higher altitudes when you are ill can progress to more severe, life-threatening forms of altitude illness.

            Don’t let the unlikely possibility of altitude illness, or any other misfortune, discourage you from joining the rest of us at the conference this year. Over four million tourists visited the area in 2018 and returned home without a serious mishap.