When Sly Stallone took to the mountaintop in the 1993 film “Cliffhanger,” the scenery made moviegoers dizzy with laughter (the papier-mache mountain shook during fight scenes). But if you’re heading for the real thing and it’s more than 8,000-9,000 feet above sea level — say, Humphrey’s Peak near Flagstaff, Ariz. (12,635 feet), Yellowstone National Park (the caldera is 10,308 feet) or La Paz, Bolivia (13,323 feet) — you don’t want the surroundings to make you queasy, headachy and fatigued. Those are the classic signs of altitude sickness. Fortunately, you can avoid them if you prime your body for a bit of oxygen-deprivation.
Turns out if you sleep above 4,200 feet (but not too far above), you’ll adjust to reduced oxygen levels and won’t feel lousy if you spend the next day hiking closer to (or in) the clouds. One study found men who slept below 2,300 feet and hiked above 8,000 the next day were five times more likely to die that day from cardiac arrest than those who slept above 4,200 feet.
So elevate your altitude experience by adding these other smart moves:
• Stay well-hydrated.
• Don’t drink alcohol or take medications (like sleeping pills) that slow breathing — you’ll make symptoms worse.
• Acetazolamide is the standard drug for preventing altitude sickness; it’s 75 percent effective. Or try (with your doc’s OK) 60 mg of the herbal supplement gingko biloba for up to five days before heading up the mountain.
• Go slow and take in the scenery. For elevations above 9,000 feet, go up in stages over several days.