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From Jackie with love: It’s the altitude

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By Jackie Rainford Corcoran EBS Health Columnist

Most people visit southwest Montana from lower elevations. While Bozeman sits at 4,795 feet above sea level, the base area of Big Sky Resort reaches 7,510 feet, and you can take the Lone Peak Tram or hike to the top of Lone Mountain at 11,166 feet.

While the breathtaking views are a primary reason people visit the Rockies, the altitude can also take your breath away: Oxygen levels decrease as elevation increases. Acute Mountain Sickness is very real and can affect anyone from ultramarathon runners to sedentary computer programmers. Knowing the symptoms and how to prevent it can make your Montana experience safer and more enjoyable.

Our bodies have built-in mechanisms that help them adapt to changing elevations, including an elevated breathing rate to take in more oxygen, but acclimating may take several days. Common symptoms include headache, weakness, queasiness, drowsiness, rapid pulse, and trouble sleeping.

In severe cases of AMS, these symptoms escalate. Be aware and consult a physician immediately if walking becomes difficult, you have a hard time speaking or thinking, or you experience chest pain.

Prevent altitude sickness by giving your body a chance to adjust. Plan on taking it easy for the first couple days after arriving in the mountains. If possible, allow yourself time to adjust to higher elevations slowly. For instance, spend a night in Bozeman before heading to Big Sky.

Drinking enough water is essential because the Rockies are arid and dehydration can contribute to altitude sickness. Even if you live here full time, staying hydrated is challenging. Drinking alcohol and caffeine increases dehydration so make sure you drink a glass of water along with a cocktail or coffee. For example, drink a pint of water for every pint of beer.

Don’t be afraid to drink water straight from the tap. Big Sky’s water comes from deep underground, and it doesn’t require chemical treatments like chlorine. In June, the American Water Works Association voted the area’s water the tastiest tap water in the U.S. So leave the plastic bottles on the shelves and enjoy tap water in a glass.

Traveling often throws off our sleep schedules too. As if changing time zones isn’t challenging enough, staying up late packing and taking care of last-minute business before getting on a plane or in your car is common.

When you arrive in the Rockies, schedule time to relax. Montana is one of the best places to chill out, breathe and get back in touch with nature and yourself.

Eat well. Heavy, processed foods can disrupt your digestive system, mood and sleep even without the burden of travel and adjusting to a new altitude. Feed yourself healing and nourishing whole foods that come directly from the earth before and during travel.

After several weeks at higher elevations, your body will produce more red blood cells and become more efficient at transporting oxygen. So stay awhile. Then when you return home to a lower altitude, there’s a good chance you’ll walk or run faster, feel stronger and go longer.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, an NASM Certified Personal Trainer, a public speaker and health activist. Contact her at, or find more information at

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