Drinking at Altitude: Myth vs. Fact

Does drinking at higher elevations really make you feel wasted-er?


Grant lives at sea level. Grant drinks beer. Grant drinks so much beer that he has to brew it himself in order to remain financially solvent. Grant goes skiing in the Andes, however, and drinks nothing but water and Gatorade. And Grant’s friends begin calling him “Jennifer.” Cruel? Maybe. But is the mockery just? Does drinking at higher elevations really make a difference?

Turns out the I’m-from-New-Jersey-and-am-skiing-in-Utah excuse only pardons gaper powder skills. Most of the prevailing wisdom that altitude gets you wasted-er is founded on what Fox News calls “facts” and the rest of us call “utter bullshit.” Specifically, it’s based on a quasi-scientific study from the 1930s performed not by a doctor but by a psychologist.

According to a 1995 Austrian study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, boozing at 10,000 feet and at sea level produced identical levels of wanting to go to Denny’s and yell, “Spring break ’08, bitches!” And a University of Texas article cited “no credible research evidence [that] alcohol makes you more intoxicated at high altitudes compared to sea level.”

Dr. Peter Hackett of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride concurs. “I recommend people not drink alcohol for the first couple of days at altitude. It depresses the breathing and could cause mountain sickness. And mountain sickness feels exactly like a hangover. It can be hard to tell the difference between the two. That’s the first 24 hours. After that, the body acclimatizes quickly. By the third day, you can drink as much as you like. But if you come to our clinic after four days with hangover-like symptoms, it’s probably just a hangover.”

Time for your medicine, Jennifer.

But if the research is wrong….these brews are going to hurt.

-SKIING MAGAZINE, November 2008