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Though few of us experience high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) while on a ski vacation, recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the brain mechanisms of this condition may shed light on the less serious forms of altitude sickness that often strike skiers. A study using the MRIs of HACE sufferers¿four Colorado skiers and five Denali climbers¿showed in seven of nine cases that the main cause of HACE’s potentially deadly pressure and swelling was blood vessels leaking plasma into the brain. This is contrary to the long-standing medical belief that the culprit was the swelling of oxygen-deprived brain cells themselves, explains Dr. Peter Hackett, an altitude expert and the study’s lead author. The results suggest steroids, which seem to block the leaks, may be the best treatment¿in addition to administering oxygen and getting the victim to a lower elevation.
Hackett and colleagues are now conducting research to test their hypothesis that milder forms of altitude sickness are also due to leaky blood vessels. In the meantime, prevention is the best medicine. “One of the best things people can do is to take their time getting to higher altitudes,” advises Hackett. When heading to the Colorado Rockies, for example, spend a night acclimatizing in Denver.
At 13,050 feet, Colorado’s A-Basin has the highest inbounds hike- to elevation in the country. nearby Loveland has the highest lift-served elevation: 12,700 feet.