How to stay healthy and safe while on spring break at altitude in Steamboat Springs |

How to stay healthy and safe while on spring break at altitude in Steamboat Springs

Spring break visitation is making area medical clinics busy

Variable snow conditions due to fluctuating daily temperatures plus high visitation during spring break are keeping ski patrollers and local medical clinics steadily busy.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot & Today

All the patient rooms were full at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, March 14, at UCHealth Urgent Care in Steamboat Springs at a time when the staff normally has a lull in activity to grab a bite to eat or take a quick break.

By late afternoon Wednesday, March 15, Certified Physician Assistant Jenn Cohen at UCHealth Urgent Care had not had time for breakfast or lunch because spring break traffic isn’t just seen on downtown streets, but in the halls at UCHealth.

“When there is this many people, you don’t get the breaks,” Cohen said.

Although she has worked a year at urgent care, Cohen has 10 years of emergency department experience on the Front Range and spent seven years on ski patrol at Copper Mountain. She said the urgent care is staying consistently busy this spring break season with primarily orthopedic injuries and upper respiratory illnesses.

The physician assistant estimated the normal ratio of tourists to residents coming into the urgent care is 50-50, but this time of year she estimates a 75-25 ratio of travelers to locals.

Since she recently returned from her own vacation, she advises wearing a mask in enclosed spaces when traveling and washing hands frequently to prevent the spread of infections. She advises people riding the ski resort gondola to cover their face and open all the windows.

“COVID and flu are still here and prominent, and we are seeing lots of positive Strep throat,” Cohen said.

Jenn Cohen, certified physician assistant, from left, Halea Nudy, radiology technologist, and Michael Fitzgerald, urgent care technician, at UCHealth Urgent Care in Steamboat Springs helped to care for almost 50 patients on Wednesday, March 15.
UCHealth/Courtesy photo

Maureen Connolly, nurse manager in the Emergency Department at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said, “We’re definitely seeing higher patient volumes this March compared to last year.”

At Steamboat Medical Group, the urgent care is staying busy all day even after the practice added its high season hours to stay open two hours later until 7 p.m. on weekdays, said Adam Pople, practice administrator.

None of the medical professionals reported patients coming into clinics only for elevation-related symptoms, but the professionals said they do see trends of vacationers wanting to squeeze the most out of their ski trip and overstressing their bodies at elevation.

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“People’s bodies are more stressed even at our altitude,” Cohen said. “When people are on vacation, they often don’t take care of their bodies, traveling, not sleeping in the same bed, exercising, not resting. Exercise is harder here if they are from sea level. Their body is under more stress, which may potentially make them more susceptible to things such as illness.”

Experts say dehydration is often a concern when exercising in the mountains, so drinking plenty of water and perhaps electrolyte drinks are encouraged.

“The effects of alcohol or marijuana at altitude are magnified. The fact that you are more dehydrated at baseline, and other stressors, do affect your body,” Cohen said.

The physician assistant recommends that visitors coming from a lower altitude try to take a rest day between flying and skiing to help the body acclimatize a little better, or to take it easier on the first day of skiing.

Tips from ski patrollers
  • Stay hydrated with water or non-alcoholic beverages. Any time someone in your party takes a bathroom break, everyone should consider drinking water or an electrolyte drink.
  • The time to go inside for a drink or snack break is when a skier first becomes tired, before becoming physically exhausted or very chilled.
  • Skiing tipsy or high impairs physical reaction times, and alcohol can have stronger effects at higher altitude. Steamboat Resort is located on national forest federal lands, so use of marijuana is prohibited on the slopes.
  • Always wear properly fitting helmets, which are available to rent at ski shops. The national Lids on Kids education program reports that overall helmet use on the slopes grew to 90% during 2021-22.
  • Keep an eye out on friends and especially children for frost nip, the first stage of frostbite, where exposed patches of skin are overly cold, discolored, tingly or numb.
  • Wear sunscreen even when it is cloudy, and check the temperatures in advance to dress appropriately and in layers.
  • Download on the gondola if you become dangerously tired.

UCHealth Urgent Care staff reports that vacationing patients often say they pushed themselves too hard.

“They are pushing themselves a little bit harder because they have limited time, and they are paying to ski,” Cohen said. “Give your body some grace and plenty of time to recover.”

During the first run after lunch, guests may have a higher chance of orthopedic injuries because “they have full bellies, may have had alcohol and are tired from the morning,” Cohen said.

“Maybe ease into the afternoon, and take a warm-up lap prior to skiing black moguls,” Cohen advised.

“It’s important to remember to pace yourself because elevation plays a role in everything, including your drinking, your water consumption and your activity tolerance,” noted Pople from Steamboat Medical Group. “People get tired, and they push that one last run because they want that all-day-long, first-chair to last-chair experience. It you are tired you are more open to injury.”

Casey Homuth, nursing supervisor at UCHealth Urgent Care, said that in early March 2022 the facility saw an average 25 patients per day with 30 patients on the busiest day. So far this March, the facility has averaged more than 40 patients a day with 53 patients on the busiest day.

“Compared to last year, which was our first winter serving the community, we’ve provided care for significantly more patients, both those who are residents of Northwest Colorado and those who are visiting Steamboat Springs,” Homuth said. “Just like on the mountain, holiday weekends tend to be busier, but every weekend tends to bring more visitors to town, which tends to increase the amount of people needing our services.”

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