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

Varying snow conditions due to fluctuating daily temperatures, plus high spring break visitation, keep ski patrolmen and local medical clinics constantly busy.
Suzie Romig/Steamboat Pilot and Today

All patient rooms were full at 2:30 pm on Tuesday afternoon March 14 at UCHealth Urgent Care in Steamboat Springs at a time when staff normally have a break in activity for a bite to eat or a brief rest.

By the late afternoon of Wednesday, March 15, UCHealth Urgent Care Certified Medical Assistant Jenn Cohen hadn’t had time to eat breakfast or lunch because spring break traffic is seen not only on downtown streets, but also in the halls of UCHealth.

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

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

The medical assistant estimated that the normal ratio of tourists to residents who go to the ER is 50-50, but at this time of year she estimates a ratio of 75-25 travelers to locals.

Since he recently returned from his own vacation, he advises wearing a mask indoors when traveling and frequent hand washing to prevent the spread of infection. She advises people riding the ski resort gondola to wear face coverings and open all windows.

“COVID and the flu are still here and prominent, and we are seeing a lot of positive cases of 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 care for nearly 50 patients on Wednesday, March 15.
UCHealth/Courtesy Photo

Maureen Connolly, nurse manager at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center Emergency Department, said, “We’re definitely seeing a higher volume of patients this March compared to last year.”

At Steamboat Medical Group, urgent care remains busy around the clock, even after the practice added its peak season hours to stay open two hours later until 7 p.m. on weekdays, said Adam Pople, administrator of the practice.

None of the medical professionals reported that patients entered the clinics for elevation-related symptoms alone, but the professionals said they do see trends of vacationers wanting to get the most out of their ski trip and overstressing their bodies on the elevation.

“People’s bodies are more stressed even at our altitude,” Cohen said. “When people are on vacation, many times they don’t take care of their bodies, they travel, they don’t sleep in the same bed, they don’t exercise, they don’t rest. The exercise is more difficult here if you are from sea level. Their body is under more stress, which can potentially make them more susceptible to things like disease.”

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

“The effects of alcohol or marijuana at altitude are magnified. The fact that he is more dehydrated at the start of the study and other stressors affect his body,” Cohen said.

The medical assistant recommends that visitors who come from lower altitudes try to take a rest day between flying and skiing to help the body acclimatize a little better, or to be calmer on the first day of skiing.

UCHealth Urgent Care staff reports that patients on vacation often say they tried too hard.

“They’re trying a little harder because they have limited time and they’re paying to ski,” Cohen said. “Give your body some grace and plenty of time to recover.”

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

“Maybe spend the afternoon and take a warm-up ride before skiing in the Black Mountains,” Cohen advised.

“It’s important to remember to pace yourself because elevation plays a big role in everything, including drinking, water intake and activity tolerance,” said Pople of Steamboat Medical Group. “People get tired and push that last run because they want that all-day experience, from the first to the last chair. If you are tired, you are more exposed to injuries.

Casey Homuth, nursing supervisor at UCHealth Urgent Care, said that as of early March 2022, the facility was seeing an average of 25 patients per day with 30 patients on its busiest day. So far in March, the facility has had an average of more than 40 patients per day with 53 patients on its busiest day.

“Compared to last year, which was our first winter serving the community, we have been caring for significantly more patients, both those who are residents of Northwest Colorado and those who are visiting Steamboat Springs,” Homuth said. “Just like in the mountains, holiday weekends tend to be busier, but each weekend typically brings more visitors to the city, which tends to increase the number of people who need our services.”