Spring Break Risks Part II: The Rocky Mountain “HIGH”

In my last post, Is Your College Student Beach Bound for Spring Break? Read This First!, (aka SB Risks Part I) we discussed sensible approaches to alcohol, sex, tattoos, and dealing with the pressure of being “the responsible one” in your group. This post specifically addresses marijuana, altitude sickness and high altitude sun burn. (I am not addressing COVID risks today.)

Let’s Start with POT

Yes, these CO towns have heard every Rocky Mountain HIGH joke (& sell the t-shirts.) But it’s no joke getting too much THC and ending up in an ER with severe hallucinations or psychosis, and there’s a few things you should know:

  • Let’s start with the LEGAL AGE: 21 years old. Note that it is not a misdemeanor but a full- blown FELONY to give, sell, or share pot with anyone younger than 21.
  • Side note: If you are getting your pot anywhere other than a licensed dispensary, you simply do NOT know what is in it. Illegal drug dealers often add substances to increase the weight or perceived potency, including “wet weed” that contains LSD (acid). If you wouldn’t choose to consume these substances, it’s not worth the risk.
  • This is not your “parent’s pot”! THC content has greatly increased over the years, from 5% to up to 30%…and although, ironically, it turns out that THC concentration does not always directly correlate with the high of inhaled products, you should be aware of this change. (Edible “doses” do correlate with the high.)
  • EDIBLES are most often designed to look like childish candy (gummies), cookies, chocolate, or brownies. Note the THC is rarely evenly distributed throughout the edible, so not all bites are equal. Additionally, with their innocent appearance, people are tempted to eat far more than one “serving.” While inhaled weed has a near immediate buzz, edibles must be slowly absorbed through the GI tract, and therefore the high may not show up for a good 30, 60, or even 90 minutes, and the effects last from 4 -12 hours. Do NOT chew a gummy, feel nothing, and then take one or several more as you wait for the high to begin, or you risk overdosing, with potentially severe nausea, vomiting, anxiety, paranoia, disorientation and hallucinations.
  • Remember that pot does not quickly flush out of your system. Cannabis can be detected in urine drug tests for up to a month, and in hair sample drug tests for up to 3 months. Keep in mind that your future internship, job, or grad school is unlikely to be sympathetic to you telling them you “only had pot in a state where it was legal” if you test positive in the next few months.


Symptoms are quite common above 8000 feet (and rare < 5K feet). In fact, 75% of people visiting mountains >10K feet get altitude sickness. Sudden exposure to high elevations (from flying vs driving) makes symptoms more likely. Note that many people have a significant difference in degree of symptoms between altitudes of 9000-13,000 feet- which may explain why they “felt fine” skiing last year at a different resort. Even 500 feet higher or lower can make a big difference!

Specifically for COLORADO:
The highest ski mountains are in Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, and Breckenridge (all ~13K feet). Snowmass/Aspen, Keystone and Copper Mtns peak at roughly 12.3K-12.5K , while Crested Butte and Winter Park are closer to 12K. Vail is 11.5K while Durango and Steamboat are around 10.5K. To get below 10K, consider Buttermilk at Aspen (max 9900) or Steamboat Springs Howelsen Ski Area at only 7,136. Obviously, the ski towns themselves are not at these peak mountain summit heights, but many are still above 10K. The good news is that many resorts offer lodging at a variety of elevations- you may be better off further down the mountain than ski in/ski out.

When does altitude sickness begin?
Symptoms usually start within the first 24 hours; possibly in the first few hours after arrival.

What are the common signs?

  • Mild to moderate: HEADACHE, decreased appetite or nausea, insomnia, and lightheadedness (note the similarity to a hangover- often people don’t realize their “super long hangover” lasting days was actually altitude sickness)
  • Severe: All of the above plus vomiting and shortness of breath
  • Note that in very severe forms, there can be brain swelling (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and/or fluid collecting in the lungs (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)- these are obviously medical emergencies.

Ultimately, GOING TO A LOWER ELEVATION will relieve symptoms, but REST and HYDRATION usually alleviate most mild symptoms at your current elevation. For persistent or worsening symptoms, head to a clinic for possible oxygen and medications. Oxygen bars or over-the-counter oxygen cans sold in grocery stores may help relieve mild symptoms. For insomnia, try over the counter melatonin.


  • AVOID ALCOHOL and limit caffeine the first few days
  • HYDRATE intentionally with water or electrolyte drinks (drink enough to need to pee every couple of hours)
  • SLOW ASCENT if possible (driving up to the mountains is lower risk than flying).
  • If you have had altitude sickness previously, especially if it has occurred on multiple trips to the same elevation, see your doctor and consider prophylactic prescription medications (acetazolamide or steroids).


For each 1000 feet of elevation that you gain, the sun’s UV rays are estimated to increase by 8-10% due to thinning atmosphere. Add in the wind, extra reflection from the white snow, and lack of enough sunscreen, and you’ve got a recipe for bad burns- even if it’s a cloudy day. WEAR and frequently REAPPLY sunscreen to your face, lips, and any exposed skin.

Cold Sore Warning: Additionally, just like the beach, if you have a history of fever blisters/cold sores/ oral Herpes Simplex Virus (which are all the same thing), be sure to either take preventative antiviral medication or bring your prescription to treat outbreaks. Snow sports are a very well known trigger!

BOTTOM LINE: Once again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure for Spring Break ski vacations!

PS. If you’d like to learn more about any of these topics or the many injuries, accidents and anxieties that relate to young adults, please check out the new edition ofThe ULTIMATE College Student Health Handbook, released 3/1/22.




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