High Altitude in Durango – mountain sickness and altitude illness

La Plata Mountains, Durango Colorado alex pullen

Photos by Alex Pullen

Durango, Colorado –  High Altitude, precautions and things to know

Durango and the surrounding San Juan Mountains are an incredible place to recreate. These mountains area renowned tourist destination for hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, backpackers and many others visitors. Although there is an immense amount of terrain and environments to explore, it is essential to be aware of high-altitude sickness when visiting Colorado – especially from out of state. Durango’s elevation is 6,512 feet above sea level (2000 meters) and within an hours drive, elevations of 11,000 feet can be reached on Molas Pass (3300 meters).


Altitude Illness - Alex PullenAltitude Illness is marked by headaches, irritability, irrationality, nausea or vomiting. Altitude illness comes in varying degrees of severity from mild discomfort, to severe and life threatening pulmonary and cerebral edemas. If you believe you have symptoms the number one treatment is safely getting to a lower elevation. consulting a physician is recommended for severe and persistent cases.  Drink plenty of water and eat foods high in carbohydrates. For acute cases, consult a physician. Persons with heart or respiratory ailments may have breathing problems in the thin air at high altitude. There is no predetermined ways to tell if you will be susceptible to the varying degrees of Altitude illness. It is always recommended that you allow time for proper acclimatization, hydrate, and be conservative in your judgements.

High altitude presents a set of problems that are not intuitive. Mountain air is typically very dry –thus people dehydrate faster- which can lead to altitude problems (e.g. headaches, dizziness, nausea, etc.), or exacerbate pre-existing medical problems. Hydrate consciously! Also, the “thinness” of the air in the mountains means that we breathe deeper and faster. This hastens dehydration, but can also lead to life-threatening altitude related illnesses. Don’t push yourself: if you begin feeling unusual, stop…evaluate yourself and other party members… and safely descend!

Additionally, mountain weather is incredibly unpredictable: no matter how brief a trip you’re planning, be prepared for inclement weather.

Click here to learn more about Weather and Climate in the Durango area.

Tips for prevention of Altitude Illnesses

Below are some basic guide lines for giving your body time to acclimatize and reduce the risk of altitude illness. (courtesy of Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program, Princeton University)

  • If possible, don’t fly or drive to high altitude. Start below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and walk up.
  • If you do fly or drive, do not over-exert yourself or move higher for the first 24 hours.
  • If you go above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day and for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) of elevation gained, take a rest day.
  • “Climb High and sleep low.” This is the maxim used by climbers. You can climb more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) in a day as long as you come back down and sleep at a lower altitude.
  • If you begin to show symptoms of moderate altitude illness, don’t go higher until symptoms decrease (“Don’t go up until symptoms go down”).
  • If symptoms increase, go down, down, down!
  • Keep in mind that different people will acclimatize at different rates. Make sure all of your party is properly acclimatized before going higher.
  • Stay properly hydrated. Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Urine output should be copious and clear.
  • Take it easy; don’t over-exert yourself when you first get up to altitude. Light activity during the day is better than sleeping because respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating the symptoms.
  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol and other depressant drugs including, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. These depressants further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of the symptoms.
  • Eat a high carbohydrate diet (more than 70% of your calories from carbohydrates) while at altitude.
  • The acclimatization process is inhibited by dehydration, over-exertion, and alcohol and other depressant drugs.

For more detailed information on the types of altitude illness read the full article: Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses

Elevations to Remember when visiting:

  • City of Durango: 6,512 ft./ 2000 meters
  • Purgatory Ski Area (Durango Mountain Resort):
    Base Elevation: 8,793 ft./ 2,680 m
    Summit Elevation: 10,822 ft./ 3,298.5 m
  • Silverton: 9,318 ft./2,800 m
  • Mesa Verde: 7,000 to 8,000 feet/ 2,184m to 2,438m


Disclaimer – Traveling at high altitude can be hazardous. The information provided here is designed for educational use only and is not a substitute for specific training, experience or advice from your physician. DurangoDowntown.com and the author assume no liability for any individual’s use of or reliance upon any material contained or referenced herein. This information is prepared to provide basic information about altitude illnesses for the lay person. When going to altitude it is your responsibility to learn the latest information.