Every year on the last day of the ski season, locals at Alta, Utah, host a party to celebrate the final run down High Rustler. There's alcohol at the party, and plenty of it. Officially, the mountain is closed, the ski patrol's job is done. The resort doesn't condone the party¿High Rustler is not an easy run and common sense will tell you that impaired judgment and slowed reflexes can turn an exhilarating experience into a dangerous one. And yet, unsanctioned parties are far from the only place alcohol is available at ski resorts. Medical experts, ski patrol and law enforcement officials agree that alcohol on the mountain can be a recipe for disaster. While it's natural¿and OK¿to have a beer après-ski or a glass of wine before dinner, there are some things you need to consider if you choose to take it further.
Dr. Martin Radwin, a liaison to the Wilderness Medical Society and past participant of the end-of-season High Rustler tradition, can attest first-hand to the effects of alcohol on skiing performance. "High Rustler is a much different experience after a few drinks," says Radwin. "I've watched a lot of experts having trouble making expert turns. What seems like an easy motor task suddenly becomes very difficult."
The reason is that alcohol depresses the higher brain centers and central nervous system. "Think of your brain as a computer," says Dr. Warren Bowman, medical advisor for the National Ski Patrol. "There are billions of circuits that communicate through electrical and chemical impulses. Alcohol slows those impulses, so the computer can't work as fast. As a result, you lose coordination and balance and can't react or make decisions as quickly."
Just how drastically the body is affected depends on a number of factors, all of which add up to the consensus that there is no specific rule of thumb to tell you how many drinks it will take to intoxicate you. It's generally agreed that the best way to know if you're sober enough to ski safely is not to drink at all. "Once you're affected, you're affected," says Radwin. "You can't sweat the alcohol out¿it's already in your blood and liver. Metabolism doesn't increase when you exercise. The only way to get the alcohol out of your system is by waiting until the body flushes it out on its own."
Which isn't to say that overindulging during après-ski won't affect your performance the following day. In fact, it's been found that there's a "hangover effect," where a significant number of injured skiers reported having been intoxicated the previous evening, according to Dr. Jeff Hadley of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Baltimore's John Hopkins University. The effect has been attributed to the sleep deprivation, dehydration and muscle fatigue that often accompany intoxication. "Alcohol takes its toll on your body," says Hadley. "You can't get drunk and expect to be 100 percent the next day."
There's some serious calculating that has to be done in determining what a safe limit is. "Besides factors like weight, gender and age, you have to consider how fast the alcohol is consumed, whether the person has eaten anything else and¿and this is critical in skiing¿how he or she is being affected by the altitude," says Radwin.
Studies have shown that up to 25 percent of people who go from low to high elevations will suffer at least mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS), including headaches, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. "The relative lack of oxygen at altitude will cause an increase in blood supply to the brain," says the NSP's Bowman. "The blood vessels get a little leakier than normal, which will give you the headache and other symptoms. Alcohol, aside from slowing the brain's function, tends to lower the body's level of blood sugar, which is the main fuel for the brain. In short, alcohol can make a little mountain sickness a lot of mountain sickness."
Consumption of alcohol can also be dangerouus in cold weather. The idea that alcohol can help keep you warm is a misconception. In fact, you're much more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia if you've been drinking. "Alcohol opens up circulation to the skin, which makes you lose heat much faster," explains Bowman. The body, because of its lower blood-sugar levels, is also slower to shiver, which makes internal heat production less effective. Finally, alcohol is a diuretic. "You don't buy a beer, you borrow it," jokes Bowman. "Alcohol dehydrates you, which, aside from making you more prone to hypothermia, will make you fatigue easier. You'll probably ski worse."
And really, that's what it comes down to: skiing worse. Despite a lack of scientific evidence, experts agree that if you drink and ski, you put yourself at risk. "There's a myth that drinking can have a protective effect¿that if you're more loose, you're less injury prone," says Radwin. "It's just not true. The truth is, you're at a greater risk of falling down if you've been drinking, and at a greater risk of injury if you're falling down."
A strange chaser, indeed: Researchers have found that milk thistle extract can neutralize the negative effects of alcohol on the liver.