Ways to better skiing: Breathe more oxygen

As anyone who has skied in high-altitude resorts knows, the higher you go, the more difficult it is to breathe. During the day, any form of exercise - even walking - becomes hard work at altitude; and during the night, when breathing becomes shallower, simply sleeping can prove difficult. Doctors usually recommend increasing fluid intake and avoiding alcohol to alleviate the latter problem, but Copper Mountain in Colorado, where the lifts climb to 3,570m, has come up with a different solution: it is hoping to open an "oxygen bar" in the village centre. The resort's commercial director suggests that a hit of oxygen "should perk people up for the night".

As anyone who has skied in high-altitude resorts knows, the higher you go, the more difficult it is to breathe. During the day, any form of exercise - even walking - becomes hard work at altitude; and during the night, when breathing becomes shallower, simply sleeping can prove difficult. Doctors usually recommend increasing fluid intake and avoiding alcohol to alleviate the latter problem, but Copper Mountain in Colorado, where the lifts climb to 3,570m, has come up with a different solution: it is hoping to open an "oxygen bar" in the village centre. The resort's commercial director suggests that a hit of oxygen "should perk people up for the night".

Some skiers, including myself, suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 3,000m. This condition, which conspires to further reduce oxygen intake, causes flu-like symptoms that characteristically occur at the end of the day. The traditional treatment is a course of the prescription drug acetazolamide, taken before ascending to altitude. But research conducted on the 4,300m Pike's Peak in Colorado by the president of the International Society of Mountain Medicine (with a local physician and a professor of exercise science), and reported in the US magazine Outside, suggests that the herbal remedy ginkgo biloba also offers protection against AMS.

Derived from the leaves of the Chinese "maidenhair tree", gingko was given to half the climbers involved in the clinical trial, and only a third of them reported AMS symptoms (nausea, headaches, lack of appetite, dizziness), compared with 68 per cent of those who were given a placebo. These results are now being tested at Mauna Kea in Hawaii; this is a popular spot for AMS research, since most of the staff at its 4,200m-high radio telescope commute daily by car from sea level.

Apart from increasing oxygen intake at altitude, it appears that ginkgo offers other benefits to climbers and skiers. A helpful woman at the London herbalist Culpeper read out a long list of conditions it can alleviate, including vertigo, cold hands and feet, and hangovers. I forget the last one she mentioned. Was it "cerebral insufficiency in old age"?

Ginkgo is available by mail-order from Culpeper (01223 894054) at £1.95 for 50 grams

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