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The Eastern Alps covers much of Austria. Whether you're an experienced, black run skier, or a novice snowboarder, Austria offers perfect conditions for all levels of experience. And in the summer months, the Alps provide a stunning backdrop for hikers and campers.
Alpine sports can be exhilarating and dangerous. As they are largely dependent upon the weather conditions, caution must be exercised at all times.
If you are planning to ski or hike through the Austrian Alps, be mindful of the affects of altitude sickness.
It's not just an ailment that affects Everest mountaineers. Lack of oxygen starts to occur at altitudes over 2500m and affects most people to some extent. It occurs as less oxygen reaches the brain and muscles at high altitude, meaning the heart and lungs have to work much harder to compensate. It affects most people to some extent, and the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can be mild or severe.
They normally develop during the first 24 hours at altitude but strangely enough can be delayed by up to three weeks. A person suffering mild AMS can experience headaches, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite.
These may seem like benign symptoms but AMS can deteriorate rapidly and become fatal. Severe symptoms include breathlessness, a dry cough which may result in a pink, frothy phlegm, severe headaches, lack of coordination and balance, confusion, irrational behaviour, vomiting, drowsiness and unconsciousness. And the severity is not dependant upon the height of altitude. There have been deaths from AMS at 3000m, though the usual range for severe symptoms is between 3500 to 4500m.
If you or your fellow travelers are experiencing mild AMS, the best advice is to rest at the same altitude for a couple of days until the symptoms ease. Paracetamol or aspirin can be taken to treat the headaches. However if the symptoms persist, or worsen, immediate descent is vital, even if it is just 500m. And don't use medication to avoid descent or enable ascent.
A drug called Diamox (acetazolamide) reduces the headaches and assists the body acclimatise to the lack of oxygen. It's prescription only medication and anyone allergic to the sulphonamide antibiotics may also be allergic to Diamox. If you plan to hike, ski or camp at high altitudes in Austria, it is a good idea to have a chat to local doctor prior departure.
For adrenalin junkies or even experienced skiers wanting pristine powder conditions, off-piste skiing is very attractive.
Those not up with the lingo, off-piste is "off slope" or "backcountry skiing". It means skiing or snowboarding in ungroomed, unpatrolled and unmarked slopes that are either in the boundaries of ski resorts, or just outside them. While there is likely to be a lot of soft, fresh fallen powder, there's often a lot of trees and little knowledge of the lay of the land underneath.
Avalanches are an underestimated danger with off-piste skiing and there are a number of fatalities every year in Austria, and many victims are those who strayed from recognized runs. Avalanches occur most often in the springtime when some of the heavy snowfalls over winter start to melt and move down the mountain. It is strongly advised that you seek advice on local weather conditions and warnings before embarking on any off-piste skiing expedition. At some Austrian ski resorts, off-piste skiing and snow boarding is available and there are often itinerary runs, providing a safe area for adventurous skiers. If you are a competent skier but off-piste is new to you, it's strongly recommended you organize a local guide. And remember just because there are tracks on a slope, doesn't automatically mean it's a safe place to ski or board.
Irrespective of your experience off-piste, make sure you take the relevant safety equipment with you. Avalanche beepers (receivers) are a must and are the fastest way for official rescuers to locate an avalanche victim. Make sure you know how to use this equipment before you set off. It could mean authorities being alerted to your situation within minutes.
For further information on avalanches, visit this website.
The mandatory wearing of helmets while on the slopes is a hot debate in Austria following a fatal ski collision. A Slovenian mother-of-four died from head injuries after a collision with a German politician in Kitzbuehel, Austria, during the winter of 2009 .
Dieter Altaus, then governor of the eastern German state of Thuringia, was skiing on a red (intermediate) slope that crossed an easier run being used by Beata Christandl. It is believed both skiers were traveling about 50km/h. Christandl died yet Altaus, wearing a helmet, fully recovered from skull injuries he sustained. Neurologists believe his life was saved by the helmet.
However the ramifications for Altaus were severe. He was subsequently charged with manslaughter and fined 33,000 Euros.
At the moment, helmets are also highly recommended for all adults when skiing or snowboarding in Austria and for children up until the age of 15 the use is mandatory in most areas including Salzburg State, Upper and Lower Austria, Styria and Carinthia.
The Austrian provinces Tyrol and Vorarlberg do not have such statutory regulations.
In the warmer months the Austrian Alps can still pose risks to travellers!
Tick-borne encephalitis (called FSME in Austria) is spread by tick bites. It is a viral infection of the central nervous system transmitted by tick bites. Most at risk are those travelers trekking or hiking through forested areas of Austria between the spring/summer months of April and August.
The infection can also be spread by drinking unpasteurised dairy products from infected cows, goats or sheep.
For those planning to hike, cycle and camp in forested areas of Austria for longer than three weeks, a vaccine is recommended. Two doses of vaccine will give a year's protection, three doses up to three years. The infection rate in Austria is low and declining (less than 100 cases in most years) and this is kept at a low rate by vaccination in high-risk areas. However travelers will need to check if the vaccine is available in their country before departure.
Other precautions such as wearing long trousers tucked into walking boots or socks (attractive!) and using an insect repellent can help prevent tick bites. Special tick removal tweezers can also be bought in Austrian chemists to remove the tick properly without the infection spreading.
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