If I'm going to be climbing a mountain, would drinking a small amount at altitude have any negative effects (besides general alcohol effects)?
The effects of alcohol are exacerbated at altitude, each ounce of alcoholic beverage will have a greater perceived effect on the consumer. This is in part due to the lower oxygen level in the blood of anyone at altitude, usually this is most notable at or above 8,000ft.
There are some ways to mitigate the effects of alcohol, and speed recovery.
- Drink plenty of water: If you are at or above 8,000 feet and exercising heavily (ie. mountaineering, rock climbing, backcountry skiing) make sure to consume at least 72-128 ounces of water (2-4 liters) per day, more if in winter conditions or extreme heat.
- Consume food with any alcohol use
- Drink liquids containing sugar (hot tea with sugar is very popular)
- Get appropriate sleep.
Alcohol will cause several detrimental effects pertaining to climbing as well.
- Greater dehydration due to vasodilation.
- Increased effects of altitude, again due to vasodilation.
- Decreased perception of risk.
- General decrease in mental decision making and judgement.
- Decreased ability to digest food, and therefore lower overall energy for climbing.
- Decreased temperature regulation, as the blood vessels in the skin are dilated and will release more body heat.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't drink any alcohol on a climbing trip, but you must be aware of it's effects and how to deal with them. All-in-all, use moderation and good judgement.
Although the quantity consumed and the altitude where consumption occurs may change this answer, as long as it is in moderation; I'm not aware of any specific problems.
I have known people who bring along a hip flask full whiskey. I could not participate as I was underage at the time, but I was told that it helped him get to sleep, and made sore bones/muscles hurt a little less at night.
Without knowing just how high you are going and how much alcohol you want to consume, it's difficult to say, however, to be safe I'd avoid any alcohol at altitude...
Beyond alcohol's well know effect of causing mental and physical impairment (even with small quantities of alcohol), the vasodilative (widening of veins and arteries) and diuretic (increasing urine excretion) effects of alcohol would only exacerbate symptoms of altitude sickness such as dehydration and oedema. Vasodilation will also cause you to loose body heat more quickly (despite alcohol's feeling of giving you warmth - in fact that's why it gives you that feeling).