When we first moved to Colorado, we were warned about the altitude. “If you start getting headaches, nauseated, or disoriented, TELL ME RIGHT AWAY,” my sister-in-law said shortly after we’d pulled our UHaul into her driveway. Altitude sickness- which can only be cured by getting to a lower elevation- is no joke, but on that first night it was difficult to see what all the fuss was about. The only thing I’d really noticed was that my frequent yawns felt less satisfying than normal. Of course, when we found a place to live the next day and were moving our heavy bags inside, we found ourselves panting and gasping from the exertion of walking up two flights of stairs. Situated just under 7,000 feet above sea level, the air is just thin enough to make it difficult to breathe normally.
For the first two weeks at this elevation, most people can’t do a whole lot of exercise. Going for a brisk walk is challenging. Some people find it hard to sleep, and many will have headaches for the first three or four days. And while your body is adjusting, your habits are adjusting too, to a “more is better” attitude. We learned to drink more water, wear more sunscreen, and cook our rice longer. We wear more layers because there’s a broader fluctuation in temperature. For the first few days, I even ate more. After a couple of weeks, the changes we were undergoing began to settle down, and it wasn’t too long before we were able to go hiking and running again. I began to feel like a pro when, over Thanksgiving, we had dinner with people who were out visiting for a few days. They told us about their experiences with the new altitude, and like an old hand, I leaned back to give them tips and tricks for surviving the thin air. Altitude shmaltitude!
My attitude was quickly set straight when, a few weeks later, we took my aunt and uncle up Pikes Peak. The mountain is famous for, among other things, being the location where Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to pen the lines for “America the Beautiful” in the 1890s. From its summit one can see four different states, excluding Colorado, and a long way along the Rocky Mountain range. It’s important to understand, however, that this mountain’s historical status as “America’s Mountain” is due to its high elevation: 14,115 feet at the very top. And this means that the air up there is really, really thin.
We started noticing the elevation at around 10,000 feet, when we felt ourselves getting increasingly tired. We’d opted to take the Cog Railway up the peak, and I was secretly glad that none of us needed to drive as we started yawning more and more and as our conversation dwindled. Each lurch forward brought us higher than we’d ever been in our lives. My aunt and uncle, visiting from California, sipped water from their water bottles and I found myself wishing I’d had the foresight to bring one of my own. I was still very excited about everything we were seeing- there’s something incredible about being able to see a band of gold on the horizon and know that it’s Kansas- but my enthusiastic chatter and energetic gesturing was dying down. I felt that a solid nap was a brilliant idea.
In the clouds at the summit, it was exhausting to walk. A snow squall had blown up at the top, and the 80 mph wind gusts required us to lean far over in order to stay upright. In an effort to seem cool, I skipped a few paces along the rock- and then bent double to catch my breath. Our faces were red and raw, and it only took a few minutes for us to decide that we were better off inside the visitor’s centre with cups of hot chocolate. Even sitting at a table inside, though, we could feel the thinness of the air. Our breathing was shallow and more rapid than normal, and our laughter was less drawn-out. Walking across the centre to use the bathroom was an exercise in and of itself. We only had one hour at the summit, but it was enough. We were relieved as every inch back down the railway brought more oxygen to our bodies and more energy to our minds.
The trip is one we plan to repeat on foot next summer, backpacking up Barr Trail to the summit and back down, but my appreciation for the effects of altitude has increased tremendously. I thought we were so amazing for having adjusted to 7,000 feet, but the mere thought of running a marathon up Pikes Peak– as approximately 1800 people do every year- is enough to make me need to catch my breath. Even more astounding is the fact that Pikes Peak isn’t the tallest mountain in Colorado- it’s the 52nd- and reaches less than half the elevation of the summits of Mount Everest, K2, and several other mountains in the Karakoram Range in Nepal- the tallest mountains in the world. Standing on the summit of Pikes Peak, the thought of gaining an additional 300 feet in elevation to reach the summit of Mount Elbert- Colorado’s tallest mountain- was draining. It’s always been incredible to me that people can hike upwards of 20,000 or even close to 30,000 miles into the sky without supplemental oxygen, but my appreciation has a tangible basis now. There’s a saying that oxygen isn’t important unless you aren’t getting any- and an increase in altitude is a wonderful illustration to that.