I can’t believe my summer in the Rockies is almost over! I had time for one last big hike, so I decided to cap it off with the highest peak in Colorado: Mount Elbert.
At 14,443 feet, Elbert may be the highest mountain in the Rockies and the second highest mountain in the lower 48 (after Mount Whitney), but it’s not the hardest to climb. In fact, if I hadn’t known it was the highest I never would have guessed it from the smooth, grassy slopes and wide, flat summit. Somehow I expected something more craggy!
I definitely felt the altitude, though. This was the highest I’ve been since summiting 19,347 foot Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2008 and the uppermost switchbacks never seemed to end. By the time I arrived at the summit, I wasn’t crawling, but I was close.
The ability to travel at high elevations is a gift; Altitude is a tricky beast. The problem with altitude is not lack of oxygen – air at any elevation contains 20.93% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide and 79.04% nitrogen, by definition – but rather a decrease in partial pressure: At sea level air exerts a pressure of approximately 760mmHg, but at the summit of Mount Everest, 29,028 feet above sea level, air only exerts a pressure of about 231mmHg. This decrease in pressure results in decreased absorption of oxygen into the alveoli in the lungs and thus, you get less oxygen entering the bloodstream with each breath.
My first experience traveling at altitude was in Ecuador in 2008 during a two week climbing blitz up three very big volcanoes: 15,969-foot Gua-Gua Pinchincha, 18,996-foot Cayambe and 19,347-foot Cotopaxi. Our group of 11 college students and 5 guides all made it up Gua-Gua (pronounced Waa-Waa), but on Cayambe and Cotopaxi, I watched everybody but three of the five guides succumb to crushing headaches, crippling nausea, and general dizziness and disorientation, classic symptoms of altitude sickness.
Once altitude sickness begins, you can’t fight it and you can’t tough it out. The only cure is to descend. On Cayambe and Cotopaxi, one by one, all the other climbers turned back. But altitude sickness never came for me and I was the only climber on the trip to summit all three peaks.
I don’t know why I did so well at altitude in Ecuador. Before that trip, I had never been above 4,000 feet (no, that’s not a typo, I grew up on the East Coast). All of the other students on the trip were younger than me, college-aged to my 26, and most were in better shape; several were varsity athletes. But the physiological gift for traveling in high places is not one I have squandered.
Since that trip I have climbed many mountains and I have yet (knock on wood) to experience anything but minor headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath. I may have felt like hell on the final approach to Mount Elbert, but my legs, lungs and heart didn’t let me down. Here’s to one hell of a summer in the Colorado Rockies!
I’m done with the Rockies, for now, but I’m scheming some pretty sweet trips for this fall! Ireland, anybody?… Stay tuned!