The low-down on high elevations

Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade group for the state’s ski areas, says The Wall Street Journal is picking on Colorado.

Several weeks ago the newspaper ran a front-page story titled “At Colorado Resorts, Ski Fever Often Comes with Case of Nausea.” The story told about what is often called “altitude sickness,” which afflicts about half of people with such flu-like symptoms as headaches, insomnia and shortness of breath when they ascend rapidly to a much higher elevation, such as from sea level to a ski resort at 9,000 feet.

More rare, but severe, is something called pulmonary edema which fills the lungs with fluid. It can cause death unless a person rapidly descends in elevation or gets supplemental oxygen. Cerebral edema is even more rare and dangerous. Mountain climbers know, and respect, these dangers, which is why most sleep low even if they go high, drinking much water but little alcohol.


One ski-town emergency room doctor, Telluride’s Peter Hackett, told the Journal that he sees as many patients for mountain sickness as he does for broken bones.

Nonetheless, Colorado Ski Country criticized the story as unfair, because it singled out Colorado resorts. “They’re making it look like a Colorado problem, but it’s a problem for all high-altitude places,” said Ashley Boyden, the group spokeswoman. “Colorado ski resorts have never tried to mask the problem,” she added. “There is literature out there.”

Indeed, there is. Turn on the cable TV channel in Vail-Beaver Creek designed specifically for tourist consumption, and there’s a constant stream of information about precautions of the thin air for those recently arrived. Whether tourists are targeted before they leave their homes, however, is another matter.

But the reason that the Journal targeted Colorado is that, well, Colorado truly does have the high country of the West. The mean elevation of the state is 6,800 feet, and that includes nearly half the state that is located on the Great Plains. Other states of the West are high – Wyoming is 6,700 feet, Utah, 6,100 feet and New Mexico 5,700 feet – but not as high.

Colorado resorts are, compared to other ski resorts of the West, heads and shoulders higher. Think Paul Simon next to Shaquille O’Neal, and or at least Robert Redford (without heels) next to Paul Newman.

Consider Whistler/Blackcomb, British Columbia’s busy ski resort. Located near the salty waters of the Pacific, the highest lift there reaches 7,494 feet. You know what people at Colorado resorts call that elevation? Down valley. Whistler’s base village, at 2,214 feet, is lower than any place in Colorado – and, for that matter, in New Mexico or Wyoming.

California’s Northstar-at-Tahoe advertises that “Life begins at 8,000 feet,” which may be true, but that precludes the resort’s base area, which is at a mere 6,330 feet. The state’s busiest ski area, Mammoth Mountain, has a base area of about 7,300, which is sagebrush country in Colorado.

In Wyoming, Jackson Hole’s Tetons are next to none in magnificence, its ski slopes among the most rugged you’ll find serviced by lifts. But in elevation, it’s no more than middlin’ – 6,300 feet at the base, 10,450 feet at the summit. Montana’s Big Sky isn’t much higher, and Idaho’s Sun Valley is lower. Only New Mexico’s Taos rivals Colorado resorts for thin air, and it’s just across the border. No wonder The Wall Street Journal focused on Colorado.

Thin air is at issue in athletic events even in the Mile-High City, Denver. In some minds, home runs at Coors Fields have an asterisk by them. A professional basketball player from the Houston Rockets some years ago was given oxygen at timeouts.

At 8,000 feet problems intensify, and at 9,000 to 10,000 feet, which includes much of Durango Mountain Resort, Crested Butte, Telluride’s Mountain Village, and most of Summit County, thin air can be debilitating. To top that off, the ski lifts at several resorts approach to within a few feet of 13,000 feet. No matter how young, how athletic and how acclimated you are, everybody moves more slowly at 13,000 feet.

Among mountain folks in Colorado, thin-air living is a matter of bragging rights. I learned about this one-upmanship years ago while in Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet. Colorado has several higher towns, but no place is so beholden to its climate. Surrounding San Juan County has not one tillable acre.

Winters at 9,000 feet undeniably last longer – before global warming, it seemed like until mid-June. It’s no wonder that inhabitants regard themselves as superior physical beings, looking down their noses even at those who live at, for example, 8,000 feet.

“You know, it’s not necessarily true,” explained a woman who had befriended me at the bar of the town’s polished Grand Imperial Hotel. “Some of the guys from Texas who come to hunt every year can scramble around these hills as well as anybody. But you won’t hear the local guys admitting it.”

Fit or not, flying from sea level to 9,000 feet without acclimating along the way can have consequences. Earlier this year a 31-year-old Dallas-area man died of pulmonary and cerebral edema after several nights at 9,300 feet at Mt. Crested Butte. It was, said Gunnison County Coroner Frank Vader, just one of an average of six deaths that were caused, at least in part, by inadequate adjustments to the thin air each year by hunters, hikers and skiers.

So, was the Wall Street Journal picking on Colorado? Not in my book. Colorado is higher. This ain’t no downstream state. The skies are bluer, the snow more powdery, the air crisper – and also thinner. And that thin air is not something to be trifled with.







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