Saturday, October 25, 2014

Latitude vs. Altitude

My family and I have lived in the Colorado Rockies at over 8000 above sea level for 17 years, with the last seven at nearly 9000 feet.  The years since we made the move here have been filled with unique experiences to say the least.  Life at altitude may seem commonplace to Buddhists in Nepal or Tibet.  There are some native tribes in the Andes of South America who have also lived for centuries at altitude.  But the existence that may seem ordinary to a Buddhist monk who was born, nurtured, and educated at 3000 meters above sea level is certainly full of surprises for those of us who learned of life at a lower altitude.  Wherever there is a great mountain range, one is sure to find interesting people who have adapted their ways of life to survive the challenging climates that embody the spirit of these high places.  But what about the outsiders?  What about the lowlanders?  These must learn the mountain crafts to last.

 Respect is quickly won by the mountains from anyone who ventures to dwell among them.  The high places are both beautiful, and dangerous.  This environ can be fickle; changing abruptly from warm and inviting to cold and deadly.  A stroll over a high, dry rock can change in a heartbeat to a perilous scrambling over slick, wet, polished granite.  Visibility often changes from literally scores of miles to mere feet in a matter of minutes as dense clouds race through the trees and over the ridges.  The wind varies from screaming at over a hundred miles per hour to whispering in an eerie hush that almost sucks breath out of one’s lungs.  This silence can capture words leaving sentences hanging.  Words trail off into quieted, indistinguishable tones.  This is a land of variety.  This is a land that demands much of all living things.  Yes, it is absolutely beautiful.  It can be as comforting as a mother’s warm embrace.  But this world will turn on a person.  It often attempts to drive living things away; down to a lower realm where the biosphere is more predictable and safe.

We go to the mountains to find peace, freedom, privacy, happiness, and adventure.  These things may or may not be found, but one thing is certain.  No one lives for long at altitude without being changed.  Some attempt to force this world into submission.  They fail.  Either learn the ways of the peaks and adapt, or run.  And run many do.  Every summer dozens families make the move into the high places.  Every spring, dozens of for sale signs sprout from the earth as predictably as the aspen buds sprout from the naked white trees.  What is it about these mountains that draws people into them?  What is it about these mountains that drives these same people away?  What is it really like living at 8240?

It has been said that some change in altitude is equivalent to another change in latitude.  In other words, the world of the north is similar to the world of the heights.  There are some similarities.  Denver is well known as the Mile High City.  At 5280 feet, Denver is certainly one of the highest “large” cities.  Denver is at about the same latitude as Washington D.C., and Madrid, Spain.  Denver is even a couple of degrees south of Rome.  Still, the climate in Denver is much cooler and snowier than that of D.C. or Rome.  This is due primarily to altitude.  If Denver were at sea level, it would have to be located in Montana to have similar summer temperatures. 

We moved from the Mile High City to the 60% higher world of 8240 feet.  For many years since our move, I have tried to predict the weather up here based on the Denver forecasts.  I have found two things to be true.  The temperatures at our home are usually about 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Denver, and if Denver is predicted to get a foot of snow, we are in for more than double that amount.  So where would that put our mountain home in terms of latitude at sea level?  Well, at least in the summer months, that would land us in the middle of Canada.

In the winter, the relationship between latitude and altitude do change somewhat.  In the winter at high latitudes, the nights are quite long, and Old Sol peaks weakly over the horizon.  At our latitude, the daylight hours certainly seem short, but we get several more hours of sunshine each day than our northern neighbors, and that at a more generous angle.  This moderates the cold somewhat, but the altitude still diminishes the temperatures.  Our winter temperatures are usually similar to those in Montana.


Another way to describe the climate at 8000+ feet is via the seasons.  Forget the calendar.  The first day of spring comes and goes here in the midst of the snowiest month of the year.  The snow that accumulates through the long winter does not melt off until May.  Except for crocuses, the wildflowers don’t flourish until the middle of June.  By these measures, spring comes to our elevation in late May.  If spring drags its feet up the slopes, the onslaught of winter seems to come crashing down from the higher peaks with an early gusto.  Snow can come in August.  It almost always shows up in September.  By the end of October, 8240 reliably provides snow that may not melt completely until spring. 

This harsh, elongated winter season seems to be the primary cause of the spring exodus.  But, it is hardly the only defining quality of the climate at 8000+ feet.  Bring any lowlander to these heights, and the other characteristic of life at altitude becomes apparent with their first stroll across the property.  The thin air leaves the unaccustomed lungs gasping for a grip.  Doctors tell us that the first day or so is the worst.  The body acclimates to the thin air by producing more hemoglobin. This additional hemoglobin balances the lack of atmospheric pressure by carrying more oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body.  Adjustment continues for several more days, and one may not be completely at ease for over a month.

Altitude sickness does attack some at this elevation.  Having made a hobby out of climbing mountains, I am all too familiar with the early stages of this attack from the thin air.  It usually first shows up as a headache; a pain behind the eyes.  Soon one begins to lose a little equilibrium.  A misplaced foot here or an off-balanced stumble there is a sure sign of the next symptom.  Nausea.  The word reminds us of the one who wants to stop the sea.  Stop the rolling waves.  Oh please, stop this ground from rocking!  Following the cursing of the sea comes the heaving of the sailor.  This is the limit.  It is time to get thee to lower ground; to thicker air.  The fool hardy who do not heed this warning may find themselves with edema in the lungs or even brain.  Next comes a coma, and then the great beyond.  Luckily, few ever get much beyond the upset stomach at 8240.  Some experience no symptoms at all.  

All of this may make living this high seem unattractive.  Don’t be deceived.  Life at altitude is a lifestyle, not only a location.  But what a lifestyle!  Consider sleeping in a house that will never have an air conditioner, and using winter blankets all summer long.  Imagine the pleasure of letting the sun saturate your skin on an average July morning and not breaking into a sweat.  Feel the crisp icy air that crystallizes the inside of your nose on a February afternoon.  It is invigorating!  Snow comes often in the winter, and it shrouds the destruction of humans.  All the scars that machines and tires and feet have cut into the terrain are erased by the snow.  The negligence of our species toward the earth is hidden for a season.  All is forgiven under a cover of fluffy white whisperings.  The snow comes lightly.  The snow comes silently.  It balances in clumps on deep green pine needles.  The world is transformed.  It smells different.  It looks perfectly clean.  On a sunny morning, a gentle breeze on a tree will create hundreds of tiny sparkling avalanches.  Each minuscule snow crystal acts as a prism refracting the suns golden rays into dozens of microscopic rainbows.  The combined effect is a symphony for the eyes.  I have seen such beauty, that I have had to close my eyes.  It is too rich to take in all at once.  I take a small bite of patterns and color, and then close my eyes to savor its uniqueness and flavor.  Then I open my eyes capture another sample of the visual feast.

          The lifestyle required by these high peaks gives and takes.  But living here, close to nature, nourishes my soul.  Getting back to nature is a big part of what 180 Tack is about and our stoves embrace this approach by working with nature to cook naturally rather than burning processed fuels from foreign oil wells.  Being natural in nature just makes sense.  Get out there!  Have some fun!

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