Getting Really High on Pike’s Peak

“If we were on a plane, it would be safe to turn on our approved electronic devices.”

I got a laugh for that line, but upon reflection it seems to be one of those things you say when you’re impaired that seem entirely effing brilliant at the time, and utterly banal when you’ve got a clearer head.

While I’d ingested no controlled substances that day, I was at the summit of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, elevation 14,110 feet, well above the 10,000 feet where air travelers are allowed to power on their iPods and laptops.

Summit of Pike's Peak

I’d taken the cog train up from Manitou Springs, which climbed the 7,600 feet in an hour and half. When I boarded, I was more concerned about the temperature at the summit — 26 degrees with the wind chill, while it was in the mid-70s down below — than I was with the altitude. I haven’t had too much trouble with altitude before, while backpacking and such. So it was surprising  when the trained reached the summit, and I felt a little woozy when I stood up — like I’d had a glass or two of wine on an entirely empty stomach. Everything felt sort of floaty and weird as I walked around up top — perhaps not the most desirable sensation, as I was skidding along gravel near unrailed cliffs.

I survived without incident, though, and after a while returned to the train for the descent. An older woman seated across from me gave me a toothy smile, revealing gums turned purple.


“Got Oxygen?”

So say the many t-shirts for sale at the gift shop at the summit. It seems that at 12,000 feet,  the barometric pressure is such that we suck in roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath,  creating oxygen deprivation, a situation which the human body obviously does not prefer. (People have died on the train, the conductor confirmed, so it’s important to heed the advice not to board if you’re unhealthy.)  You can acclimatize to this altitude, of course, as I have in the past when I’ve been near that height, but it takes time: if you’re over 10,000 feet, it’s best to increase your altitude by 1,000 feet per day. Although the cog train was hardly zipping along on its very steep grade, we did climb nearly 8,000 feet in 90 minutes. (Here’s a nice explanation of altitude’s effects on the human body.)

The compensation, though, comes on the descent: all those glorious oxygen molecules flooding easily into my lungs felt fantastic, almost euphoric. I was not at all surprised to see broad smiles on my train companion’s faces — and relieved to note that all gums were, once again, a lovely shade of pink.


[Photo by Alison Stein Wellner]



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