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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Climb Higher

With the right preparation–and a little help from a half-dozen friends, two exotic techno-gadgets, and one very sweaty hypoxic chamber–can a sea-level-dwelling rookie climb the highest peak in Colorado?

by: Jim Thornton

Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

Climb a 14er? Though I didn't concede this, I'd never so much as ascended a "3er" without automotive assistance. I shook my head dismissively and steered the topic back to swimming, junking his implied challenge as yet another in a long line of insane ideas fueled by beer. But the next morning, to my surprise, I found myself Googling "14er." Somehow, high-altitude trekking had grown more alluring following a good night's sleep. Perhaps it was the chronic pain in my right shoulder–and my doctor's advice to take a break from the water. Perhaps it was Peggy Lee-style "Is that all there is?" ennui setting in: A couple years before, I'd placed fourth in the world in my age group in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle, which put a small bounce in my step–for a while. With each passing year, such accomplishments had begun to seem less like celebratory milestones than mile markers to the sarcophagus.

I was, in short, primed both physically and emotionally to try something new and completely different. A week after first hearing "14er," my quest had an object: Mt. Elbert, 14,443 feet, the highest peak in Colorado. Even the name conjured exotic extremes: K2, Matterhorn, Elbert! In the giddy foremath to reality, I imagined myself at The Explorer's Club, spellbinding my future friends–Messner, Viesturs, and the like–with yarns of Elbert's quixotic treacheries. Rejuvenated by such imaginings, I suggested the idea to my editor at BACKPACKER and soon set myself to the tasks at hand: preparing my lungs, legs, and psyche for the improbable pursuit of a summit.

In contrast to lowland air hogs like me, some creatures are actually at home in rarefied air. In 1975, for instance, a type of vulture known as a Ruppell's griffon was sucked into a jet engine at 37,900 feet, nearly two miles higher than the summit of Everest. Another stratospheric migrant, the bar-headed goose, uses a unique set of re-breathing lung sacks and deeply embedded muscle capillaries to fly 1,000 miles across the Himalaya in a single day. The air on its flight path is so thin that kerosene can't even burn in it.

For certain mammals, like yaks and llamas, natural selection appears to have rewarded genes for exceptional oxygen miserliness. The same process is occurring in select human groups, too: The Andes-dwelling Quechua Indians, who have lived at high elevations for 10,000 years, much prefer glucose over fat–probably because the former requires considerably less oxygen to metabolize. Sharing these beneficial adaptations are the Sherpas of Nepal, who've inhabited the Himalaya for at least 20,000 years. Sherpa breathing capacity and tolerance for high-altitude exercise are legendary: In 2003, a Sherpa named Lhakpa Gelu climbed Mt. Everest from basecamp to summit in 10 hours and 56 minutes, a record that basically relegates the world's highest mountain to essentially the same kind of dayhike I'm attempting on my own puny E.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

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Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 10, 2014

Great article. It was entertaining, informative, and very well written.

Mr. Meowington
Jun 27, 2012

I thought rapid breathing (Hyper-Ventilation) decreases O2 in the body because of dead space. I thought the best way to optimize O2 intake is to take deep more efficient breaths.

Aug 19, 2008

Why was a man using using personal o2 sensors, writing for a backpacking magazine, committing the ultimate sin of wearing cotton socks, in the winter no less? Not another 10 bucks in the budget for wool?

Jun 07, 2008

Interesting article.

Would like to know a bit on were to purchase the unit, thus wish that had been a web link inserted into the article.


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