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.