In the winter of 2013, I moved from 190 feet below sea level to an elevation of 8,750 feet. While the mountain scenery of my new Colorado ski town was incredible, the way I felt those first few weeks was anything but. However, once I got used to living at a high altitude (and working at an even higher elevation of 10,540 feet), I felt like I could do anything. I could climb mountains, ride my bike through canyons and most importantly, I could breathe, which was something I definitely couldn’t do when I first got to town.
Along the journey from wheezing for air to feeling like a mountain goddess, I learned a few other things too. If you’re considering moving to a high altitude, here are seven weird things that will probably happen to you.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re an ultra-marathon runner or a couch potato. When you first move to a higher elevation, you’re going to feel out of breath doing just about anything (it makes unloading stuff from your car to your new second story apartment really fun). Before moving to a high altitude, I was working in the national parks, hiking constantly and generally feeling cocky about my overall fitness level. Trust me, nothing knocks your ego down like struggling to make it up a flight of stairs.
After living in Colorado for a year, I moved to Texas and immediately felt like Lance Armstrong (that’s still an appropriate Texas reference, right?). During the first few weeks in the Lone Star State, I had more energy than I knew what to do with. I climbed the tallest mountain in Big Bend National Park and it felt like a hill. Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last forever, and soon enough I was back to feeling like a mere mortal.
People often say that you burn more easily at higher altitudes because you’re closer to the sun. That’s definitely not the real reason, but you do burn more easily. Here’s why: The air is thinner, meaning that those UV rays have an easier time burning you. In fact, the average person’s skin burns in just six minutes at 11,000 feet. Translation: If you’re moving to a higher elevation, invest in some sunscreen.
Quick warning about that sunscreen bottle you just bought: It will explode all over you at a high altitude. One thing you’ll notice when you move to a higher elevation is the strange effect that the it has on products you own. That bag of chips puffs up, your shampoo bottle explodes, certain liquids separate in some weird way. This happens because the air inside a sealed container is pushing harder to escape than it would at a lower altitude. The higher you go, the more the pressure increases on the air inside that bag of chips.
You just moved to the mountains, so of course you want to celebrate with a drink at a local bar. One beer later, you’re slurring your words. What happened? There are a few things at play here, and despite what some guy at the bar will tell you a million times, the higher altitude isn’t actually making the alcohol stronger. It’s a combination of things. You’re more dehydrated at a higher altitude and you’re also likely experiencing some level of altitude sickness. Both of these things will make you feel drunk faster.
And that brings us to our next topic. Altitude sickness. If you move to a high altitude, you’re going to feel less than 100% for the first few days. Altitude sickness affects everyone differently. For me, it made those first few days a blur of nausea and debilitating migraines. Imagine your worst hangover and you can get an idea of what altitude sickness feels like. Interestingly enough, you can ease your altitude sickness by using the same techniques that you’d use to help with a hangover: plenty of rest, fluids, aspirin, carbohydrates and most importantly, time.
As a kid, I remember glancing at the high altitude cooking instructions on a box of mac and cheese and wondering who that could possibly be for. When I moved to Colorado, I realized it was for me (I also realized that I am an adult who still eats mac and cheese fairly often). When you move to a higher elevation, prepare to allot more time for cooking. Water takes longer to boil and many items take longer to cook. If you’re a baker...well...have fun with that.
At the end of the day, you’ll put up with the headaches, sunburns, and terrible batches of cookies, because you get to call the mountains home. Living at a higher altitude means crisp alpine air, expansive views and unparalleled wilderness. When I moved to Colorado, I literally got to watch the sun set on the exact mountain that you see on the Coors can. And if that’s not worth altitude sickness, I don’t know what is.