Thursday, October 28, 2010

To the Sky

by Conroy

Mount Kilimanjaro - rising like Olympus above the Serengeti
I've become obsessed with height, with high places, and with going higher. Just a few weeks ago I was in Boise, Idaho (elevation 2,700 feet). I was attending my cousin's wedding and had a free day so I went with a few others to hike in Bogus Basin, a mountain area about sixteen miles (and 40 minutes along a serpentine road) northeast of the city. We climbed to the top of the Basin (elevation 7,600 feet). I realized that this is as high as I had been since visiting Colorado in 1995 (not counting pressurized plane cabins). I live near Baltimore, just a few hundred feet above sea level - the highest point in Maryland is less than 3,400 feet in elevation.

When I was in Colorado I spent time in the Rockies and probably reached elevations as high as 10,000 feet, but no higher. Next year I plan to visit my aunt and uncle who now have a home in Colorado and hike to the top of a 14er (there are more than 50 summits in Colorado over 14,000 feet in elevation). After that, I'm going to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (elevation 19,400). I had some pie in the sky (mind the pun) idea of climbing Mount Everest (elevation 29,029 feet) one day, but Jon Krakauer's excellent book Into Thin Air changed my mind. The idea of depriving my brain of oxygen for an extended period of time, exposing my self to crippling frostbite, and living in a tent for weeks (or months) is too unappealing. I am going to climb Kilimanjaro, though.

Why do I want to go ever higher, climbing these mountains? I'll give you a very male answer - because they're there.

High mountain hiking/climbing is complicated by the fact that as you go higher the atmosphere gets thinner, which means a lower concentration of oxygen in the air and colder temperatures. Altitude sickness can start to affect people at relatively low elevations (less than 10,000 feet). And the risks get greater the higher you go. The concentration of oxygen at 16,000 feet is half what it is at sea level, and at the summit of Mount Everest it is only one-third the concentration at sea level - too low for human survival. Under normal conditions, temperature drops about 3.5 degrees (F) for every 1,000 feet in elevation. That means that a 90 degree temperature at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro will equate to 21 degrees at the summit. This despite Kilimanjaro's equatorial location. One of the things that makes climbing Kilimanjaro so interesting is all of the climate zones passed through as you ascend from base to summit.

Mount Everest - the highest point on Earth
When humans go really high, like the in the Himalaya, Karakoram, and other super high regions of Asia, prolonged altitude acclimatization is required. Even then, very experienced climbers can face numerous physiological conditions associated with high altitude, including dehydration; digestion problems, sometimes severe; respiratory infection from heavier breathing; dizziness and disorientation; severe frostbite because the body struggles to keep warm in a low oxygen atmosphere; and the potentially fatal conditions of high altitude pulmonary edema (lungs filling with fluid) and high altitude cerebral edema (the head filling with fluid). The only cure for these ails is to go lower - and fast. Most humans cannot attempt to summit Everest, K2, or other extreme peaks without the aid of supplemental oxygen. We just are not evolved to handle such heights. Why put ourselves in such discomfort and danger? Again, the masculine answer - because the mountains are there.

It seems that humans may have climbed to the highest peaks in South America (over 22,000 feet) for centuries, and are likely to have reached high in Asia as well. However, it wasn't until the 20th century that true high mountain climbing (24,000 feet and higher) was successfully attempted. Summitting Mount Everest became the goal, and several expeditions pushed the maximum height reached by man to over 28,000 feet by the mid 1920s. However, the summit was successfully reached only in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary. Thousands have equalled Hillary's achievement, but none will break it. Man can stand on no higher ground on this planet.

Humans can go higher, however. I'll cover man's mechanical attempts to leave the ground and get ever higher in a later post.


Americans don't live at high elevation. Here's a list of the ten highest metropolitan areas (population 100,000 or more) from lowest to highest:

10. Pueblo, CO - elevation 4,665; metro. pop. - 105,000 (2009 est.)
9. Albuquerque, NM - elevation 4,967; metro. pop. - 870,000 (2009 est.)
8. Fort Collins, CO - elevation 4,997; metro. pop. - 139,000 (2009 est.)
7. Reno, NV - elevation 5,039 feet; metro. pop. - 420,000 (2009 est.)
6. Boulder, CO - elevation 5,276 feet; metro. pop. - 293,000 (2010 est.)
5. Denver, CO - elevation 5,285 feet; metro. pop. - 2,550,000 (2009 est.)
4. Prescott, AZ - elevation 5,410 feet; metro. pop. - 103,000 (2007 est.)
Denver - the highest large city in America
3. Colorado Springs, CO - elevation 6,325 feet; metro. pop. - 626,000 (2009 est.)
2. Flagstaff, AZ - elevation 6,831 feet; metro. pop. - 127,000 (2007 est.)
1. Santa Fe, NM - elevation 6,919 feet; metro. pop. - 183,000 (2009 est.)

If we restrict our list to metropolitan areas of one million people or more the elevations drop quickly, from highest to lowest:

1. Denver, CO - elevation 5,285 feet; metro. pop. - 2,550,000 (2009 est.)
2. Salt Lake City, UT - elevation 4,222 feet; metro. pop. - 1,130,000 (2009 est.)
3. Tucson, AZ - elevation 2,680 feet; metro. pop. - 1,020,000 (2008 est.)
4. Las Vegas, NV - elevation 2,352 feet; metro. pop. - 1,900,000 (2009 est.)
5. Phoenix, AZ - elevation 1,247 feet; metro. pop. - 4,360,000 (2009 est.)
6. Oklahoma City, OK - elevation 1,204 feet; metro. pop. - 1,210,000 (2009 est.)
7. Pittsburgh, PA - elevation 1,060 feet; metro. pop. - 2,460,000 (2009 est.)
8. Atlanta, GA - elevation 958 feet; metro. pop. - 5,480,000 (2009 est.)
9. Riverside, CA - elevation 883 feet; metro. pop. - 4,000,000 (2000 est.)
10. Minneapolis, MN - elevation 863 feet; metro. pop. - 3,270,000 (2009 est.)

Just by comparison, based on 2009 estimates there are 52 metropolitan areas (MSA) in the U.S. with a population of one million or more. Only seven are located above 1,000 feet, four above 2,000 feet, two above 4,000 feet, and one above 5,000 feet. Heck there are two cities from the east coast among the 8 highest in the country, including Pittsburgh which is on three navigable rivers! The highest town in the United States is Alma, Colorado, population 179, at 10,578 feet.

So why don't Americans live high? Well, most of our non-desert land is not located at high elevation, The places near suitable ports are all near the coast or fairly low lying inland waterways. Interestingly, if you look at the history of settlement for some very large cities, i.e. Phoenix and Las Vegas, you'll see that they didn't really start to grow until air conditioning made the oppressive heat bearable. Before that, the popular settlements in hot places like Arizona were at elevations where the climate was cooler; Prescott, Arizona is a prime example.


However, if we expand our view to consider all parts of the globe, there are many very large cities built at high elevations (by American standards). Consider the following high cities:

La Paz, Bolivia - the highest big city in the world

Ankara - elevation 2,789 feet; metro. pop. - 4,500,000 (2008 est.)
Bogota - elevation 8,661 feet; metro. pop. - 9,600,000 (2010 est.)
Kabul - elevation 5,873 feet; metro. pop. - 2,850,000 (2008 est.)
La Paz, Bolivia - elevation 11,500 feet; metro. pop. 2,360,000 (2008 est.)
Lima - elevation 5,091 feet; metro. pop. - 8,470,000 (2007 est.)
Mexico City - elevation 8,000 feet; metro. pop. - 20,450,000 (2009 est.)
Tehran - elevation 3,900 feet; metro. pop. - 13,410,000 (2006 est.)

Unlike the United States, many of these places are located in the tropics. The high elevation moderates the climate, making settlement much more attractive, especially prior to the advent of air conditioning.


  1. Awesome post, Conroy. I would imagine — correct me if I'm wrong — that for many people part of the pleasure of climbing mountains and going high (as opposed to getting high!) results from overcoming the fear of heights, which is an innate feature of human psychology. I know you're not talking about rock climbing so much as about slowly ascending to higher ground, but fear of heights is going to kick in for most people eventually.

    For almost a third of my life, I've lived in apartments at least five stories high, and I don't mind the height at all; but this is primarily because a railing that I feel is secure has always stood between me and the sharp drop. For me, being outdoors with nothing between me and eternity but a cool breeze and a beautiful view, would be invigorating, exhilarating, awesome. And this would be partly from the adrenaline rush triggered by an intense, though not overwhelming, fear of falling.

    Why conquer your fears? Why not? This is an inspiring post. I think everyone has some kind of mountain to climb.

  2. Excellent point Baxter. Last year when I visited Ireland I had the opportunity to stand at the edge - and I mean the edge - of cliffs at Bray Head (the most eastern point on the Irish mainland) and at the top of the 700 foot high Cliff of Moher. I do not suffer from a fear of heights, but I did get a rush of fear and vertigo when I got close to the edge. This must be a built in feature of our physiology. The lack of flat even ground and a protective railing really changes the way the view looks.

    In fact, at the Cliffs of Moher my friend and I laid down on our bellies and stuck our heads out over the cliff edge. That was a rush...

    ...another interesting thing that I've heard is that Native Americans do not seem to suffer the same fear of heights/vertigo that other races do. In fact, American Indians were often recruited to work on high building construction because they were better at it...less hesitant. Why would this be? It seems that Native Americans are also more susceptible to alcohol abuse and alcoholism...are these phenomena related?

  3. You two are very entertaining to read. Conroy, just to clarify, Bray Head is the Westernmost point in Ireland (almost, anyway -- Dingle peninsula juts out just a bit farther).

  4. Anonymous,

    You're absolutely right, Bray Head is on the west coast of Ireland. It may help me to do a more thorough fact check on all my posts! I am, however, going to continue to assume that Bray Head is the furthest point west because I like saying that I stood at the westernmost point in a country.