Don’t hold your breath

One of the most important aspects of outdoorspersonship, besides staying alive, is educating the next generation about preservation and stewardship of our natural resources. For instance, if we don’t teach our youngsters to properly extinguish their campfires, it may not be long until the outdoors is mainly black, charred rubble, which would probably be rather unpleasant. So when my kids ask me questions about outdoor stuff, I try to answer them as honestly and completely as possible. This is sometimes difficult, since there are vast quantities of information not contained within my head. Don’t tell the boys, though; they think I know everything. Whenever they ask me something I can’t answer, I usually help them look it up, under the pretense of teaching them to be self-sufficient. This is boring, but it beats admitting that I don’t know. Some answers, however, are easier to come by than others. For instance, when J.D. Futch and I climbed Pikes Peak last July, we met our families at the Summit House on top. They had driven up the road in our van which, in retrospect, would have been a much more intelligent way to get to the top than climbing up thirteen miles of vertical trail with overstuffed packs and overstuffed bodies. At the Summit House, my three boys immediately started asking me questions, such as could I give them a piggy back ride back down, and why did I keep hitting and spitting on my pack, and why wasn’t I able to talk. I answered all their questions as accurately as I could. I told them that, no, I could not give them a piggy back ride back down, since my legs no longer worked, and I wouldn’t be walking for several years. I told them that I hated my pack, since it had been trying to kill me for two days. And I told them that I couldn’t talk because there was very little oxygen in the air at 14,110 feet, and I had to use all of it to stay alive (I used sign language, OK’). Most of what I told the boys was true, to the best of my knowledge, at least at the time. My legs eventually started working again, after a fashion. My pack gave up trying to kill me, and I finally got to where I could talk again. The air on top of Pikes Peak, though, is still very, very thin. That was difficult for the boys to understand. How can air be thinner one place than another, when it is already transparent everywhere’ That seems to be a fair question, and I answered it as best I could. I explained that the air we breathe at home, or at low altitudes, contains 21 percent oxygen, and that 14 percent oxygen is necessary to sustain life. Airplane pilots breathe bottled oxygen or air above 10,000 feet so that they won’t pass out from hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. I even remembered, from my emergency medical training almost twenty years ago, that the air we exhale contains 17 percent oxygen, which is why it is possible to keep someone alive by blowing air into their lungs. All that was fine and good, but didn’t satisfy the boys. They want simple answers. When they ask how the light comes on, they don’t want a lecture on electricity, they just want to know where the switch is. But it got me to wondering, so I started doing some research when I got home, trying to find information on exactly how thin the air is at certain altitudes. What I was looking for was a chart or something, with cut and minced and carefully dried answers. This turned out to be difficult. There is no such chart, and for a very good reason – air, no matter what the altitude, contains 21 percent oxygen. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as thin air. When I finally discovered this fact it hit me like a ton of helium. And no, I am not making this up. Why then, if there is plenty of oxygen in the air, is it so difficult to breathe at high altitudes’ That is a very good question, and if you’d like an answer, send me a SASE and ten bucks . . . Just kidding. The answer is barometric pressure. The higher the altitude, the lower the barometric pressure. This causes less of the oxygen in our lungs to transfer to our blood, so that our red blood cells can carry it to where it is needed. An adult of normal size has a normal number of red blood cells, unless he lives at a higher than normal altitude, which causes his body to create more of the little buggers. When people climb Mt. Everest, for example, they generally go from base camp to about 22,000 feet, and stay there for a few weeks. This causes their bodies to manufacture twice as many red blood cells as normal, which enables them to extract twice the oxygen from their lungs as before. Then they climb on up to the 29,035 foot summit, where they meet their families, who drove up in their van. Climbing to high altitudes without acclimatization can cause Bad Things to happen to you, such as High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE, which is swelling of the brain. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or HAPE, is also a possibility. This is a Very Bad Thing, because it causes the lungs to fill with fluid, and the victim drowns way above sea level. Fortunately HAPE only occurrs in less than one percent of climbers with Altitude Sickness, unless they are actors in the movie ‘Vertical Limit,’ and then everybody gets it, except for the people who blow themselves up or sacrifice themselves so the main characters can live. The good news is that there are certain precautions you can take to avoid these problems, without getting off your couch. One of them is not getting off your couch. Statistics show that over half the people who don’t climb mountains don’t die on mountains. Besides acclimatizing themselves, as we mentioned, climbers subject to HAPE carry an injectible medicine called Dexasomething which, I think, rehydrates the body. The actors in ‘Vertical Limit’ didn’t have enough ‘Dex.’ (Actors NEVER have what they need. You’d think that, as much money as they spend on those movies they’d provide proper medical supplies, but no.) Other precautions include getting plenty of sleep, eating enough, drinking plenty of water, staying warm and not over-exerting yourself. The main one is still staying at lower altitudes, which is the one I intend to use from now on, just as soon as I finish climbing the rest of the Fourteeners. There are 54 peaks in Colorado higher than 14,000 feet, and they are known as the Fourteeners. JD and I are getting close. We did Pikes Peak, so we’ve only got, let’s see, 53 to go. On second thought, scoot over and quit hogging the couch. And don’t be breathing my air . . . Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and professional mountaineer who takes Boy Scout Troops up Mt. Everest for fun and profit. Write to him at PO Box 564, Mason, Tx 76856 or email

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