So I packed my things and ran"
- Mountain Sound, by Of Monsters and Men
Earlier this month, before flying back to Ecuador, I visited Mount Bonnell, the highest peak in Austin, Texas. However at only 775 feet above sea level ... it's practically nothing compared to the 9,000 feet of Quito, Ecuador. So, when you live in a place where the highest point is less than 1,000 feet, and you move to a city on a mountainside 9 times that height, what is that like?
High altitude is defined as 5000 - 11,500 ft. When traveling to these heights, one's body experiences:
Deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues.
The process of the body adjusting to the decreased availability of oxygen at high altitudes. It is a slow process, taking place over a period of days to weeks.
This process includes the body creating brand-new red blood cells to transport oxygen, because the air is thinner and breathing becomes more difficult. One's body first experiences hypoxia as breathing and heart rate increases, sometimes even doubles. Some people experience altitude sickness, which includes headaches, nausea, fatigue, and trouble sleeping. For me, I've experienced difficulty falling asleep my first few nights in Quito, as I feel my heart working harder even as I simply lay in bed. Going up stairs and walking uphill leaves me feeling winded, however staying well-hydrated greatly helps.
Initially, the body experiences a drop in fitness capability upon traveling to a high altitude. Gradually, a person can acclimate and their fitness level can rise, though never to quite the same peak as when being closer to sea level. However upon returning to a lower plain, a person can experience enhanced fitness. For this reason, many Olympic athletes train in high altitudes (such as in Colorado, for American Olympians). Even though the initial burst of greater fitness will wear off, it still gives athletes an advantage.
Cuts, bruises, and other injuries can take longer to heal in high altitudes.
High altitude can even effect thought processes and memorization. Sometimes I'll find myself knowing that I know a certain famous name or right adjective but struggle to get my mind to bring forth the information. I had thought it was just that my mind became tired after long periods of Spanish, or switching back and forth. Although learning a second language as an adult can improve your brain, there can also be moments where the learner feels as though they're losing some of their original language, caught in a space of having parts of two languages and not quite a single whole anymore. Now that I know that high altitude can also effect memory, it's no wonder I sometimes find myself going, "You know, he was in such and such movie? What's his name? I just had it!"
People indigenous to high altitudes are normally shorter, as a people group. At five foot eight (a fairly normal height in the States), I'm easily the height of most men here, and often significantly taller then most women.
I greatly intimidate when I put on heels.