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Altitude and attitude: feeling the effects of hiking at elevation

I remember my first hike as a teenager.

No, it wasn't an enlightening experience, except perhaps for the adult chaperone, who may have realized his mistake in allowing me to participate. It was grueling. By the end of the first hill, my heart was beating out of my chest and my eyes were blinking away the salt water dripping off my forehead, as if I'd gone swimming in the ocean. Everyone around me seemed unfazed, already bouncing ahead to the next hill. I looked ahead and wondered which I would die from -- exertion or embarrassment in front of my pimply-faced peers. I felt ashamed at my lack of strength, and alone in what I felt was a very visible struggle to do something that seemed natural for everyone else.

Last week I went on an organized hike at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I felt my heart rate spike to the same level and my face was wet and dripping in a way that hasn't happened since way back when. I stared up the hill at my co-adventurers. I looked over my shoulder at everyone behind me. At least, I thought, this time we're not awkward teenagers. At least, I thought, we're all in good shape.

I hoped. But the familiar, 14-year-old thought nagged at me. What's wrong? Why is my body not performing?

Casually, and using an entire breath for a sentence, I asked one of the people in my group, "Hey, what do you suppose our elevation is here?"

He paused a second. "Maybe 7,000? Maybe 8,000?"

My response was emphatic: "Thank god."

Effects of altitude

Altitude is a strange thing. We don't think about it much in Alaska in terms of hiking, unless it's a significant mountaineering expedition. The closest I'll ever get to Everest is via Jon Krakauer. However, when I go for a hike in the Chugach National Forest, I seldom consider elevation a big factor. If I am huffing and puffing my way up a trail, I know I've been spending too much couch time with the Kardashians.

Being at altitude is different. Altitude has found me wheezing up a short stairwell. I've become nauseous. I've felt my heart pound against my chest while taking step after painstaking step up a hill with a grade similar to Flattop. They say the air is thinner as little as 3,000 feet above sea level. The reduction in barometric pressure means I have to breathe harder to get the amount of oxygen I'm used to into my lungs. The bad news for people like me, who generally exercise at sea level, is that we have difficulties at altitude. Apparently, a fit person's blood is used to more oxygen than non-fit people, so we tend to feel the impact more in thin air. I guess that's one reason to stay on the couch.

In Yellowstone I also noticed myself become thirstier than normal while hiking. This is both because the Lower 48 specializes in something called "humidity," and because with heavier breathing I was losing more moisture than normal. The Yellowstone hike wasn't a stroll-on-the-coastal-trail grade, but it wasn't Pioneer Peak, either. Yet, I was working very hard.

Some super athletes use altitude to their advantage, living and training at high altitude so their bodies can adjust to the subtle reduction in oxygen. When race day at sea level arrives, they use air like superheroes.

I do not have a career based on physical performance that allows me to live in and train in beautiful, mountainous, mile-high places. But I regularly complete races that are far beyond anything the little teenager voice in the back of my head thinks I can accomplish. Somehow I finish, leaving me amazed and astonished. Every time. This wonder carries me to the next starting line, ready for more. Most of these races are trained for and take place at roughly 30 feet above sea level, give or take.

Older and stronger

Hiking at altitude last week knocked the wind out of me. The experience brought me back to those first days of hiking and the feeling of being alone with my body even though I was surrounded by people.

But this time -- surrounded by sagebrush, bighorn sheep and a petrified forest -- I told myself to simply take step after step. Although my heart raced and my face was slick, I could laugh it off and continue pushing myself step by step. Still, there was that small nagging feeling. Maybe it was the devil pinching my thighs every time I took a step upward, or burning my lungs when I tried to breathe, but a part of me couldn't help but wonder whether I could actually make it to the top. Even if I could, I thought, why can't I accomplish this with the seeming ease of my companions? Is everyone else aware of how hard I'm working?

Now, when I'm working that hard to keep up, I remember who I was when I first ventured outside on those organized trips. I did it because I wanted to see the view; in fact I wanted to be strong enough that I'd fully enjoy the view. Eventually, I came to love hiking because of the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other until I reached the top of something. This was such a fantastically simple plan, in contrast to the uncertainty of the rest of my life at the time. I got comfortable with getting out of breath and sweaty. Over time, I became stronger. Then, thankfully, I hit my 20s and never looked back.

In Yellowstone, the view clarified as we hiked higher and higher. The wind picked up. At the top, we laughed and ate granola bars and took pictures. We drank more water than normal. Then we came back down. This week, I came all the way down, back to Anchorage at sea level. I went for a run, and I felt like one of those athlete superheroes. Nothing could stop me! I breathed gratefully and ran a little harder.

I'm OK with the fact that sometimes things are difficult for me, and other people can see that. That was the hardest part of my teens, and the best part of growing (and hiking) out of it. To visit that feeling occasionally, at altitude, is a good thing.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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