Mountain Living

The Science Behind Life in the 8,000-Foot Club

The 8,100-foot base area elevation of Vail and Beaver Creek puts our resorts in a rarefied-air coterie that includes six continents and 140 million people.

By Daniel Shaw February 11, 2019 Published in the Midwinter-Spring 2019 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

The old saying—or maybe it’s not so old—purports that if you live in Vail or Beaver Creek, you have either three jobs or three houses. And while it’s true that there’s a staggering spectrum of the way folks live around here, there’s one aspect of life everyone shares. Whether you’re a VR employee still getting to know your roommates at Lions Ridge or you’ve just settled into your second (or third) home at the Chateau Beaver Creek, everyone who lives in and around our signature resorts lives at or near 8,000 feet.

But what does it really mean to live at 8,000 feet? Not to visit, not to seasonally decamp to here, but to wake and work day after day, year after year at 8,000 feet. Physically, mentally, climate-wise, personality-wise, what do we have in common with other people who live at this altitude around the world? What are some of the other iconic places at 8,000 feet, and where do Vail and Beaver Creek converge or diverge with them?

Answering all of these questions isn’t easy. The research simply isn’t there. People living way up high in the Andes and the Himalayas have been studied to death, but not folks at our specific elevation. Those lucky enough to live around here may not breathe air as thin as that in the Andes or the Himalayas but are still in a pretty rarefied group: only
2 percent of the world’s population—about 140 million people—live at or above 8,000 feet.

What follows is a modest compendium of interesting, weird, quasi-useful, and completely useless information about what happens at 8,000 feet around the world. Some of it derives directly from science and honest-to-goodness factual knowledge, some of it from more-or-less trustworthy friends, and some from a few of our more loquacious local bartenders. Consider it glorified cocktail chatter.

The Body

The primary effects of altitude on the body are tied to oxygen and, more precisely, the lack of it, a condition known as hypoxia. In our valley’s semi-arid climate, unlike that of tropical or subtropical places at 8,000 feet, hypoxia is coupled with extremely dry air, which can contribute to dehydration and compound some of the effects of altitude. According to Dr. Peter Hackett, director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, high altitude as far as a physiologist is concerned begins at 5,000 feet, the altitude at which the body senses changes in the oxygen level and starts to respond by increasing breathing. So 8,000 feet definitely qualifies as high altitude.

What can be confusing is exactly what the “oxygen level” in the air means. The percentage of oxygen in the air does not change, no matter how high one goes: it stays at 21 percent at all altitudes. But as you gain elevation, barometric pressure drops, and there are fewer molecules of everything in the air, including those of oxygen, so that 21 percent becomes 21 percent of a smaller number. At sea level, the barometric pressure is 760 mmHG (millimeters of mercury). At 8,000 feet, it drops to 564 mmHG. The result is that there’s about 25 percent less oxygen at 8,000 feet than at sea level.

For those traveling to 8,000 feet, this means it can take several days to several weeks to acclimatize, though some people never do and suffer from acute mountain sickness as a consequence. Even for those living here permanently, coming back to the high country after a trip to sea level can lead to the headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms tied to altitude sickness.

Image: Shutterstock

Fact or Fiction?

Caffeine is bad for you at 8,000 feet.

FICTION Not only is caffeine not bad for you at 8,000 feet, but it’s likely beneficial. A 2010 study by the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride concluded that fears of dehydration from caffeine are greatly exaggerated, while its effects on ventilation and cerebral circulation—and its role as a psychostimulant—are helpful at altitude. Plus, the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can mimic those of acute mountain sickness. So java up!

Fact or Fiction?

You Get Drunk Faster at 8,000 feet.

FICTION (Sort of.) The thought—and notion oft repeated by locals welcoming people to town—is that lower oxygen levels at high altitudes impair the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, which leads to faster absorption and increased intoxication. Not so, say government studies. There may be a corollary effect of some kind—perhaps that hangovers are extra-brutal—but actual blood alcohol levels do not change at altitude.

Fact or Fiction?

Babies born at 8,000 feet tend to be smaller than those born lower.

FACT Researchers have found that babies born at high altitudes (above 8,000 feet) are about three times as likely to be born small for their gestational age as babies born at low altitudes. In Colorado, birth weight declines an average of just over 3.5 ounces per 3,300 feet of elevation. These babies aren’t smaller because they’re born earlier. The lower pressure at high altitude means less oxygen is available in the air, which results in the baby receiving both less oxygen and fewer nutrients. This leads to slower growth rate, especially in the third trimester, when a baby’s growth rate and need for oxygen and nutrients are the highest.

Skin Cancer

Someone living at 8,000 feet in the Rockies has a 32 to 40 percent higher chance of developing skin cancer than does someone living at sea level in San Francisco. Sunscreen, people, sunscreen.

Flying High

Most airline cabins on long-haul flights are pressurized to—you guessed it—8,000 feet (6,000 on shorter flights). That’s the pressure level that allows people to breathe and keeps the plane itself intact at high altitudes. It’s also why a lot of people feel really bad after flying: they have a touch of altitude sickness.

Weight Loss

Ever noticed how many svelte people there are in Vail? According to Robert Roach, director of the Altitude Research Center in Aurora, Colorado, “We’ve known since the 1920s that if you go to really high altitudes you will lose weight.” Leptin and other hormones involved in appetite control rise at higher elevation, and this is believed to be at least part of the reason why people report weight loss when they move to high altitude. It is also possible that at high elevations our bodies are simply working harder and are therefore burning more calories. Skinning from Lionshead to Eagle’s Nest three times a week doesn’t hurt Vailites, either.

The Psyche

Perhaps the biggest downside of living in and around the Vail Valley over the years has been the unbearable number of suicides and the toll these deaths have taken on the community. People keep asking why so many valley residents take their own lives—Eagle County’s 17 suicides in 2018 was a record high—and a recent study may shed some light. Part of the answer may lie with altitude. Researchers from Harvard, Case Medical Center in Cleveland, and the University of Pittsburgh studied suicide rates for all 2,584 counties in the United States. After all other factors were taken into account, the counties with the highest rates—by far—had the highest elevation, including Eagle County. They made no medical conclusions but noted that chronic hypoxia is thought to increase mood disturbances and could push people who are depressed or disturbed
to suicide.

Continental Drift

Every continent but one touches 8,000 feet, an altitude home to both densely populated cities and towns with single-digit censuses.

  • What else can you find at 8,000 feet in the good ol’ USA? Mars! At 8,000 feet on the barren slopes of Mauna Loa on Maui, Hawaii, researchers have established a biodome to mimic life on Mars, where scientists and other guinea pigs go to live for months on end and gaze longingly at the beaches below.
  • Remember in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed those two magnificent, ancient stone Buddhas carved into a cliffside in Afghanistan? Those were the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and they were created in 507 AD at 8,000 feet, 140 miles northwest of Kabul.
  • Who lives at 8,000 feet in Europe? Nobody! In Europe, the highest permanently inhabited village is Juf, in Switzerland, but it’s only at 7,000 feet.
  • Counting the continent of Australia as just the island nation of Australia, it is the only continent without a point at 8,000 feet. Its highest spot is the summit of Mount Kosciuszko, at 7,300 feet.
  • The world’s smallest town at 8,000 feet? That’d be PhinDeli Town Buford, Wyoming, population 1. The town, which sits on I-80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, was just plain Buford for 147 years, until its lone inhabitant, Don Sammons, sold it in 2013 to a Vietnamese coffee entrepreneur named Pham Dinh Nguyen. A caretaker is now the only resident.
  • In South America, Machu Picchu is at 8,000 feet, and the only place in the world the equator passes through 8,000 feet is in Ecuador.
  • The largest city in the world at 8,000 feet is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with a population of 2.7 million. (Bogotá, Colombia, is the largest city in the world above 8,000 feet, but its 7.3 million people live at 8,600 feet.)
  • Antarctica, on the other hand, has an elevation that averages 8,000 feet, far higher than the other continents, where averages are 2,300–2,600 feet. The Antarctic ice sheet is about 8,000 feet thick in places.

Climate Wise

Climate scientists aren’t exactly sure how climate change will affect Vail and its environs as temperatures rise over the next century, other than that there will be less snow, and snow only at higher elevations. Wintry places worldwide at our elevation will suffer the same fate—and are already. Tropical and subtropical locales at 8,000 feet may see even more rain than they get now. Speaking of which: Mawsynram, a village at about 8,000 feet in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya state in northeastern India, is reportedly the wettest place on Earth, with an annual rainfall of 467.4 inches. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mawsynram received 1,000 inches of rainfall in 1985. That’s 83 feet of rain. At the other precipitation extreme, the major town in the Atacama Desert in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, also sits at 8,000 feet. The Atacama is generally considered the driest place on Earth. Wettest, driest—8,000 feet doesn’t discriminate. Yellowstone National Park, which sits at an average elevation of 8,000 feet in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, is warming faster than the rest of the globe. The temperature there over the last decade was 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average temperature in the region for the twentieth century. The planet as a whole was 1 degree warmer in the last decade than the average for the twentieth century.

Cool Critters

The largest animals in the world that live at 8,000 feet are the bison in Yellowstone. Bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and Yellowstone is the only place in the US where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. The next largest animal living at 8,000 feet is making itself more and more at home around our valley. It’s the moose! A bull moose can weigh up to 1,600 pounds—and can run around Piney Lake a lot faster than you can.

The top predators at 8,000 feet in most places are cats and dogs: cloud and snow leopards and wolves in Asia; mountain lions and wolves in North America. Lions roam to above 8,000 feet in parts of Africa, while tigers have been found at 8,000 feet and above in Bhutan, Nepal, and India.

Mountain gorillas' habitat begins at 8,000 feet in Rwanda and Congo and goes up from there.

Everyone who lives up here has their own impressions of what it’s like and their own reasons for why they do it—it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. But if you think it’s your cup of tea, then welcome to the 8,000-Foot Club! Just remember: it’ll take longer for the water to boil. For the tea.

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