High life in Colorado enjoys low pressure

Altitude: The daily routine in Leadville features characteristics unique to 10,000 feet above sea level.

March 21, 2003|By David Kelly | David Kelly,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LEADVILLE, Colo. - Driving up the mountain, Karen Hirsheimer knows she's nearly home when the potato chip bags explode.

"They go off like a bomb," she said. "Suddenly there are chips all over the car."

Exploding chip bags, cigarettes that snuff themselves in ashtrays, woozy mosquitoes and tepid boiling water are part of life in Leadville, America's highest city.

At 10,200 feet, Leadville is twice as high as Denver. Once it was among the richest towns in the United States, when its silver, gold and lead mines drew thousands of rowdy prospectors, giving birth to the Guggenheim and May Co. fortunes.

The mines are empty now. The population, which peaked at 40,000 in the late 19th century, has dwindled to a steady 2,600, and many residents must commute to work in the resorts of nearby Vail.

But Leadville's stunning alpine scenery and Wild West flavor still appeal to hardy souls who savor the challenge of life on the roof of the nation.

These days the old mining center, which turned 125 this year, is a tourist town that markets elevation as its chief attraction. And with only 25 percent of the atmospheric pressure available at sea level, strange things happen here.

Bread doesn't rise, golf balls fly farther and the high school track team, bursting with extra red blood cells, dominates cross-country running whenever it competes below.

At the Safeway, ice cream pushes out of containers and vacuum-packed snacks sit like fat balloons on the shelves. Mosquitoes, should one arrive, are so groggy that locals admit feeling pity as they swat them.

"They are so slow you can see them coming," said Andy Locke, a surveyor. "It's almost sad."

Leadville claims the highest airport, the highest golf course and the highest hotel rooms in the nation.

Merchants hawk T-shirts reading "Got Oxygen?" Manhattan's, a smoky bar in the center of town, bills its booze as the "High Altitude Thirst Aid."

The elevation means dry air, so residents drink lots of water and urge visitors to forgo alcohol or at least compensate with just as much water.

City Councilman Bud Elliot, 52, came to Leadville from Kansas City 11 years ago, attracted by its size and good schools. He quit smoking because whenever he put his cigarette in an ashtray, it fizzled out in the thin air.

"You have to keep it in your mouth, puffing all the time," he said. "It was too much."

It takes about six weeks to be fully acclimated to Leadville. Visitors immediately notice a dry mouth, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping. A few flights of stairs, taken with ease 3,000 feet lower, feel like mountaineering here. Hotels stash oxygen behind the counter for gasping tourists.

Hirsheimer, 41, opened Cloud City Medical several months ago to sell oxygen to those battling altitude sickness. Although many customers are tourists, she also provides oxygen to elderly residents who find breathing more difficult as they get older.

The town is a living laboratory for researchers studying the effects of altitude on humans.

"It's not the concentration of oxygen up here that is different, it's the partial pressure," said Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, who lives in Leadville.

"Our pressure is 25 percent of what it is at sea level, so there isn't that pressure of the atmosphere pushing oxygen into your lungs. Your body has to work harder to compensate."

Zwerdlinger, 33, coordinates altitude research projects in town and has treated patients suffering from a wide array of elevation-induced ailments.

Leadville children have one of the highest rates of hospitalization for respiratory ailments in the world. Babies born here are often underweight and go home on oxygen. And living 2 miles high means residents get five times the exposure to hazardous ultraviolet rays as at sea level, health officials say.

"But is living at 10,000 feet bad for your health?" asked Zwerdlinger, an avid high-altitude runner. "I don't believe that's true, but the research possibilities here are endless."

About 100 miles west of Denver, Leadville has a rough-and-tumble authenticity other cities can only imitate. Large swaths of it resemble a Wild West theme park but little is contrived. Downtown is 12 blocks of aging storefronts, dark-wood saloons and stately hotels dating to the 1880s.

"Leadville is the town time forgot," said Mark Dilka, 38. "And we like it that way."

Mayor Chet Gaede, 54, said he moved to Leadville from Boulder six years ago because it lacked the gloss of Vail and Aspen. "Leadville has warts," he said. "We have mine tailings or dirt hills all over the place. The altitude is a wart. But the place is beautiful, and the people are fascinating. Everyone here has a story."

Gaede quit his law practice and retired here to be a full-time mayor at $400 a month. He walks to work and can see his house from City Hall.

"People told me this would be a tough life, but I don't feel limited," he said. "There are no strip malls, and there are pointy mountains and green trees everywhere."

But he's not fond of cooking at this elevation.

"Boiling water doesn't really get hot," he said. Water boils at 194 degrees in Leadville; it boils at 212 degrees at sea level.

David Kelly writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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