Altitude Sickness

Tourists are wonderful. Sometimes the locals make fun of them for driving badly or for trying to do too much sightseeing in one trip.  Things here in the Pikes Peak region are alien to many, tourists in particular, such as mountain driving, rapidly changing weather, and thin air. It’s the funny things our city’s guests do, like not anticipating the weather changes or not being prepared for their chosen activity that I find endearing. It must be the teacher in me that wants to educate them about life here in the shadow of Pikes Peak.  I used to work at a local five-star hotel in both the retail and concierge departments, where all I did for 16 years was deal with tourists. Here are some true stories that make me smile:

  • One guy came to drop off his child to the children’s program wearing typical June clothing: a polo shirt and shorts. I asked him what his plans were for the day, in case we needed to get in touch with him about his child. He told me he planned to take the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak. After explaining that the average temperature at the top of the Peak is 40 degrees, even in the summer, I recommended that he go back to his room to change into some pants and grab a jacket. At the end of the day when he picked up his child, he thanked me profusely—it had snowed while he was up there.
  • One guy asked me what all that white stuff was at the top of the mountain. I said (with a straight face), “That’s what we call our ‘Rocky Mountain High.’”
    His mouth dropped open. “Really?”
    I said, “No, it’s snow.”
    “That can’t be snow. It’s July.” I left him staring confusedly at the Peak.
  • Once, a lady came into the drugstore to buy some lip balm. She looked distressed, so I asked how I could help. She complained of dizziness and an upset stomach, and said she had a dry mouth and a headache. I said, “You have altitude sickness.”
    I said, “I suggest you lay by the pool, get some rest, and drink plenty of water. By all means, don’t do anything too strenuous for a couple of days, until your body adjusts to the climate. You’re at 6,500 feet above sea level right now.”
    She replied, “Oh, I can’t rest. We have plans to go to the top of Pikes Peak this afternoon. Do I need a jacket?”
  • About 10 years ago I worked as a horse trail guide. As we readied some guests for a two-hour ride, I gave the standard lecture about the $500 fine for picking wildflowers, explaining that picking the flower kills the whole plant, which is why it’s illegal to pick them. I saw in my mind the beautiful little patch of wood lilies near the end of the trail. Wood lilies only grow at 9,000 feet and are extremely fragile. They must have the perfect temperature and moisture level to grow. I spent the ride answering typical tourist questions about the history and climate of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak. Coming around the final bend, I pointed out the patch of wood lilies, explaining that they are a cousin of the tiger lily, only smaller, redder, and infinitely more delicate than their cousins seen in the grocery store. I turned around in the saddle a couple of minutes later to see that the last girl in the line had dismounted and had picked every last wood lily from the patch. I haven’t seen a live wood lily since then.
  • A couple of weeks before the Waldo fire, I was hiking with a group, and we had just done seven miles around the Waldo Canyon loop. It’s an easy-ish hike with some rock-hopping areas, and in the summer it can be a very hot trip. Our group had just rounded the last bend when, coming up the path, we saw a lady in a pristine white linen outfit, wearing Keds and carrying a half a bottle of water. “Is it very far?” she asked. Then she got a look at our bedraggled group. She passed us, went about 20 steps further, then turned around and came back. She and her friends were out of the parking lot before we could get our hiking poles into the trunk.

I’m sure the locals make fun of me when I travel to places that have things I’ve never seen. When I went to South Carolina a few years ago and had my first low-country boil, it was the strangest yet most delicious way I’d ever eaten seafood. I can understand why the locals gave knowing looks to each other when they saw the wonder on my face as they dumped the whole pot of food onto the table, a tradition they take for granted. I also endured some strange looks when I complained of “thick air,” which made me realize how big the difference is between sea level and home.

Tourists come to Colorado Springs for the scenery and diverse activities that our beautiful city offers, perhaps not knowing the effect their visit will have on themselves and our environment. We depend on tourists, though, which is another reason I appreciate them. Tourism’s revenue ranks third in Colorado Springs, beaten only by the military and the high-tech industry. In the future, when guests of our city make a rookie mistake like becoming altitude sick, I’ll just smile and hand them a bottle of water. After all, they’re spending their money here. We might as well enjoy it.