One of my family’s earliest camping trips was to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I must have been around 7 years old. It was in the middle of the summer and I remember that we had to go buy a propane heater because it got down to freezing at night in our tent. I also remember my older brother and I also getting lost in the woods near our campsite while playing on big boulders.
High elevation is associated with cool temperatures. This isn’t because the air “losses” heat, but is related to the air molecules expanding in space. They trade their thermal energy for kinetic energy as the fill up the larger expanse of the atmosphere with a corresponding drop in temperature. The opposite happens when air falls in the atmosphere—the molecules trade kinetic energy for thermal energy with a corresponding rise in temperature.
I’ve been to Central American and to Haiti where you can experience going from the tropics at sea level up to cooler temperatures in minutes as you climb the mountains. In places like Guatemala, ethnic groups are associated with the different temperature zones. The Mayan people have been pushed up to the higher altitudes, with the Latinos in the more moderate zone. The Spanish usually established their capital cities at higher altitudes with more temperate climates with a corresponding port city along the tropical coastline.
When I was ten years old I had a geography book that showed a picture of people who lived on the Altiplano in Bolivia, a large high plain at 14,000 feet. The photo showed a woman with a bowler hat (adopted from the British) and a llama. When I finally had the chance to go there I was prepared for the high elevation adventure. This included taking a new tube of toothpaste for an experiment.
The city of La Paz is in a valley just below the Altiplano. The airport for the city is located above the city on this high altitude plain at about 14,000 feet. The peaks of the Andes rise above the plain to heights of 23,000 feet. It is comparable to being on the flat plain around Denver at 5000 feet with the highest peaks around you at 14,000 feet. But in this case, the plain is at 14,000 feet. As I watched people disembark from the plane I could see them slowly walk into the terminal. When I walked out I knew why. With less than half the oxygen of sea level, you get out of breath. Walking any distance and especially up hill was a challenge. Relatives brought coca tea in thermoses to give to the new arrivals to help them in their adjustment and we were given this tea at the hotel. As soon as I got to my room I took off the top of the toothpaste and watched it come out on its own due to the change in pressure. Soft drinks have to be bottled at this altitude to keep them from exploding which would happen if they were brought up from lower altitudes.
La Paz is one of the few places in the world where the richer you are, the lower you live. The poor live on the hillsides leading up to high plain with incredible views but cooler temperatures and less air. The city is also a cultural cross-roads. The descendants of the Inca people live on the Altiplano and the Latinos are below. No need for many fire stations at this altitude because fires don’t burn very well. Other strange features of this high altitude environment–when we went 50 miles an hour in a taxi enroute to Lake Titicaca across the Altiplano there was hardly a breeze coming in the window of the car. And the airport runway has to be twice as long as a regular airport because you have to taxi twice as far to take off—there is little air for lift. And I get headaches from lack of oxygen…
Recently I returned to the region around Rocky Mountain National Park and stayed at about 8000 feet. I was anxious to see how it would compare to the Altiplano in its effect on me. The temperature dropped as we went from Denver where it was hot, to Estes Park where the nights were quite cold. When I took a hike up a road to a lookout with a friend, it was a challenge but we did make the two mile walk with stops along the way to catch our breath and take in the breath-taking views.
We were constantly reminded that we needed to drink water to help our bodies cope with the elevation. Differences—At this elevation there was enough oxygen that I didn’t get a headache. I saw no llamas or bowler hats, and elk were hanging out everywhere.