Two High-Altitude Considerations

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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When we bought our land in the mountains we looked to see if it would accommodate building our home and only gave it a casual glance. There were other things that we should have noticed but failed to. As it turned out they were no big problem for us but just a small annoyance over the years. When we came out from Pennsylvania to examine our land we only had a short time and truthfully we did not know what to ask or look at anyway. We observed the obvious but overlooked some important elements which we should have noticed or given closer attention too.

As we were building our home we never were at our property in the early spring. When we moved to our new home full time we noted things that should have been more apparent had we been more observant. It is important to look at the contour of the land for small gullies or water routes when the snow melts and run off begins each spring. We have two springs that flow all year long but we did not know about the disappearing springs that only last for two or three weeks. We would now know more of what to look for.

Our home is situated at 9,750-foot elevation and the mountain top is at 10,500 feet according to our USGS map. From the back of our property the mountain ascends at a more steep incline. The top of the mountain is an accumulation of loose shale and regular country rock that makes walking across loose rock hazardous and tricky. While it is only a 750-foot increase in elevation from our home to the top it takes a good hour to make the strenuous climb. Coming down takes about half as long and is easier. The loose jumble of rocks seems to serve as a naturally filtered drain for higher snow melt. I believe the water from the seasonal springs on our property comes from that snow melt at the higher altitude. Since we all know that water flows down hill it ultimately ends up on the up side of our driveway. As can be seen in the photo our driveway is nothing short of sheet flow that comes from the snow melt at the higher elevation and then percolates down to our level.

We believe the two year around springs come from the aquifer which our geologist well driller says runs the entire length of our mountain. Those come up from below and hence run all year as opposed to the disappearing springs that only run for two or three weeks each year. During that two or three weeks our driveway is nothing short of continuous sheet flow and we try to stay off it as much as possible. The disappearing springs or seeps appear suddenly and are gone just as suddenly. They do not run every year but we have noticed that when we have a normal or heavy snow year they do run with regularity. One year one of the disappearing springs ran so forcefully that it shot out of the ground a foot. That was the year that the hydraulic action of the water ended up washing a 1 ½’ deep trench across our driveway as opposed to the normal sheet flow.

If you check your proposed mountain property and see what appears to be a water route then it probably is where water flows. Most people look at their property in the summer when it is more accessible and fail to consider 200 to 300 inches of snow may have previously been on it over the winter months.

Altitude sickness is another issue that is not seen readily or anticipated. It does not effect all people but for those whom it does it makes them miserable. We did not feel or notice the effects from the high altitude but some of our visitors have. Since it does not effect us we never gave it a thought until one of our visitors had it and it pretty much immobilized him for several days. The headaches, lack of energy, and feelings of nausea should have been indicators but it took a few days to figure out what was going on with him. Altitude sickness is more common when a person goes above 8,000 feet in elevation from a lower elevation. Our guest flew into Denver from Orlando (at sea level) and drove directly to our house at 9,750-foot elevation. His body may have adjusted properly had he stayed in Denver a night before driving to our elevation. Drinking a lot of water and avoiding alcohol is always helpful to stave off altitude sickness. I have chronic asthma and seem to do much better at high elevations which is contrary to what one would expect.

Before moving to the mountains it would be important to determine that you do not suffer from altitude sickness. It can make you miserable and everyone around you miserable as well if you are one of those people who are prone to altitude sickness. Common sense and a prior visit can help you gauge what if anything that you need to do before making it a permanent move.

Leaving the children home while you go check out mountain property could be a big mistake especially if one may be subject to altitude sickness. Visitors would most likely cut their stay shorter or going to a lower elevation but if you plan to spend more than a few days at high elevation having a sick family member can put a severe crimp in your recreation activities. Usually the sickness will resolve in a few days but In some cases altitude sickness can be quite severe and potentially dangerous. Most people love the mountains but it can take on a different flavor if you are sick or slogging through water for up to three weeks.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle go toMcElmurray’s Mountain Retreat.

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