Simanaitis Says

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I AM PRONE to moderate altitude sickness. I’m fine in mile-high Denver. I’ve learned to motivate slowly at Grand Canyon Village’s 6804 ft. Airliner cabins at an equivalent 8000 ft. or less (by regulation) are no problem, particularly because there’s little for me to do but sit there. But the 8750 ft. at Telluride gave me more than a Colorado High. Shortness of breath there was only the mildest exertion away, and my sleep had intermittent interruptions of wishing someone would open that door to let the air in.

This is background to my interest in reading a special issue of Science magazine, September 13, 2019.

Like others of its Special Issue focuses, “Mountain Life” is multidimensional and multidisciplinary. Features include the issue’s Editorial “A Humboldtian View of Mountains,” celebrating 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s ecological theories; “Humboldt for the Anthropocene,” on his fusion of science and humanism; “Fire on the Mountain,” discussing the effects of climate change at the Earth’s peaks; “Sunken Summits,” on whether deep-sea mining and conservation can coexist; “Humboldt’s Enigma,” addressing global patterns of mountain diversity; and “Hypoxia City,” on one of the most harsh of human settlements.

What follows are tidbits from Science, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, 1769–1859, Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. Portrait by Julius Schrader, 1859. This and other images from Science, September 13, 2019.

Alexander von Humboldt. Wikipedia says, “Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled extensively in the Americas, exploring and describing them for the first time from a modern scientific point of view…. He was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, in 1800 and again in 1831, based on observations generated during his travels.”

A population of 50,000 to 70,000 resides at 5100 m (16,732 ft.) in La Rinconada, Peru.

La Rinconada, Peru. The remote Andean gold-mining town of La Rinconada, Peru, is the world’s highest human settlement. To put La Rinconada in perspective, the Tibetan Plateau is about 13,000 ft. and the East African highlands of Ethiopia reach 11,500 ft.

The harshness of La Rinconada is exacerbated by its lack of infrastructure: no heating, no running water, nor sanitation.

In ”Hypoxia City,” Science author Martin Enserink describes his visit with medical researchers in La Rinconada. Enserick notes, “Every breath you take here contains half as much oxygen as at sea level. The constant oxygen deprivation can cause a syndrome called chronic mountain sickness (CMS), whose hallmark is an excessive proliferation of red blood cells.” The body’s overproduction of red blood cells is its attempt to transport more oxygen from lungs to heart.

However, Enserink notes, “That excess of red blood cells makes the blood more viscous, straining the circulatory system. (Some subjects’ blood here has an almost tarlike quality, making serum samples nearly impossible to take.) Blood vessels, normally dynamic tubes that expand as needed, become permanently dilated. Blood pressure in the lungs often goes up. The heart becomes overworked.”

CMS Can Kill. “In the long run,” Enserink writes, “CMS can lead to heart failure and death. The condition has no cure except resettling at a lower altitude—although some of the damage may be permanent.”

“CMS is a pressing health threat for the roughly 140 million people worldwide who live above 2500 meters [about 8200 ft.]. In Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, which sits at 3600 meters [about 11,800 ft.], an estimated 6 percent to 8 percent of residents—up to 63,000 people—have CMS. In some cities in Peru, the rate is as high as 20 percent. La Rinconada is the global capital of CMS; researchers estimate that at least one in four residents suffers from the disease.”

Human Adaptations. To some extent, populations around the world have evolved in response to living at high altitude. Enserink writes, “They evolved independently in the three groups; in Andeans, a key adaptation is elevated hemoglobin. Rising out of control, however, this can lead to CMS.”

“Other high-altitude groups adapted to the low oxygen without significantly elevated hemoglobin and do not suffer as much from CMS. Tibetans, for example, cope primarily by breathing more often and taking deeper breaths. A 1998 study reports a CMS rate of only 1.2 percent for native Tibetans living at high altitude.”

“In the few studies done in Ethiopian highlanders,” Enserink writes, “researchers did not find CMS. By contrast, one study in Cerro de Pasco [a central Peruvian mining town at around 14,200 ft.] indicated a prevalence of 15 percent for men ages 30 to 39 and 33 percent for those 50 to 59.”

A Quest for Silver and Gold. Were it not for a world demand for silver and gold, communities such as Cerro de Pasco and La Rinconada would likely fade away.

Women aren’t allowed to be miners in La Rinconada (it’s “bad luck”), but they can scrounge for specks of gold in debris.

A paucity of oxygen is only one of the problems in such harsh settlements. “Most mine owners,” Enserink says, “don’t pay their workers a salary. Instead, one or more days every month they allow a miner to take home all the ore he can carry in 50-kilogram sacks and to keep any gold it holds. (Some miners also pilfer extra ore.) That system, called cachorreo, turns life into a giant lottery.”

It’s a lottery with the odds decidedly tilted by extreme altitude. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. kkollwitz
    October 3, 2019

    “CMS is a pressing health threat for the roughly 140 million people worldwide who live above 2500 meters [about 8200 ft.” Interesting. My wife and I have lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for a bit over 2 years, at 8300′. Maybe once a month I feel a bit winded, but it’s only when walking up steep inclines. I was a regular runner most of life, so that probably helped me adjust- no headaches or trouble sleeping.

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