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Breathless Way Up in Leadville

At 10,200 feet, bread won't rise and golf balls soar. Residents of the Colorado city say once smitten, the Rockies 'won't let you leave.'

March 13, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

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 among the richest towns in the country, 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 ritzy 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 marketing elevation as its chief attraction. And with less atmospheric pressure available than 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 local 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 before swatting them.

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

Leadville claims the highest airport, the highest golf course and the highest hotel rooms in the nation. On the way into town a huge "We Love Leadville -- Great Living at 10,200" is painted on a wall against the towering mountains.

Merchants hawk T-shirts saying "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.

At the Silver Dollar Saloon, Steve Grabowski, 45, knocked back a shot of tequila and ordered a beer.

"You gotta have a glass of water for every beer," he counseled.

Asked if he followed this regimen, Grabowski, who pans for gold in local streams, looked perplexed.

"I have another beer for every beer I drink," he said.

There are occasional challenges to the elevation crown.

A few years ago, the hamlet of Alma across rugged Mosquito Pass claimed it was 200 feet higher than Leadville.

"We say they were measuring from the top of their water tower," said Leadville City Councilman Bud Elliot. "But they aren't a city anyway; they may be the highest unincorporated village, but they aren't a city."

Elliot, 52, came to Leadville from Kansas City, Mo., 11 years ago, attracted by its size and good schools. He eventually 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. While many are tourists, she also provides oxygen to elderly residents who find breathing more difficult as they get older.

"There are people who are on oxygen their entire stay," she said.

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% [less than] 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.

"I have seen people whose blood is so thick they don't bleed," she said.

When red cells get so densely packed, patients -- usually the elderly -- have pints of blood withdrawn until it runs smooth again.

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 two miles high means residents get five times the exposure to hazardous ultraviolet rays than at sea level, health officials say.

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