Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Into Thin Air

Tuesday, July 1, 2008
On the way up, looking up, from the tram.

Three different times during last week I ascended a mountain on a tram, hopping on at 8,000 feet above sea level and hopping off at 11,000 feet ASL. In this post I will share some experiences and images from two of those ascents. The third one I'll save for a future post.

I spent last week with Julie, Phoebe, Liam and about 250 other birders at The American Birding Association annual convention held this year at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, about 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Snowbird sits at about 8,000 feet—much higher than SLC. Our ears popped several times during the shuttle drive up to Snowbird.

We arrived Monday night, too late for the banquet dinner and program. But we still managed a few hellos before heading off to find some late-night grub and our swanky room. Julie and I were attending the convention to help lead some field trips for the attendees and Julie was giving a presentation on Friday night, plus we had many old buddies with whom we wanted to catch up—so we had a busy week ahead of us.

We had nothing on tap for Tuesday morning so, after $68 of breakfast and a bit of birding around the Snowbird grounds, we four took the ski tram up and over the mountains to Hidden Peak. Phoebe and Julie took turns being moderately freaked out by the height and swaying of the tram. The tram could serve as the stunt double of the one featured in the James Bond film Moonraker in which Richard Kiel bites the cable to get to James Bond.

The tram in a rare Richard-Kiel-free moment.

Looking down at Snowbird from the tram.

We got to the top and, literally, stepped into thin air. Taking a few rapid steps at 11,000 feet of altitude caused me to breathe deeply. An altitude headache ensued, followed closely by two ibuprofen pills chased by an entire bottle of water.

In case you were wondering if you were really high or just high on life...

The sun was milky white in the clear blue sky. Most of the mountainsides around us were covered in deep snow. We all squinted through our sunglasses as we slathered on the sunscreen. The air was so thin it made Twiggy look like a sumo wrestler.

Uinta chipmunks asked us about the contents of our lunch bags. A golden eagle slipped past followed by three common ravens. Violet-green swallows twittered and swooped around an unused chair lift building, exploring the many possible nesting cavities.

The additional 3,000 feet in elevation made the air inside our potato chip bag expand. Sadly, the number of chips inside did NOT expand with the bag.

Uinta chipmunk with an accidental piece of cheese.

Gingerly approaching the edge.

Lunch with a view (and lifer chipmunks!)

Two days later I was invited to help Bill Schmoker and Jeff Gordon to scout Hidden Peak for birds we might see on the Sunday morning tram field trip. Joining our merry band of birders were Lisa White and Katrina Kruse of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, momentarily released from their booth-staffing duties at the ABA trade show. Up we went again.

Jeff Gordon and Bill Schmoker looked like models for the REI catalog.

Lisa and Katrina dug the awesome view.

On this second trip we hoped to locate some reliable black rosy finches, a target bird for many of the convention attendees. We had no such luck. But we did see pikas (a gerbil-like rabbit relative), several dark-eyed (gray-headed) juncos, and many white-crowned sparrows. We also hiked down off the top and along a ridge line. Hiking down was a cakewalk. Hiking back up required three separate stages marked by intervals of gasping for air. I know I'm not Lance Armstrong, but this up-slope walk made me feel more like Stretch Armstrong after I ran him through my sister's Easy-Bake Oven.

Bill Schmoker crosses a snow field. Being from Colorado he was used to the altitude.

My lord, the view from up there! If you've got to be gasping for air, trying your best to avoid your first major heart attack, Hidden Peak is a nice place to do it.

Soon we headed back down to the land of normal atmosphere and cash bars and bird checklists and evening programs and all the people who live their safe little lives in the lowlands. We, on the other hand, had walked among the giants, high atop Hidden Peak, where the livin' is easy, but the breathin' ain't. And we'd lived to tell about it.

The view from the top of Hidden Peak.


On July 2, 2008 at 11:12 AM Rondeau Ric said...

Rockey Mountain High.
I've been up in the Canadian Rockies and found put about thin air headaches.
You have to move slowly dude, as in sit and dring ONE beer.

On July 2, 2008 at 11:45 AM RuthieJ said...

Was this your first family trip to Utah? Looks like you all had a grand time (in spite of the altitude issues).

On July 2, 2008 at 12:38 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Yes, Ruthie--the family's first time but I've been there alone before.

Ric: Funny, the beer did not help the headaches one bit.

On July 2, 2008 at 3:14 PM entoto said...

Ahh...Elevation. What a butt kicker!

On July 2, 2008 at 4:03 PM NCmountainwoman said...

There is no rare bird, no fantastic view, no gun to my head that would get me on that tram.

I'm glad you all made it safe and sound and enjoyed the breath-taking air and view.

On July 2, 2008 at 8:07 PM Kathi said...

AACCKK!! Warn a gal, will ya? I'm so acrophobic, even PICTURES of high places make me cringe. If I had been on that tram, I would have died of fright.

Everybody, get back from the edge right now! You're making me nervous. Bill! Liam!! Stop rocking the cable car, dudes! I'm gonna hurl!

~Kathi, shivering under the bed in fear

On July 3, 2008 at 11:47 PM Mary C said...

Seeing those beautiful views makes me think of John Denver's song, "Rocky Mountain High." Aren't the Rocky Mountains some of the most beautiful places to visit? Thanks for virtually taking us along where we didn't have to feel that chilly wind and gasp for breath. ;o)