by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits is scaling the heights, bringing facts about high altitude.

Millions of humans live at high altitudes around the world. It’s estimated that 14.4 million people live at greater than 11,500 feet (3,500 m), about 0.19% of the world’s population. About 6.4 million live at altitudes greater than 13,125 feet (4,000 m), 0.084% of the total population. Another 2 million, 0.027% of the population, live above 14,750 feet (4,500 m), with another third of a million at home above 16,400 feet (5,000 m).

    Those brave souls who want to conquer the world’s highest zipline will have to travel to France’s Val Thorens ski resort in the French Alps. This wild ride, known as “La Tyrolienne,” starts at an altitude of 10,597 feet (3,230 m) and drops more than 4,265 feet (1,300 m) in one minute, 45 seconds. The zipline stretches for nearly a mile and riders reach a speed of 62 mph (100 km/hr).

The world’s highest drivable road is the Uturuncu Road in Bolivia. This unpaved road climbs to a height of 18,800 feet (5,730 m), winding along a dormant volcano. A 4×4 vehicle is necessary to navigate the drive. The road doesn’t go all the way to the 19,711-ft. (6,008-m) summit of the double-cratered Uturuncu. Those desiring to reach the top must hike the remaining 900 feet (274 m).

For about $26 you can zoom up to the highest observation deck in the world, located in Shanghai, China. The Shanghai Tower is the world’s second-tallest building, and the deck is located on the 121st floor of the 128-story building. The elevator trip takes just 55 seconds, traveling at 46 mph (74 km/hr).

Colonel Joseph Kittinger of the U.S. Air Force set a record in 1960 for the longest parachute free fall, a record that is still in place. As part of Project Excelsior, Kittinger made a series of extreme altitude parachute jumps while testing a parachute system for pilots ejecting from high altitudes. He climbed to 102,800 feet (31,333 m) into the stratosphere in a helium balloon, and jumped. He was in free fall for 4 minutes, 36 seconds, reaching a speed of 614 mph (988 km/hr) during the fall, setting a record for the fastest speed by a person through the atmosphere.

Situated on French-Italian border, Mont Blanc is the tallest peak in the Alps and Western Europe. Its 15,774-ft. (4,807.8-m) summit was first conquered in 1786. It takes its name from the French for “White Mountain.” The town of Chamonix, France, located at the base of Mont Blanc, was the site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, with medals awarded in 16 events to athletes from 16 nations.    Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie competed here at age 11. There is a 7-mile-long (11.7-km) tunnel linking France and Italy directly underneath the mountain.

      Over the last 60 years, about 50 tons of trash have been left behind by climbers on Mount Everest, including water bottles, oxygen tanks, equipment, and human waste.

The world’s second-tallest peak is considered Earth’s hardest mountain to climb. The summit of K2, on the border of Pakistan and China, is 28,251 feet (8,611 m). It’s also the deadliest to climb, with a death rate of around 18%, about one person for every four who reaches the top. The route includes a narrow, steep 150-foot (45.7-m) crack that is just the width of a climber’s shoulders. The summit was first reached in 1954, and only about 400 climbers have done so since.

    Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro is considered a much easier climb than other mountains, and requires no special equipment such as ropes, harnesses, crampons, or ice axes. It’s a “hiking” peak rather than a mountaineering peak, even though it’s the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Standing 19,341 feet (5,895 m) above sea level, it’s the highest point in Africa. A freestanding mountain is usually the result of volcanic activity, and Kilimanjaro is made up of ash, lava, and rock. This dormant volcano was first conquered by climbers in 1889. About 30,000 people scale Kilimanjaro every year, with a failure rate of 50%, mostly due to altitude sickness. Swiss climber Karl Egloff ascended and descended Kilimanjaro in just 6 hours, 42 minutes in 2014, setting the record. In 2019, American Anne Lorimor became the oldest person to complete the task, at age 89. The youngest to climb the mountain was a 6-year-old American, in 2018.

The average Mount Everest climber needs about 7 bottles of oxygen, enough to last for 35 hours, in order to increase chances of surviving the climb.   

Mountaineers are constantly exposed to the dangers of high altitude sickness. As the climber ascends, the higher he or she goes, the thinner the atmosphere gets, meaning that the climber breathes in the same amount of air, but gets less oxygen than at lower altitudes. When the body has trouble adjusting to the difference, altitude sickness can result. While headache, lightheadedness, and nausea are the mild symptoms, severe sickness can cause the lungs to fill with fluid or cause the brain to swell, with death as a possible outcome. A slower ascent is necessary for its prevention. Once a climber reaches 8,200 feet (2,500 m), the recommendation for further rise is no more than 985 to 1,640 feet (300 to 500 m) per day. Climbers are also at risk for retinal hemorrhages, which can damage eyesight and even lead to blindness.   

    Mountaineers refer to altitudes above 26,000 feet (8,000 m) as the “death zone.” It’s that point where the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended time. Because the body depletes its store of oxygen faster than it can be replenished, the body’s functions begin to deteriorate, consciousness is lost, eventually leading to death.

Although climbers consider an area “high altitude” if it’s at least 8,000 feet (2,400 m), in the world of baking, high altitudes are those of 3,500 feet (1,067 m) or more above sea level. This distance affects how foods bake and cook, and because air pressure is lower, foods take longer to bake. Liquids evaporate faster, requiring a change in flour, sugar, and liquids to prevent dry or gummy batter. Dough rises faster at higher altitudes because gases expand more, calling for a decrease in leavening agents and a shorter rising time.