Literally and Figuratively
This spring I went to Switzerland for the first time with the goal of spending time in the Alps. I had seen pictures of the magnificent mountains before and figured they would be beautiful but I was not expecting them to be so breathtaking.
I grew up not far from the Rocky Mountains so people were wondering why I would travel across the Atlantic to see more mountains. The Rockies are beautiful mountains that make you feel like you are alone in the wild. They cover such a vast area and to this day, you can appreciate how the first explorers must have felt as they trekked through there.
The Alps are a very different mountain range. They are more angular, more sharp and closer together. You get the sense that you are completely engulfed by the mountains as they rise up around you. It was also different to see to many buildings and farms creeping up the side of the mountain. Some of these log houses with slate roofs dotted the mountain sides have been there for hundreds of years.
Not only were the views breathtaking, so were the mountains themselves! I wanted to spend a few days in Zermatt at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn. The cogwheel train took us into town where there are no cars. only small electric trucks that dart around silently. I had to walk across town and up a long set of stairs to the Zermatt Youth Hostel. By the time I got to the front desk of the hostel, I was completely out of breath! The staff at desk was really sweet about it and said that it was because of the altitude. I didn’t believe her, I just thought I was that out of shape! I later looked up the elevation and realized that I was up at 5275ft (1608m) above sea level. Ok, so maybe the altitude did have an impact…
Next day I took the three sets of cable cars to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise for a closer view of the Matterhorn and sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains. Initially I only noticed that it was cold. Up at 12,740ft (3883m) it was -20°C with a strong, bitter wind! We would spend some time outside enjoying the view and quickly taking some pictures and then rush back inside so we would not get frostbite.
After a while, I noticed something else. My heart rate was higher than normal. It was not actually racing, just noticeably faster than normal. I took several fast steps to take a look at something and suddenly felt light headed and out of breath. By the end of my time at the top, my fingertips started tingling.
I know about the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen in your tissues) but never felt the symptoms first hand. Once I realized what was going on, I was very aware of my movements. I made sure that I stood up slowly and that I didn’t try to run but I kept my movements smooth and deliberate.
As soon as we took the cable cars back into Zermatt, I felt fine. Those symptoms disappeared almost immediately. I am happy to say that it was only the breathtaking views from the Alps that stayed with me!