Thursday, January 17, 2013

The effects of high altitude

Writing from Christchurch on my way back north, I've come to realize that I'm a complete wuss about high altitude.  At 9,300 ft, but an effective 11,000 ft when you correct for the lower pressure at the poles, it's higher than I've ever been before, and I felt the effects most of the time there.

They tell you to take it easy when you first arrive, but there were measurements that people up north were particularly anxious about, so I got involved in my first 24 hours anyway- that was probably a mistake.  A couple days in, I passed out at the telescope with only vague memory of trying to move myself closer to the floor as the dizziness set in.  This is when I think I jammed my knee, which spent the next couple weeks swelling up.  The station doctor diagnosed this as bursitis, when the lubricative bursa sac becomes inflamed, and in my case, probably infected.  The thing finally burst open while I was outside working on the telescope about a week before I left.  At high altitudes, the body takes a lot longer to heal, and I suspect this is why this whole thing took so long to work itself out.  On the plus side, with a quarter-sized hole in my knee and the possibility of infection, the doctors didn't even hesitate to let me take daily showers!

Over the course of the month I was there, I lost perspective of how inhospitable the interior of Antarctica is...  that is, until I got back to McMurdo.  For the first time in weeks, I could breathe easily and that low 30s F temperature felt tropical by comparison.  I spent that evening walking around in T-shirt and sandals.

Finally, the high desert is very dry and is responsible for the constant nose-bleeds, "blood boogers," and split skin on the hands (aka, "the splits").  I think this also may be why we can't smell anything up there   That lets us get away with showing so seldom, but it also makes for quite the olfactory overload when you come back down.  I spent my morning in Christchurch before my flight home walking through their botanical gardens in Hangley Park- the smells of the grass, trees, and especially the roses were overwhelming.

Brook through the park
Rose Garden

Trellised pairs in the fruit and vegetable garden

There's one plus about all of this for a coffee geek like me.  Water boils at 193F there (I measured 195), which is the perfect temperature to brew coffee.  If it's any warmer, it will burn the coffee, so at sea level you must wait to let it cool t bit before pouring; at pole, you bring it to a boil and just pour.  After over a month since the beans were roasted, my coffee still tasted great.  Here's a video of it blooming, a full month after roasting:

Normally, that's CO2 being released, although in this case it may just be water vapor.  And it smelled great.

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