What I Learned When I Moved to High Altitude

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I was born in Colorado, and aside from a few summers in New York and one summer in Europe, I’ve never lived anywhere else. In Colorado that makes me an exception. It seems like most people I run into now days are transplants, moved here from California, Texas, or some other place, and for any number of reasons. I don’t blame them—Colorado is awesome! We have beautiful mountains, skiing, hiking, an abundance of craft beers, and let’s not forget about legal marijuana.

The influx of Colorado newcomers must mean we’re doing something right. After all, nobody wants to live in a shit hole. If people are coming here, then we’re offering something they want. That’s probably not the only reason, though. Sure, maybe some folks move here just for the weed, and others might move here to get closer to nature, but I suspect many people move here to get away from something as often as they do to gain something. Traffic, housing prices, wages, and medical circumstances come to mind.

Whatever the reasons, Colorado’s population is booming.

When I moved from downtown Denver to St. Mary’s Glacier, high in the Rockies, I gained more than just 5,000 feet in altitude—I gained freedom from people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very social person. I love people, just not all at once.

In 2016 I embarked on a twenty day solo trip to Europe. When I returned home I was immediately stressed and felt myself headed toward a slump. Every time I would walk out of my building I was sure to be asked for spare change, or a cigarette, and I would be lucky to cross the street without being hit by a car with a texting driver behind the wheel. Nothing had really changed in those twenty days while I was away, but now I noticed, and it all got on my nerves. A week earlier I had been sitting on a street in Prague, eating ice cream with my friend Vojtěch. Now I was walking down the street, preparing to cross paths with the crazy guy approaching me on the sidewalk.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I had lived in the city for nearly twenty years and suddenly I needed to get out. All at once, I decided to make a change—I would buy a home in the mountains.

It seemed simple enough. After all, I had moved thirteen times in my life already, so why should this be any different? (Queue laughter from those who have done this.)

Within weeks I had gotten pre-approved for a loan, found a great realtor, and started looking at houses. I had some pretty strong feelings about what I wanted, but I also knew I wasn’t likely to find my perfect home within my price range. Housing prices are insane in Colorado.

As luck would have it, my perfect home was out there—but there was a catch. I would be living at 10,000 feet, in a place where winter starts in September and spring starts in June. By comparison, Denver sits at 5,280 feet in altitude.

What difference does that make, you might ask? The simple answer: Everything.

Altitude

Living at 10,000 feet (3,048m) can be rough if you aren’t accustomed to high altitudes. Altitude sickness, which can cause headaches, dizziness, aching muscles, and nausea, can stop you in your tracks and definitely ruin your day. It’s basically like having a hangover without the fun of drinking.

As a Colorado native, I fared better than someone moving to the mountains from sea level, but I was moving boxes and painting, so I needed some help. I bought canisters of oxygen to keep handy for the first several weeks. The thought of paying for air made me cringe at first, but it was worth it. No more headaches.

Although I got used to breathing at high altitude (no more canisters of oxygen), the dry air does not go away. When I first moved up to St. Mary’s, I came with one bottle of lotion. Within days, I was making a trip down the mountain specifically to buy hand lotion—lots and lots of hand lotion.

Your skin isn’t the only thing affected by the dry air. I changed furniture polish to a moisturizing polish (Pledge sells this), and I polish my furniture at least once a week. Otherwise your furniture can dry and crack over time.

Eventually I will buy a full home humidifier.

Weather

15965992_10154842065098340_4486536826352979428_nHere at St. Mary’s we average nearly 400 inches (10m) of snow each winter. This is usually accompanied by hurricane force winds in excess of 100mph (161kph). Even when it isn’t snowing, the wind is still blowing, and I mean constantly blowing. Always. Snow drifts form as fast as you can clear them. One of my first big purchases was a snow blower. But even with the snow blower, it can take between one and two hours to clear my driveway. It can be brutal.

The temperatures here vary from day to day. In the winter, temperatures can drop far below zero, but average in the teens or twenties. In July they soar into the seventies. The sun is more intense at high altitudes, so when it is 40 degrees outside, it feels like 60 degrees. It’s wacky.

The intense sun also means you need lots of sunscreen year round!

Heating and Weatherizing

Keeping the cold air outside and the warm air inside can be a challenge—especially with the constant wind. I’m lucky to have moved into a home that is weatherized fairly well, but I still put down draft stoppers at the base of each door.

In the mountains, homes are generally fueled by propane. I have a 500lbs propane tank that is checked and filled by the propane company whenever the level falls below 60%. Propane costs me about $300 per month, but the price can fluctuate wildly.

I’m in a constant battle to reduce my propane costs, which leads me to firewood. I have a wood burning stove which I use every day during the winter. Not only is it nice to have a warm fire, but my small stove can heat my entire home much cheaper than my radiant heat which uses propane. Of course, firewood isn’t free. I will usually go through about one cord of wood per month, and can buy cords for about $200-300 each, depending on the demand and the type of wood. I have the option to buy a permit to cut my own wood, but that is a crazy amount of work. Unless you are going into the business of selling wood, it’s not really worth the time and effort.

Gardening

There are very few plants that will grow at 10,000 feet, and those plants that will grow, will do so at glacial speed.

Trees and plants grow slowly due to the thin air and short growing season, so if you want to plant Aspen trees to block the view of your road or neighbor, you’d better buy mature trees or you’ll be staring at saplings for years to come.

I wasn’t ready to accept that I couldn’t plant anything. I wanted flowers and plants growing in an area in front of my house, so I found plants that would (supposedly) grow at my elevation. That wasn’t easy. The heartiness zone for my area would be considered subalpine, so you never know what to expect from a plant with a zone number on it, and finding stores that sell subalpine plants turned out to be a dead end, at least locally. I planted a few flowers and a couple of shrubs, but I’ll have to wait to find out if they’ll come back. If they don’t, I might be gardening rocks from here out.

Speaking of rocks, they are everywhere up here! I’ve given up trying to build a snow fence. You can’t get a post into the ground. This also adds another layer of frustration with gardening.

Wildlife

19990368_10155435716858340_5311122190719379398_nAt St. Mary’s we have a lot of moose, mountain lions, and bears. Of these, moose are by far the most dangerous. In fact, they are one of the most dangerous regularly encountered animals in the world, and more people are injured by moose than bears. I’m sure that a bear will cause more severe injuries when attacking, but moose are more common, so you are more likely to stumble across one. In my year and a half living here, I’ve seen only one bear, but lots of moose. They walk down the road like the opening credits of Northern Exposure. It’s pretty cool. Just don’t approach them. You won’t be dealing with Bullwinkle if you do.

Bears will occasionally break into a shed, or tear down a hummingbird feeder to get to the nectar, but generally they go about their business without bothering anyone. Just don’t mess with them. I would offer advice on what to do if you encounter a bear, but I’m not an expert, and I’ve been given too many conflicting words of advice myself. The only thing I can recommend is to carry bear spray. You never know!

I haven’t spotted a mountain lion yet, but I’m hoping to—just not while I’m out for a walk.

Lots of birds of varying species live at high altitudes. Robins and woodpeckers are the most impressive here, but the woodpeckers will destroy your house if you have wood siding. I’ve been battling woodpeckers since I moved in. My neighbors tell me to hang small disco balls along the edges of my roof to keep them away. That’s what worked for them. Apparently woodpeckers don’t like shiny objects. Who knew? I’ll give it a try this summer.

Rocky_and_BullwinkleThe other pests that I deal with are squirrels. I was at war with squirrels long before I moved to the mountains (that’s a whole other story), but I didn’t realize what they could do to a home. One of the first maintenance issues I had with my new house was a family of squirrels who moved into my attic in the spring to have babies. I patched the hole with wire mesh, but if you do this, be sure to get the squirrels out first. The last thing you want is a scurry of dead squirrels in your attic. I’m not sure what they’ll do now that Hotel Squirrel is closed for business, but I don’t care—squirrels suck. They will also invade and destroy a bird feeder. Seriously, they suck!

Services

Having basic services isn’t something a person usually thinks about when they buy a home, but if you’re moving into the wilderness, these are things I had to think about—no matter how developed the community is.

Internet

The first thing I researched before placing an offer on my house was internet service. I was lucky that Century Link services my area, although my internet speed in only 10mps. I honestly don’t notice the slow speed. Web pages load the same and I can still stream Netflix. Since I’m not a gamer and I don’t download movies or music, it didn’t make much difference. And it could have been worse. My neighbors, who live only a short way up the road, are forced to use satellite internet. That means they pay for a data package. With this kind of metered internet, they have to be careful about how they use data. Even a Windows update can cost a fair amount of money to download.

Cell Service

Another thing I needed to consider was cell service. As it turned out, the only wireless provider that offered coverage in my area was Verizon. I was happy with Sprint for nearly twenty years, but I had no choice but to switch. Luckily, Sprint let me out of my contract at no charge since they did not offer coverage in my area. Although Verizon has coverage in my area, the signal is usually very weak (one to two bars), but since I’m connected to WiFi when I’m home, I rarely notice.

Water

Most homes in the mountains have a well and septic. For reasons that I’m still unsure of, homes in my neighborhood do not. The entire community is served by a water and sewer system, which is managed by a water district.

At first I thought this was good news. After all, a well can come with some significant caveats, including high maintenance costs if something goes wrong. Wells are susceptible to damage from lightning strikes, there can be pump issues, and of course there’s everyone’s worst nightmare—the well can go dry.

So I thought I was in good shape. It turns out that wasn’t entirely true. My quarterly water bill is $510, and I’m sure it will increase at some point in the future. It’s ironic that I live at the base of a glacier. Yeah, it’s nutty.

I had never thought to research the water situation before buying a home, but I wish I had. I’m not sure if I would have had second thoughts about buying my house, but at least I would have known what I was in for.

The St. Mary’s community, like so many others, has a water district with an elected water board. They manage the water system, and also have the power to impose rate increases. Elected water boards are not generally regulated by the PUC (Public Utilities Commission), so if you are planning to move to a community with a water district, you might want to do some homework. Find out how reliable the water system is. Research the water district’s finances. You might save yourself from an unexpected financial shock.

It’s All Worth It

It may seem as though I’m complaining—I’m not. In fact, quite the opposite. I love living here in spite of these things.

IMG_1267When I first moved in, my new neighbors, Frank and Kenny, came over to introduce themselves. Then I met the neighbors across the road, and the guy behind my house. They are all awesome. You rarely get to know your neighbors when you’re living in a loft building with 350 units. That was a nice change.

When my first summer here finally arrived, I understood why people live here. Everything turns green and the forest comes to life. Wild roses pop up throughout the forest and there are birds everywhere. Without the light pollution of the city, the stars shine bright and the moon seems bigger. Sunsets and sunrises are amazing!

We have sixteen beautiful lakes in the immediate area, old mine shafts riddle theIMG_0304 mountain, and snowboarders fly down the glacier well into June. Not too shabby.

And aside from the occasional ATV roaring down the road, it’s peaceful and quiet with only the whistle of the hummingbirds to keep you company.

I still go into the city every week for a haircut and to run errands. I don’t hate the city, or the people who live there. I just wanted to find peace, and in that respect I succeeded.

Would you ever consider a move to the mountains?

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