Something visitors and newcomers to Albuquerque forget is that Albuquerque's elevation is higher than expected, and the effects of a higher elevation shouldn't be left to chance. Someone visiting from Florida or the coasts, where the elevation is at or below sea level, will be bound to feel the effects of visiting a city with an elevation that hovers around a mile high (5,000 feet). Albuquerque's river valley is as low as 4,900 feet, and in the foothills of the Sandias, the city's elevation is about 6,700 feet. Many visitors to Albuquerque also choose to ride the Sandia Tramway, which rises from nearly 7,000 feet to 10,378 feet.
The Why of Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness occurs because, at higher elevations, the oxygen is more dispersed. It happens when someone not used to high elevations goes from lower altitudes to an altitude of 8,000 feet or higher. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.
Why does this occur? We live under a big ocean of air that is the atmosphere. At sea level, the weight of the air above compresses the air around us. But as you go higher in elevation, there is less air compressing, or decreased pressure. There are fewer molecules of air present, so it is sometimes said the air is "thinner" the higher up you go. Anyone who climbs Mt. Everest, for example, may have to do so with the assistance of oxygen tanks.
Our bodies find ways to compensate for this, and the process is called acclimatization. Two things happen almost immediately. We breathe more deeply and more quickly to maximize the amount of oxygen that gets to our blood, lungs, and heart. Our hearts also pump more blood to increase the amount of oxygen to our brains and muscles. Living at higher elevations, our bodies produce additional red blood cells and capillaries to carry more oxygen. Our lungs increase in size to facilitate our breathing.
Those who first move to Albuquerque from cities and towns at sea level find that it takes a while to acclimate to the altitude. For anyone visiting the Sandia Crest and walking its trails, it is wise to take it slowly because of the higher altitude. If a walker climbs too fast for the lungs to keep up, there will be a feeling of breathlessness. Don't push your body further than it is able to go. Take your time, and don't be surprised if you have to cut out the hike along the Crest Trail. You can still enjoy the magnificent view from the top of the Sandias to the valley below. Descend to a lower altitude as soon as possible so that you will feel better.