Mountain Town News: How healthy Sherpa may help unhealthy lowlanders

OKANAGAN, B.C. — To his death, Sir Edmund Hillary insisted that he was not solely the first to stand atop Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. He was, he said, in the company of Tenzing Norgay. Together, they were first.

Norgay, also called Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, had been born and lived his life at high altitudes in the Himalaya Mountains. He probably had some advantage because of that.

The thin air of high elevations poses challenges for everybody. Researchers in May 2007 set out to record just how much blood oxygen levels drop at the summit of Everest. They found the levels were about a quarter of what they were at sea level, according to a 2008 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

More recently, researchers from the University of British Columbia at Okanagan set out to drill down, to better understand the physiological adaptation of Sherpa. “The Sherpa are born and raised at low-oxygen, and their ancestors have lived above 13,000 feet for 20,000 years, so they are the gold standard of exceptional high-altitude performance,” said Chris McNeil, assistant professor at the university’s school of health and exercise.

McNeil and doctoral student, Luca Ruggiero, wanted to find out whether the muscle fibres of the Sherpa were just as efficient in a low-oxygen environment as their well-studied cardiorespiratory systems.

To test this, they set up shop at the Pyramid International Laboratory, which is located at 16,600 feet on the Nepali side of Everest. The oxygen concentration in the air there is roughly half that at sea level. For the study, they conducted tests on 10 Sherpa and 12 people who came from low elevations and gradually ascended to the laboratory. The subjects were within 11 years of 31 years of age.

The test measured the strength of each participant in extending the quadriceps. “We specifically wanted to look at the quadriceps because they are so important in activities like walking, hiking and climbing,” says McNeil. “Even with similar oxygen delivery to the muscles in both groups, Sherpa muscle fibres have a remarkable ability to use oxygen efficiently during and after exercise.”

“It turns out the Sherpa fatigued about 33 percent less than what the researchers call lowlanders and recovered nearly as fast,” says McNeil. At this high-elevation laboratory, the Sherpa out-performed even the fittest lowlanders that were studied. The results were published in the September issue of the Journal of Physiology.

Interesting — but is there practical application? McNeil, in a release from the university, said the understanding may someday help benefit people who don’t go to higher elevations but have lower oxygen saturation in their blood because of emphysema and other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“A better grasp of how Sherpa muscles are able to not only survive but thrive in such a harsh environment could one day lead to exercise or pharmacological interventions and change the lives of countless people,” said McNeil. “That’s the Holy Grail of studying the incredible physical abilities of the Sherpa.”

Should mountain town buildings look like cities?

KETCHUM, Idaho — Downtown Ketchum has been getting a new architectural look, one strongly influenced by the modernist style seen in new buildings in prosperous cities.

Ketchum came of age in the late 1800s as a smelting town for the silver mines of the region. Commercial buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were flat-roofed and made of red brick with tall, skinny windows and ornamental moldings at the top of the buildings. You see those sorts of two- and three-story buildings in Aspen and Telluride, which were also hard-rock mining towns. Crested Butte was a mining town, too, but it was mainly a coal town and hence not quite as affluent. Instead of brick, it had wooden Victorian buildings.

The modernist style instead emphasizes straight lines and glass — lots of it. Think perhaps of the shiny sheaths of tall buildings in Vancouver or Toronto or, even the newer buildings of Denver and Salt Lake City. Don’t look hard for ornamentation, because it’s just not there. Think of a Macintosh computer.

Whether this shift toward modernist style is good, says the Idaho Mountain Express, is open to debate.

“In Park City, we see the same thing happening,” a visitor from Salt Lake City told the Express. “I don’t like it. It’s changing the character of the town.” A local resident in Ketchum was OK with the new, modernistic architecture. “I think the Limelight is lovely,” the resident said, referring to the new hotel built by the Aspen Skiing Co. “It feels like it’s more open and welcoming because of all the glass.”

Local architect Jeff Williams points out that the red-brick buildings reflected what was happening across the country at the time. In that sense, the new styles are no different.

Local architects also had varying opinions. Retired architect Dale Bates frowns on the new “globalization of taste.”

Bates objects to blindly following the global trend of modernism, but agrees that dictating a historical local style leads to a dead end.

“The trouble with vernacular architecture is that it turns out to be fake,” he said. “That is the pitfall you fall into — that architecture is what you perceive on the surface. It’s not. It’s an environment that you actually walk into. It’s a sensory spatial environment.”

Bates says true vernacular architecture consists of local materials and an authentic construction process — for example, real wood, actual thick walls and big wooden beams. An example of an unauthentic process, he said, is sticking a fake rock siding onto a building’s exterior.

Can the Ketchum area develop its own style? “The challenge is finding a form that expresses a vernacular, a regional climate and a culture,” he told the Express.

The goal, he said, should be to “get beyond the global application of high modernism — not by going back, but by moving forward into something yet unseen.”

One idea in this discussion is to require buildings in the heart of Ketchum’s downtown to nod deliberately to the century-old architectural style, emphasizing stability and longevity. New projects a few blocks away could be more risky, more cutting edge, embracing openness and change.

Jackson’s plastic bag ban may start by next April

JACKSON, Wyo. — Grocers in Jackson may hit ground come April when they run out of their existing stocks of freebie plastic bags.

The Jackson Town Council adopted a policy intended to give merchants a soft landing in the municipal bag ban. The ban would begin only when merchants ran out of existing bags. For grocers, that’s likely to happen in April. Other merchants may have enough bags for another year, reports the Jackson News&Guide.

Merchants in Jackson give out 5 million plastic bags each year to customers, says Heather Overholser, superintendent of Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling. She said her department captures 20 percent of them, compared to the 1 percent of most communities.

“But that’s still a very large percentage going into the landfill and our environment,” she said.

The News&Guide reports that the council discussed exempting smaller retailers, as they account for just 10 to 20 percent of plastic bags. But it would be unfair, members decided, to ask some businesses to change but not others.

Customers will be allowed to buy paper bags once merchants cease to give out free plastic bags. The fee has not been set. It could be 10 cents, but there’s also support for 20 cents. The money will be shared between the merchants and the town.

Europe, meanwhile, has been moving much more briskly to curb the proliferation of plastic that has now become ubiquitous in the Earth’s soils and water. The New York Times reports that the European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved a ban on 10 single-use plastics such as straws, plates, cutlery and cotton-swab sticks in Europe by 2021.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 90 percent of the world’s plastic waste ends up in the ocean, the Times notes. This year the forum warned that there would be more plastic than fish in weight in oceans by 2050.

New study revises threat

of eruptions in Cascades

BEND, Ore. — The United States has 161 active volcanoes, but a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey finds that 18 pose a “very high threat” of a dangerous eruption.

Topping the list is Hawaii’s Kilauea, which sent lava flows across the state’s Big Island earlier this year. Of the others in that list, several are in the Cascade Range: Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier in Washington. In Oregon, Mount Hood ranks as Oregon’s most threatening volcano, followed by the Three Sisters, Newberry and Crater Lake.

This same report found the caldera at Yellowstone to rank No. 21 in terms of its threat. The Jackson Hole News&Guide notes that it hasn’t erupted in 630,000 years or produced surface magma flows in 70,000 years.

The Bend Bulletin explains that with the exception of the Hawaiian volcano, most of the changes in the list that was last assessed in 2004 were the result of evolving understanding of how certain volcanoes behave. It did not define what constitutes a “very high threat.”

But whatever the threat today, eruptions in the past have been relatively uncommon in the Cascade Range. Garibaldi, near Whistler, was last active between 10,700 and 9,300 years ago. Hood was last active about 200 years ago, although there was a sequence of steam explosions in the mid-19th century.

Shasta, in northern California, last erupted 300 years ago but continues to steam, to the benefit of John Muir, who spent a night atop the volcano. About halfway south to Lake Tahoe, Mt. Lassen erupted between 1914 and 1917.

Several of these volcanoes — including Rainier, Hood and Shasta — have ski areas on their flanks, while Mt. Bachelor is relatively proximate to the Three Sisters east of Bend.

Gateway town getting bucks to help creatives

GRAND LAKE — Community leaders in Grand Lake are heralding the town’s designation as Colorado’s newest creative district as a strategy for injecting more life during the winter and the shoulder seasons.

“The goal is to diversify and expand the year-round economy and to provide some workforce housing,” said Jim White, who manages the town at the west gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sky-Hi News explains that a program called Space to Create will funnel $5 million into Grand Lake during the next few years. This money comes from foundations and state grants. The end result will likely involve some form of brick-and-mortar structure for artistic endeavors that would include a mix of housing units and workspace.

“We feel this can really be a way of building a sort of critical mass in Grand County around these creatives,” explained Ken Fucik, a local resident who is a member of the Colorado Creatives Group. “We have so many creative people and industries here. This basically provides an anchor that will really allow us to bring them together to be an impetus for Grand County.”

Banff hopes to minimize impact of holiday lights

BANFF, Alberta — Festive winter lights being strung willy-nilly on trees and poles will no longer be allowed at Banff and Lake Louise. The communities have adopted new codes that seek to lessen the effect of night-lighting on wildlife, trees and the night sky.

Banff is incorporating many of the best practices recommended by the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates policies to dampen light pollution.

The group promotes illumination that gets used only when needed, is only as bright as necessary and minimizes blue-light emissions. The IDA also wants to see lights fully shielded and directed downward.

John Barentine, director of conservation for the IDA, says holiday lighting poses less threat to dark skies because it’s temporary and tends to be low intensity. “In the big scheme of things, they only contribute marginally to skyglow. Of course, in a smaller city that’s situated in very dark surroundings, it might be a big deal,” he told MTN by email.

“If anything, as I advise people writing municipal lighting codes, I suggest that the biggest problem is the potential for ‘holiday’ lighting to become year-round, permanent installations unless the codes strictly constrain allowed installations to only particular date ranges. I recommend Nov. 15 to Jan. 15.”

Ski museum may yet

be possible in Aspen

ASPEN — Aspen may yet get a ski museum. The Aspen Daily News explains that the proposal calls for a museum as part of a base area redevelopment. The location is proximate to where a boat tow was installed just prior to World War II.

The cost of delivering this museum has been estimated at $2 million, although Kelly Murphy, president of the Aspen Historical Society, believes the museum is still several years out, if not longer.

If the museum happens, it will have plenty of exhibits, including 300 pairs of skis in the historical society’s collection and various clothing donated by Olympians from Aspen.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.