Tuesday, 2 May 2017


Yours truly in Sucre cemetery, Bolivia, c 1991, with Mount Churuquella in the background

I never used to give altitude a second thought. Who does?

If you'd asked me how high above sea level my home sat, I couldn't have told you. I'd have had no idea.

I was born in a valley in the foothills of the Pennines. I've also lived in the highest capital city in the world, up in the Andes in South America. Life has its geographical downs and ups.

Sea level was something I hadn't thought about since Geography class.

Then in 1990 I moved to Bolivia to live and work for a couple of years. Suddenly, altitude became a thing in my life. It could no longer be ignored. There were those spectacular views of the mountains and the Altiplano, Bolivia's high plateau. Then there was altitude sickness.

Map of Bolivia with traditional costumes from the various regions, hand-painted on leather.
The background is an aguayo, a beautiful Bolivian woven cloth.

Altitude sickness feels a bit like being starved of oxygen while having a brain-splitting hangover in the midst of coming down with something you'd rather avoid. Even at its mild degree, it felt to me at times like breathing underwater, as if I were getting dizzy, short of breath, nauseous and light-headed from some invisible toxic gas made of sheer height.

Unpredictable, too. I spent time in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, where the highest airport in the world, El Alto, towers in at 13,327 ft. Most of my time was spent in the former capital, Sucre, which still thinks of itself as the capital, the beautiful 'White City.'

Sucre doesn't do self-effacing: "Sucre, tourist goal of the world" sign in the bus terminal.
Sucre is at a more modest altitude of 9,219 ft in the southern highlands of Chuquisaca. Shuttling between those two heights could trigger "soroche" as locals call this mountain sickness. Sometimes it affected you, other times you might escape. It was like your lungs and nervous system were bungee jumping into a game of Russian Roulette while playing 'King of the Castle'.

Me and a llama on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake.
Before *that* spitting incident (the llama, not me!)

Ever after, altitude mattered.

I never again reached those staggering heights with my living accommodation. But now I dwell at the highest point between Sheffield and Bawtry, another plateau of high land to the east of Rotherham and the beautiful Peak District. For all its claim to fame, it's at a measly elevation of just 479 ft. Still, everything local's downhill from here!

View west from Wickersley - on Rotherham's 'Altiplano'

To a Dearne Valley lass born and bred, these heights are dizzying indeed. Born in a village whose elevation was a mere 135 ft, sinking below 65 ft in places, lowest spot in the Barnsley region, I travelled down the valley side to the grammar school in another village which slumped to a piddling 88 ft on average. Now that's just plain lazy!

Other places I've lived and worked, but managed to avoid altitude sickness include:

Cheshunt, Hertfordshire: 75 ft
Bitterne, Southampton, Hampshire: 137 ft
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: 47 ft (near the flat East Anglian fens and my lowest dwelling to date!)
Oadby, Leicester, Leicestershire: 337 ft
Selly Oak, Birmingham: 478 ft
Ruislip, Middlesex: 164 ft

What about you?

How low (or how high!) can you go?

Bolton-on-Dearne cemetery: the village includes the lowest point of the Barnsley region inside its boundaries

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