Your brain does funny things when it’s deprived of oxygen. Granted, your brain also does plenty of funny things when not deprived of oxygen, but let’s stick with parched O2 for today’s theme. One particularly fascinating phenomena of thin-air related brain activities (at least within my cerebellum) are the vivid, disjointed and radically random dreams that happen while trying to sleep at high altitude. As I prepare to slumber over 10,000 feet, I feel like I’ve gotten a one-way ticket aboard the goofball train that departs as soon as I close my eyes.
Now, the more cynical amongst you might think Elevation Outdoor’s home base in Boulder means by default, vivid, colorful, THC-inspired, goofy landscapes are par for the course. Quite the opposite in my case; in fact I’d be labeled a teetotaler by some if it wasn’t for the fact I don’t particularly like tea. I’m more of a Dewtotaler. But I digress. Whether or not you think Phish helps you see God, there are some wacky things afoot in the high-altitude head regardless of the brain cells you may have previously burned through.
As we all know, the higher you go the less condensed oxygen there is due to relaxed atmospheric pressure. As a result, our bodies make adjustments to compensate for this dearth of O2: red blood cell production is boosted, respiration speeds up to distribute the dwindling available oxygen, metabolism increases and so on. For some, adding in the complex shut-down mode of sleep can produce strange results. Mostly because of increased respiration, the body never fully enters or emerges from the stages of sleep cycles. A hybrid state of restorative brain activity (usually achieved in deep R.E.M. sleep) tries to run while in much lighter, less restorative stages of sleep. The end result is something like going to school naked but it’s no big deal because all of your classmates are fish.
Beyond the physiological aspect, what I find strangest about altitude dreams are the utter randomness and the sharp, visceral acuity of the sensations within the dreams. Unlike “normal” dreams which seem peppered with symbolic images, reminders of the day past or faces of those people who float around in our psyche, altitude dreams invoke an entirely different cast of sub-conscious characters.
Case in point: I took the time to write down the events of my most recent altitude dreamscape, conjured while camping out at roughly 11,600 ft. I’ll describe it the best I can. The dream begins. It’s a blue sky, sunny spring day in a flat green field speckled with a few trees in the distance. A beautiful, dark haired woman in a sharp, business skirt outfit but no facial features is underhand pitching tomatoes to me that I obliterate with a powerful swing of my bright yellow Wiffle bat. As the tomatoes leave her hand, I noticed her long, elegant fingers with dark purple nail polish. When the tomato grows near, I smell something akin to Mr. Bubble bubblebath and focus on the way the orange-red skin of the tomato is taut, dully offering me my own reflection. As I make contact, it is not the explosion of the tomato but the strong, vivid sensation of resistance in my wrists that dominates the senses. After a few tosses from the beautiful faceless woman, the sensation in my wrists becomes heavy and soon I’m inside the skeleton of my wrists, watching from the inside as the outer-me continues batting practice with the tomatoes.
And then I wake up all cozy in my sleeping bag, wondering if I am inside my wrist or inside my tent. Of course it doesn’t make sense but equally of course, if you’ve had similar altitude dreams you know exactly what I’m talking about. Whatever they are all about, I sort of look forward to my first night in the thin air when I may be engaged in a fierce badminton match with Abe Lincoln until Chuck E. Cheese comes to give me a ride to the prosthetic nose store.