The Rocky Mountains are great this time of year, and if time allows, you really should go for a visit. If that's not in the works, try this: Buy one of those giant mayonnaise jars...

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The Rocky Mountains are great this time of year, and if time allows, you really should go for a visit.

If that’s not in the works, try this:

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Buy one of those giant mayonnaise jars at Costco, empty it out, wash it, put it over your head. Insert business end of shop-vac hose in jar, seal around neck. Turn on vacuum.

Welcome to Colorado!

OK, it’s not really that bad.

It’s actually worse. For Puget Sound flatlanders accustomed to spending 98 percent of their lives somewhere around 4-1/2 feet above sea level, trucking up to the land of thin air is always an enlightening experience.

For some reason, I am much more sensitive to altitude than most normal people. I’ve been known, for example, to feel the onslaught of pulmonary edema at the summit of the 405/522 onramp near Woodinville.

But I’m not alone. I know this because on a recent trip to the Rockies to cover World Cup ski racing, my buddy and frequent traveling partner, a Times photographer whom I’ll call “Dimitri,” was feeling it, too.

Just for the record, Dimitri — aside from the fact that he is the keeper of one of Planet Earth’s largest collections of fancy-pants fleece jackets — is pretty much a normal guy, at least in the thin-air department.

We have trekked together to the Olympic downhill courses of Hakuba, Japan, and the Wasatch Range, hiking trails in the French Alps, and other places that leave most ground-huggers wheezing.

But for some reason — perhaps the temperature, ranging from 15 below to about zero — we were both struggling big time on this trek.

We knew it on the first morning, when we got off the bus and started hiking the half-mile up to the race course — and were promptly left in the snow dust by small children, old women and chainsmoking teenage snowboarders.

Curse them all. They’re used to it.

Later, as I stood near the race-course finish area, I found that I could catch my breath, providing I didn’t engage in overly strenuous activity, such as running, doing situps, turning my head, moving my fingers or blinking.

I dug out my cellphone and punched up the number for Dimitri, who, as is his custom, had cramponed up, jumped on a chairlift, and headed even higher on the mountain, toward the race-start area at about 11,500 feet.

Before he left, I had warned the man to take it slow. Getting to a suitable photo spot on a race course usually involves lots of scrambling around in steep, deep snow.

I knew that Dimitri, even though he’s in good shape, would be feeling it, especially given the Sherpa load of camera gear — and eight or nine emergency fleecies — he was packing.

As it turns out, he wasn’t feeling much of anything.

He clearly opened his phone, but all I could hear was an odd, whining background noise, like a Dustbuster on overdrive.

“Hello?” I said.

Then it got really loud: A horrific, stacatto sucking sound, like what you would hear if you stuff a wad of nylons straight into the carburetor of a fully-throttled ’68 Buick.


(Insert great sucking sound.)


(Repeat great sucking sound.)

“Trying to (sucking sound) get (sucking sound) back (sucking sound) chairlift (cough, spitting, sucking sound, sucking sound),” he finally stammered.

“Roger, Apollo,” I shot back, then added: “GO SLOW UP THERE.”

At this point, I was concerned. For one thing, Dimitri is a good guy, and if he croaked up there, I would feel bad. Worse yet, it would fall to me to lug his 65 pounds of expensive lenses back down to the car — a prospect likely to create a flatlander daily double down at the Eagle County morgue.

Fortunately, a half-hour later, Dimitri plopped down off the chairlift and came trudging back up the slope toward me. He had snow on top of his head, snow on his eyebrows, snow in his pockets, snow in every crevice of the massive backpack that appeared to be pile-driving him step by step into the ground.

He stopped in front of me and bent over, hands on knees, and tried to breathe.

I did the same — not out of sympathy, but because having taken four steps on flat ground at an altitude 3,000 feet lower than what had walloped Dimitri, I was just as gassed.

“We’re getting too old for this stuff,” I said between snorts.

Of course, later in the week, it got a lot easier.

Before we knew it, we were able to flit around the high Rockies for much longer — five or six minutes — before completely blacking out.

As usual, by the time we were ready to leave, we were breathing fairly easily.

You do get used to thin air. And you like to think it has the equal and opposite effect when you go back down.

“You know what this means?” I asked Dimitri as we headed back to the soggy lowlands. “When we get back to sea level, we’re going to be like Supermen!”

That was more than a week ago. We’re expecting it to kick in at any moment.

Ron C. Judd’s Trail Mix column appears here most Thursdays. To contact him: 206-464-8280 or