Roger Marolt: The more possible quiet years become, the less romantic they appear
We never beat altitude, we only capitulate to an uncomfortable truce with it. When you arrive in Aspen, every physical activity from a morning trail run to a stroll through the mall for a cup of coffee is more obviously difficult than it is in the lowlands where most of the world resides. After you live here for a while you realize that these things don’t get easier, we just get used to the required extra effort and slower pace mandated by thin air. Even the fittest athlete is weaker up here and recovery times after physical efforts are stretched. We live with altitude in trade for enjoyment of the bountiful existential benefits coexisting here.
Altitude is also something we take for granted. There was an article in The Denver Post predicting that this coronavirus pandemic will eventually be a good thing for mountain resort real estate due to the aforementioned benefits of mountain living, much like what happened in places like Aspen and Vail after 9/11. I am skeptical. I think those prognosticators are breathing too easily at the moment.
After the World Trade Centers collapsed under fire, people were scared. They didn’t want to raise their families in cities, especially those that might be targets for future mass acts of terrorism. Small resort towns, with the security of country living along with many big city amenities plus the technological infrastructure to support home offices, became extremely attractive. Aspen and resorts like it boomed.
It is unlikely this coronavirus will produce a similar effect. It may well be the opposite. Altitude is a pain when you are exercising. It can be deadly when your respiratory system becomes infected with a potent pathogen.
I drive by the airport on my way from Snowmass Village into Aspen, almost every day in my former life and once a week now that everything is upset. The past few weeks I have been waiting for the tarmac to fill with jets of second-home owners escaping the dangerous chaos in places like New York City and New Orleans, to name but two. There are still no private jets here. And I am no longer puzzled as to why. It has little to do with quarantine and everything to do with altitude. Unacclimated people are afraid to be here now. It could turn very bad very quickly if they arrive and contract the virus.
This realization came when a friend got sick with it. He was one of the really bad cases. No sooner did he arrive at the hospital than they airlifted him to lower altitude. He probably would have died had he remained here. I need to mention he is an acclimated, fit local of many years.
I have heard that severe cases of the new coronavirus present very much like cases of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Mountaineers are very familiar with HAPE. Up high it comes on quickly and can become deadly in no time. A victim literally drowns in fluid accumulating in their lungs. The surest cure is to descend rapidly.
The point is that, if the new coronavirus can bring on HAPE-like symptoms like high altitude can, then the combination of the the two occurring at the same time would seem doubly worrisome.
This is one reason why this pandemic is not likely to set off a huge new demand for mountain properties. People are rightly scared of weathering another outbreak here, especially if the next time a new virus behaves more typically and poses a great risk to young children, too, whom the current mutation has mercifully mostly spared.
On top of this, it has been a long-held local anecdote that our world-famous tourist destination is like a petri dish for pathogens from around the globe. It conforms to years of flu season experience. The latest pandemic traveled the world so fast that Pitkin and Eagle counties were among the first places hit in the U.S. Our governor singled us out as hot zones for the spread.
It doesn’t help matters that Aspen Valley Hospital is a small hospital. Despite outward appearances of the modern edifice, it is designed to service only a couple dozen beds under normal operating conditions. It could have become quickly overrun had this happened over the winter holidays. This is likely the main reason why our town shut down suddenly with almost no warning in the middle of a spring skiing weekend.
If the current pandemic ends up being a once-in-a-century event as its 1918-19 predecessor did, then our economic status as a prime real estate haven has nothing to fear but the immediate weeks of isolation ahead. On the other hand, if the world has become so socially and economically integrated that pandemics become part of a new normal, then the bus we did not see coming may have just dropped off a tour group of quiet years.
Roger Marolt is encouraging everyone to be diligent in distancing to help prove Aspen is a safe place to be right now. A lot depends on it. Email at email@example.com.
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“Gambling towns are one-economy attractions for a homogeneous demographic. As a result, they seem bereft of community vitality, at least when compared to the economic and cultural diversity of Aspen,” writes Paul Andersen.