I didn’t know that iPods could get altitude sickness, but my iPod has been pretty sick ever since I arrived in Tibet. I’ve got a fifth generation 60GB Video iPod, and whenever I get above about 3,500 meters in elevation (a little over 10,000) feet, it wonks out. Its poor hard drive starts making those repetitive clicking sounds, a noise that I’ve learned to fear, because it is the harbinger of a failed hard disk. Soon after, the menu is replaced with the “sad iPod face” you see above. And I immediately shut it off to keep from damaging my precious ‘pod.

Turns out hard drive based iPods are expected to fail if operated at high altitudes (Apple sets the cap at 10,000 feet in the manual). In a hard drive, the read/write heads do not contact the recording surface. They float above the surface on a small cushion of air, produced by the spinning platters. If the air is too thin to create this cushion, the heads will contact the surface, possibly damaging it. (The reason your iPod still works in an airplane is because the cabin is pressurized so that it feels more like sea level than 30,000 feet.)

My iPod has a hard time functioning in Lhasa (elevation 3500 meters), taking longer than normal to load songs. If I go even a few meters higher, it conks out entirely, and the dreaded clicking noise begins. I’ve decided that I’m going to leave my iPod off until I arrive at lower ground. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of this trip with no music!