Altitude Sickness on the Manali to Leh Road

What does mountain sickness feel like? I asked my friend before we embarked on a two-month motorbike trip in the Indian Himalayas. He is one of those types who has done the Everest trek on his own without a guide or a porter or even a decent map, and with just his 20 kg+ backpack for a company, probably in flip-flops and a t-shirt. He did get sick with the altitude, but he couldn’t explain how Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) feels, so I thought it couldn’t be so bad. I was very wrong.

This is what high altitude sickness feels like. You’re lying inside a freezing cold tent in 4200 m altitude in a place called Sarchu in the middle of nowhere between Manali in Himachal Pradesh and Leh, Ladakh. The tent is made of an old parachute and your mattress has been used by millions of random people before you, but it doesn’t matter because your head hurts so much that you can place it on the makeshift pillow (ie. pile of your dirty clothes).

It is pitch black around you and you are freezing, but you cannot sleep. Everyone else is snoring away, but you cannot because you think your head is going to explode. You cannot breathe either. There isn’t enough oxygen in the air. You think you’re going to suffocate and die and nobody will notice until it’s too late.

You haven’t been able to eat, because you are nauseous, and you have no appetite anyway. Your stomach rumbles in a funny way and you think you’re going to throw up or get diarrhea. There are no toilets in this tent camp, and since you are in a high altitude desert in the Himalayas, there are no bushes to squat behind either. You can’t do anything except pray.

You lie there for hours until the morning comes and you realize that you haven’t slept a second, but you’re still going to have to travel the whole day over higher and higher mountain passes to reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. You can’t turn back either because there are high passes wherever you look.

Mild symptoms include breathlessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite and sleeping difficulties. More severe symptoms include disorientation, loss of balance, and coughing up of pink frothy phlegm.

Except for the pink froth, you have all of them. I watch the friend pull a thick, slimy, bloody rope of snot out of his nostrils. He says he hasn’t slept a second either and his head feels like it’s splitting in two, but he’s still going to have to drive you both over 5000 m mountain passes.

Solution: take a couple of headache tablets, drink lots of water, get some coffee and move on, and hope you’re going to arrive in Leh in one piece. Which we did, in the end.
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