On that fresh September morning in Leh, Ladakh, I was gripped by a weird mix of anticipation for what was about to unfold later in the day as well as some self commiseration caused, to be honest, by just a hint of altitude discomfort.
I had travelled a long way to be in India that morning. Fifteen thousand miles on my motorbike, from Europe over the course of a few months across borders, mountain passes, forests, even a couple of deserts. Now I was about literally reach one of the pinnacles of my trip and I could hardly wait.
With sore eyes I sipped some coffee at the small table by the windows of the quaint German bakery opposite my guest house. “Didn’t get much sleep” l thought to myself while I glanced admiringly at “Lucy”, my German two wheeled companion, parked outside between a pair of ageing Royal Enfield machines. I rubbed my eyes, reached for the breast pocket of my jacket and fumbled with the blister packaging of some paracetamols. I swallowed two pills with the last gulps of coffee. Hopefully, I though, the medicine would sort out that persistent sting I felt at the back of my head caused by the lack of oxygen.
Warm sunlight suddenly poured into the cafe. As I put down my empty mug and raised my gaze towards my bike again I felt the tingle of renewed excitement. “Time to go” I said out loud as I tried to brush aside feelings of malaise and pushed my empty mug away. I paid the bill, put my gloves on and wobbled to my waiting bike.
It felt good to open up the throttle on the road that wound its way north towards the Nubra Valley. The views were astounding. Empty barren landscapes framed by jagged Himalayan ridges. It was no wonder so many Buddhist monasteries dotted the ledges and heights around me.
The digits on my altimeter began to flick quickly. Three thousand five hundred meters (11,500 ft), three thousand six hundred metres (11,800 ft), three thousand seven hundred metres (12,140 ft).
Luckily there were no altitude issues with my machine. Fuel injection and oxygen sensors were doing their thing just fine as the pitch from the exhaust was telling me.
Four thousand metres (13,120 ft), four thousand one hundred metres (13,450 ft), four thousand five hundred metres (14,760 ft)
I stopped for a moment on the side of the road. I felt short of breath. The bright light made me squint through my cheap plastic sun glasses and I could feel the rays burn on my face. I grabbed the sun block that I kept conveniently in a pannier pocket and noticed my clumsy movements as I applied some jelly like cream to my cheeks with my riding gear stiffened by the cold.
Five thousand metres (14,760 ft) and climbing….five thousand two hundred metres (17,060 ft)
I stopped one more time. My mouth was dry, my lips even more so. I needed water and grabbed the bottle I had with me for some gulps. As I turned on my seat I felt a moment’s dizziness and for a few intense seconds I wrestled with the 200 kg bulk of my bike to avoid dropping it on it’s side.
Five thousand three hundred metres, five thousand five hundred metres (18,040 ft)
I was almost there. Just a few more switchbacks and I would be “on top of the world”.
There it was ! The big yellow placard I had read about and admired pictures of from bikers and travellers who had been here before me. Now it was my turn, I had made it to this iconic point, too. I was one of the club who had ridden to the Khardungla Pass!
I parked the bike below the big board and asked a lonely guard to take a picture as I posed. The Khardungla Pass at five thousand six hundred plus metres (18,380ft) is supposedly the highest pass accessible by road on earth! I was euphoric, like a little kid in a sweet shop and for a while I was totally taken by a selfie snapping frenzy.
But, no sooner had the excitement settled, that my head suddenly seemed to explode and burn. The paracetamols taken earlier were wearing off and the added altitude at the pass was adding to the discomfort I had felt at the bakery in the morning. The pain grabbed me quite by surprise and quickly removed all the enjoyment of being where I was. My eyes now stung and tears were flooding my vision. My mouth and lips were dry again, the moisture absorbed by the air. For some obscure reason I was sneezing repetitively and every breath I took appeared unable to fully fill my lungs dicouraging any movement beyond just a few easy steps. I could sense I was getting into trouble.
Slowly turned to look around at my surroundings one more time. I had been at the pass for no longer than thirty minutes but was being beaten by my contempt for altitude and its effects. I needed to leave now, quickly or risk possibly passing out.
I climbed back on to my bike, fired Lucy up and slowly limped to the safety of lower elevation, much lower. Here, in the shade of some bushes I opened my panniers and found extra paracetamols I knew I had packed away. Gradually the flames in my head soothed and my eyes stopped stinging. All was good again….or at least acceptably so.
So, what to say?
Altitude drowsiness (I use the word sickness sparingly) is serious stuff. Really, it is and should not be taken lightly. It can ruin your day to say the least and I for one will not get caught out by it again.
Mountaineers and climbers have my fullest appreciation and respect as they train themselves with passion to cope with some very extreme environments. However, I don’t believe any of this is for me and have to admit that I’d rather stick to the occasional jog at sea level for my fitness regimen.
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