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The Setting

On that fresh September morning in Leh in Ladakh, I was gripped by a weird mix of anticipation for what was about to unfold later in the day. I was also dealing with a touch of self commiseration caused, to be honest, by just a touch of “man flu” and altitude discomfort.

I had travelled a long way to be in northern India. Fifteen thousand miles on my motorcycle to be precise, from Europe across more borders I could remember, huge mountain ranges, beautiful forests, even a couple of deserts and soon I would reach one of the pinnacles of my trip. I could hardly wait!

With a sniffling nose and sore eyes I sipped my coffee at a 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 between a pair of ageing Royal Enfield 500 machines. I rubbed my eyes and reached for my jacket breast pocket where I fumbled with the blister packaging of a couple of paracetamols. I swallowed both with my last gulps of coffee. Hopefully, I thought, the pills would sort out the persistent sting at the back of my head that the lack of oxygen was causing.

Warm sunlight poured suddenly though the cafe’s windows.  I put down my empty mug and raised my gaze with a tingling of renewed excitement. “Time to go” I said out loud as I placed thoughts of malaise away, paid the bill and and wobbled to my waiting bike.

The climb

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.

Road to the Khardungla Pass

View from the side of the road to the Khardungla Pass

Four thousand metres (13,120 ft), four thousand one hundred metres (13,450 ft), four thousand five hundred metres (14,760 ft)

I felt I was short of breath and had to stop. 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 in 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 plastic bottle I had with me for a drink. As I turned I felt a moment’s dizziness and for a few 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 past. Now it was my turn, I had made it to this iconic point as well…I was one of the club !

Top of the world

Top of the world!

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), supposedly the highest pass accessible by road on earth. I was euphoric, like a little kid in a sweet shop and for a while was totally taken by a selfie snapping frenzy.

The escape

But no sooner had the excitement settled that my head seemed suddenly to explode and burn. Clearly the paracetamols taken earlier were wearing off and the added altitude was doing me no favours. The pain grabbed me quite by surprise and rapidly removed all enjoyment of being where I was. My eyes now stung and tears started to flood my vision. My mouth and lips were dry again, the moisture quickly dried away  no matter how much water I sipped. For some obscure reason I was sneezing repetitively and every breath appeared unable to fully fill my lungs dicouraging any movement beyond just a few steps. I could sense I was getting into trouble.

I slowly turned and looked  at my surroundings one more time. I had been at the pass for no longer than twenty 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 the bike, fired Lucy up and slowly limped to the safety of lower elevation, a lot lower. Here, in the shade, I opened up my panniers and found the extra paracetamols I knew I had packed. Gradually the flames in my head soothed away. 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! 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 respect …..but I think I’ll stick to the occasional jog at sea level for my fitness regimen.


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