To Diamox or Not to Diamox – Day 3 of our Himalayan road trip, Jispa to Tso Moriri

This is the third part of a multi-post series covering our trip this summer to Ladakh, a remote region high up in the Indian Himalayas. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Day 3, 27th July – Jispa (11000 ft) to Tso Moriri (15000 ft)

Acute Mountain Sickness or Altitude Sickness – sickness caused in humans by acute exposure to low oxygen levels at high altitudes.

Guess what happens when you go from zero to 15000 ft (~ 4500 m) above sea level in less than 3 days? Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS, that’s what! We started our third day in the wee hours of the morning – no shower, no breakfast, wake up and pile into the cars. We had been warned by our drivers about how long Day 3 would be – 12 hours of driving – therefore, the early start, but the disaster that the day turned out to be for some of us, made the journey tumble into 14+ hours on the road (stunning views all along, though). We eventually got to Tso Moriri around 8 PM that night (‘Tso’ means ‘Lake’ in Ladakhi).

As the sun rose on us in our only half-conscious state, we had to make a stop on the highway for breakfast, which turned out to be a much longer one than expected. As we found out, there had been a landslide on a stretch of the road 5 kms ahead and other vehicles had been waiting for it to be cleared for the last 2 hours – ouch! After waiting for almost 2 hours for the rubble to be cleared, our drivers improvised and went off the road to get us back on our way to Tso Moriri.

Day 3 was when the landscape underwent a dramatic transformation from green valleys and mountains and rivers to absolutely barren land, with high peaks surrounding us and no human settlements for hundreds of miles maybe. This was when we knew we had entered Ladakh – remote and difficult, but unspeakably beautiful in its sheer scale and nakedness.

This was also a particularly tough day for the drivers – a day on which we had to drive through full-fledged streams and non-roads in some stretches – and like I said, this went on for a good 14 hours!

Road or River?

Coming back to the AMS – around evening, as we may have reached elevations of above 13000 ft – I started to feel queasy and slightly suffocated. The drivers had warned us about the likely onset of AMS on Day 3 – we had been ascending far too high, far too quickly. The fact that two of my three co-passengers had almost been passed out since afternoon – with upset stomachs, vomiting and other such troubles, wasn’t helping at all.

How to know when AMS hits you:

– A splitting headache – actually, that sounds too mild – a constant throbbing that makes you feel like your head will explode

– Loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting

– Fatigue and shortness of breath – a few steps and you’re panting

And maybe the odd newsbleed. Some of us were just feeling sick and off-colour, some were wondering how long an airlift rescue would take and were regretting not having gotten a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones (no mobile networks for days). Okay – I exaggerate. But only a little.

The good news is that it (AMS) goes away almost as suddenly as it comes. What you can do to help AMS on its way out /avoid it altogether (green indicates what I did and red indicates what I didn’t):

  • Ascend slowly – this has to do with trip-planning stage, once you’re on your way, nothing much you can do about it
  • Stay away from the booze – alcohol and ascents don’t mix well. The only people who were sort of violently sick in our group were the ones who had downed a litre of rum between them the previous night.
  • Medication a.k.a. Diamox – a mild diuretic that makes you breathe deeper and quicker by making you pee more (warped). There are reported to be a number of side effects, some of which sound like altitude sickness symptoms themselves (more warped :/)
  • Garlic(!) – the locals swear by sucking / chewing on a clove of garlic for a few minutes but I have a strong suspicion it’s only a placebo
  • Stay hydrated – Other than plain water, sports drinks like Gatorade may also help

I’d imagine it isn’t easy to avoid AMS completely at high altitudes – we were told by the Tso Moriri camp owner who was also a qualified mountaineer, that at high altitudes (of 10000 ft and higher), there just isn’t enough oxygen in the (thin) air to keep you going.

Getting knocked down by AMS and Getting back to normal – what I went through:

I like to think of myself as only mildly affected by AMS – my head was exploding, I was fatigued and out of breath, I couldn’t eat / digest more than a couple of bites and I had a LOT of trouble going to sleep (but that was also because of the freezing temperatures, the overnight storm that threatened to blow our tents away and the amount of howling that it made the neighbourhood dogs do). It was probably the worst time I’ve had trying to put myself to sleep – ever. The garlic, the hydration and the measured, deep breathing weren’t helping. The next morning was a little better – at least the sun was out and we had a massive, tranquil lake that was Tso Moriri, almost to ourselves. Too bad that I didn’t even have the energy / breath to walk the 300 m from the tent to the lake shore.

Tso Moriri and the  Massive cloud wall
Tso Moriri and the massive cloud wall

A couple of hours of driving into Day 4 – the head-throbbing and nausea just suddenly went away. I’m not sure if it was anything I did – most of the others also reported the same sudden coming-back-to-normal, though at different times during the day.

In short – AMS can take you by surprise, make you imagine that you’re dying, but use some common sense and some precaution and you’ll make it to the other end alright!

Curious to know if you’ve been struck by AMS too – share your tips and experiences – I’ll be better prepared next time. 😉

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