Our journey through the Himalyas was a transformational one in many ways. I’ve written here extensively about some of the cultural, historical and spiritual lessons we’ve learnt. It’s now time to address the physical side of the story: life at high altitude.
I’ve read books and guides on how to prepare, but I wish I understood more about the severity of this.
London, where I live is at 11m above sea level. The highest I’ve ever been is probably around 2000m in the Alps and on one occasion at 3500m on the Teide in Tenerife.
The challenge that the Himalayas presented however were just on a completely different scale.
We only felt the first signs when we crossed a 5000m pass for the first time. We got out of the car to admire the view, and we were both moving like astronauts. Every little movement felt laboursome. Lifting my arm to take a photo? – Let’s think twice about that. Going to the toilets? – Absolutely no chance, even if it’s only a few steps away, it’s just way too far and challenging. Let’s just save that energy.
We were laughing about our sudden clumsiness and slowness.
But then, a strange headache started to develop and from then on, it all went downhill quite rapidly. The funny side of the story was over for what felt like an eternity.
When the body is oxygen deprived, the skin becomes blueish. Decision making becomes increasingly difficult, which is why altitude sickness poses a real threat for mountaineers.
By the time we reached Mount Everest Basecamp at 5342m, we were feeling really unwell in the car. Pulsing headache, rapid heart rate despite being practically motionless, a kind of consciously unconscious state of mind, upset stomach, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite – I started to question why we had to do this to ourselves.
The oxygen bottles were all prepared for us in the car in case we needed them, but by this time our thinking was so foggy that we couldn’t even think that oxygen would be the solution. We were just waiting for the nightmare to be over.
Usually when I’m ill, my other half would look after me, and vice versa. In these circumstances, that was practically impossible. Both of us were simply way too screwed. We were saying things to each other like – “Take deep breaths!” “Don’t forget to take deep breaths!” “Have you taken a deep breath?” But that was all we could do to help each other. We both felt completely helpless.
Severe altitude sickness comes with vomiting, and can develop into a life threatening oedema of the brain and lungs. I knew that from the books I read when I was preparing. So the moment I started to throw up, I got really worried.
Our tour guide was apparently used to seeing tourists in that state. He (at least we hope) knew what was going on and when things went really South, he handed over the oxygen bottles to both of us.
What exactly counts as high altitude? Mountain medicine uses these three categories:
High altitude = 1,500–3,500 metres (4,900–11,500 ft)
Very high altitude = 3,500–5,500 metres (11,500–18,000 ft)
Extreme altitude = above 5,500 metres (18,000 ft)
Our guide showed us how to use oxygen and boy – it felt like heaven. It was astonishing to witness how our thinking started to become instantly clearer. But you don’t want to overuse it because that’s not good either. The goal is to get acclimatised – after all, we would be spending another week at this altitude, We can’t use oxygen all the time …
A meditational breathing technique eased the rapid pulse a little (like really, just a little) and we figured out how we can control our oxygen levels by taking big, deep breaths and paying strong attention to our breathing. But the vomit just didn’t want to stop for me.
Eventually, we reached our accommodation for the night – a hotel at 4348 meter elevation in Tingri. We dragged ourselves into our room. I could reach the bathroom just in time for my (final) vomit, and just like that, in jacket and all, both of us fell straight into bed.
At this point, you’d wish you could sleep but no! It’s impossible to sleep with a heart rate of 120-140 per minute! So we were both just lying there, with headache, exhausted, feeling completely helpless, asking ourselves WHY, WHY ON EARTH we had to do this …
Then I realised I hadn’t peed for about 7 hours, despite having drunk huge amounts of water because of the headache. Ok, I threw up and because of that, I lost a lot of fluid, but still … At that point, I was really afraid that my kidneys could be affected. It was such a huge relief when in the middle of the night, the urge suddenly came – hallelujah.
The morning after the day before
It was the worst night ever. We managed to have moments of sleep and were constantly woken up by the headache and the need to drink.
When the morning came, we couldn’t believe that actually, we felt a little bit better. But breakfast was out of the equation for sure. It was Viktor’s time to throw up – only once, not more luckily. But we had a full day planned ahead, visiting monasteries and historical sights. How are we going to do this?
We washed our faces, got ready, and walked slowly up to the car, hoping that we’d survive the day somehow.
First stop: a scenic spot to view Mount Everest from:
Now that really woke us up from our struggles. It was a very emotional moment to see Mount Everest from the Tibetan side, in the distance, to hear the locals calling it ‘Chomolungma’, (literally meaning ‘holy mother of the universe’) in their authentic voice. I had tears in my eyes, it was so surreal. We bought some wonderful jewels there. I’ll cherish forever the Himalayan amber bracelet, its smell is just wonderful:
We walked around very slowly, carefully, taking deep breaths. To our surprise, we were doing alright.
Our next stop was to visit a beautiful monastery in Shigatse a few hours drive away, crossing 5000m on two occasions. We tackled it, we were doing alright, and so we slowly but surely acclimatised to life at high altitude. The nightmare was officially over.
If you’re ever planning to embark on a journey at high altitude, consider these:
➡️ Drink plenty of water and electrolytes. (I believe each of us consumed over 3 liter a day.)
➡️ The headache can be reduced by sipping water constantly. That however means going to the toilet more often. Still – it’s worth the energy.
➡️ Oxygen bottles at the ready. Place them near you so you can reach it easily when needed. Learn how to use it before the need arises, and use it moderately so you allow your body to acclimatise. Don’t ever let yourself fall into this consciously unconscious state.
➡️ Taking tablets: in hindsight, I still wouldn’t take any, but please don’t take this as my advice, instead, seek a doctor’s opinion. There is this tablet called Diamox, containing acetazolamide. It’s a medication used to treat glaucoma, epilepsy and other ailments, and it was discovered that it can also help you adjust more quickly to high altitudes. It’s supposed to trick your body into thinking it has an excess of CO2. As the body excretes this imaginary excess CO2 by deeper and faster breathing, that in turn increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.
But I’d rather just use the oxygen bottle moderately so our bodies can slowly but surely acclimatise. I personally am not a fan of medicines. They all have loads of side effects on me so whenever I can say no, I’d say no to them.
➡️ Learn a few breathing exercises to help you feel more at ease, and these might also aid the lungs to absorb more oxygen.
These are our lessons learnt, but I’m sure that each and every person experiences altitude slightly differently.
Have you ever been at high altitude? How did you cope? What was the highest elevation you’ve been at? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories and experiences.
As ever, thank you so much for reading, I hope you found this interesting and worthwhile and perhaps useful to read.