We flew in to Leh. In an hour we’d gone from sea level to an altitude of 3500 meters. As we stepped out of the pressurized cabin, The Family and I scanned ourselves for signs of trouble. None, as we retrieved our baggage and looked for our ride home. None, as we chatted with the driver about local food. None, as we checked into the hotel. None, as we admired the view from the balcony and took the featured photo. The Family was not surprised. She’d recovered from her flu faster than me, and had tested herself by climbing the stairs to our high-floor apartment twice a day. I had barely recovered, and was unable to tackle the stairs in Mumbai before leaving. She’d also started on a prophylactic course of Acetazolamide (Diamox) against mountain sickness, something I was unable to do. So I was a little surprised.
We’d set aside the first couple of days for acclimatization. We were not planning on stepping out of the hotel on the first day. We decided to go down for lunch. The restaurant was empty. It seemed that we were the only silly tourists taking these precautions. We ordered simple food. Eating multiple small meals and taking a lot of fluid is recommended. I was telling The Family that we were probably being over-cautious when a sudden headache hit me.
It became rapidly worse. I took the lift to our room, and by the time I hit the bed my fingers were tingling. The air at this height contain only about 65% of the oxygen you get at sea level. Lowered oxygen in your blood requires your heart to pump harder. If you are careless, this could lead to increased blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack. The tingling in your fingers and toes is a blaring alarm that tells you to lie down immediately. The Family took out our oxymeter, and found that I was in crisis. When you are flat on your back, the heart has a easier time pumping blood to your brain. I concentrated on yoga breathing: 4 counts in, hold for a count of 4, out till a count of 8. My pulse slowed. The tingling disappeared. A load eased off my chest. My oxygen reading crept up and my pulse rate dropped to the active workout level.
This was a wonderful hotel. Room service came in to set up bedside dining. The manager told The Family that he could set up oxygen for me any time we wanted. They contacted doctors, a couple, who were in our hotel. The owner came to talk to The Family; assured her that the hospital in Leh was fully equipped to deal with this problem, and he could get us there whenever needed. All this was in my peripheral consciousness. I kept on the yoga breathing until my oxygen and pulse were back to the extreme side of normal. Then I could sit up and eat.
I did not reach a crisis again; bodies adjust to heights. By late afternoon I could join The Family on the balcony for short periods. We had taken a full cardiac checkup before the trip. She’d been working on her blood iron levels, and it was paying off. Her vitals never went into danger. I had a slower time adjusting. The edema headache and the racing heart never happened again. It took three days before my resting oxygen level and pulse were back to the level I had at home. But once there, my body maintained that balance even at an altitude of 5500 meters. If we’d driven up from Srinagar or Manali, it would have taken as many days as it did, and I would have adjusted equally well. Also, the view would have been better. I did not save any time by flying in. Once it was clear that I was stable, The Family could explore Leh. So there was that.
Later, The Family said we should have come here thirty years ago. Perhaps we should have. Women’s bodies warn of time’s winged chariot drawing near, I don’t have that perspective. But I was immensely pleased a week later, when we crossed Khardung La a second time, and a group of young men watching us from the top of a slope we shuffled up said that we were an inspiration to them. I could have told them that though they cannot make their sun stand still, they can yet make him run. But I was grinning inside at their compliment. And I was out of breath.
Thank you guys, you made my day. I wish I’d had your grace when I was younger.