Oxygen

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.

Talking of which, here is Oxygen The Music whom I found on YouTube
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By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

40 comments

    1. Climb slowly, go by road, take an extra day or two, and there will definitely be no problem. Even otherwise you could be lucky, like the thousand or so tourists who fly in daily and happily go about as planned.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, you were lucky to have such good care around you and also that you understood the problem and how best to deal with it initially. I’ve never had such a bad reaction to high altitude but if I do I will remember your advice about the yoga breathing in particular. I’m glad you recovered enough to start enjoying your holiday 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. haa.. for a moment I was literally on the edge. I have been to Leh multiple times and even experienced seeing a young one die because of breathlessness. But I am certain after that little body-O2 adjustment it was a beautiful time. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We understand the difficulties you must have faced in adjusting to the adverse conditions requiring proper acclimatisation and precautions to be taken! We visited Leh Ladakh in October 2009 & enjoyed our tour tremendously!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I remember the altitude in the altiplano in Peru. I did the Inca trail trek and the first pass is 14,000 ft 4,267 meters. I was only in my mid 30s at the time and so that helped but still I was surprised at how much the altitude slowed me down to a slow climb up the pathway. Your photos are stunning and I am very happy you were able to adjust and show those young men how to do it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, your movements become more deliberate in low oxygen. I’m not a natural-born athlete in any case, so slowing down on a slope does not bother me, as long as I can do it. Still, I would like to ride a bicycle across the world’s highest road one summer.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, high altitudes can be very scary. I recently went on a hiking holiday to Spiti and was dismayed to find myself stopping to catch my breath every few minutes.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m glad you had time to enjoy your trip. My kids recently moved to Reno about 5500 ft. up I was sick when I went to help them and had a similar altitude illness, but not as bad. I don’t know what would happen if I went up to 12,000 ft.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Wow. Respect for continuing with the trip, even up to 5500 meters! :O

    I had three bouts of altitude sickness, all of them in Bolivia, each time when I climbed a mountain. I had already gotten accustomed to the city (which in the case of La Paz and Potosí are already quite high), but running up the nearest mountain from there took me out.

    I do remember the tingling in the fingers, which was really weird.

    So, while I was much slower than going by plane, I still encountered my limits. Mine was at 5300 meters: https://andreasmoser.blog/2017/03/09/adventure/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I live in Vancouver at 2 metres above sea level. A few times in Mexico I found that 2600+ metres (sometimes) triggered migraines. Anyway in Argentina we were going by bus up into the Andes to 4200 metres, and I was freaked out, carrying caffeine pills with me, the only thing that took the edge off migraines. The the bus stopped at a little store for extra water, snacks and coca leaves. I ran in and got a bag of the coca leaves. Several people on the bus appeared to disapprove of my purchase but they probably had never experienced migraines. The tour guide told those with the leaves when to start chewing them. When we arrived at in the town there was a cemetery a kilometer up a hill and I charged up there to take photos. When I came back down into the town I saw several people who had refused the coca throwing up. They grasped at the coca leaves as I handed them out. Anyway, if you’re ever travelling in the Andes and they offer you coca leaves or coca tea grab them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard about coca. Thanks for adding to the case for.

      Reactions to heights depend on so many factors that on different trips you can have different experiences. This had never happened to me before, and once it passed it didn’t recur even at 6 kms.

      Like

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