When AMS Strikes

Picture1After spending a day in Gangtok, we decided to head towards the north. The mountain town of Lachung averages about 9,600 feet (2,900 m) and requires a day of travel from the capital. Google maps indicates a 3 hour long journey. However, I remember taking longer to reach there. Part of the reason could be roadblocks due to rock debris, precarious mountain roads, and occasional breaks for refreshments. The hotel arranged for our permits and organized a shared vehicle. The trip included an overnight stay at a local homestay – along with meals.

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Picture5The cost for the shared vehicle was 800 INR per person. Our co-passengers were two love-struck honeymooning couples and a family of four. Our driver was a young man in his early twenties. He seemed to be in good spirits, for most of the trip, and didn’t care much for the narrow roads. He played old Hindi film songs and joked around with other drivers. I think that took away the fear of the winding roads. Army trucks chugged slowly along the curves and soldiers stared vacantly into space. Gushing waterfalls and foggy mountains dominated the landscape. After a pit-stop for lunch and tea, doused with nosy questions by our fellow travellers, we reached Lachung at 4 pm. Other than a popping ear, we were pretty much fine. Our hostess was a cheery lady who warmly welcomed us into her modest home. Our accommodation was basic – a double bed with a view of the mountains. After dinner, we called it a night.

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Picture7The next morning we got up at 6 am and walked around our homestay. The countryside was filled with green pastures and towering mountains dominating the background. Wooden houses with sloping roofs dotted the vastly isolated landscape.

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At 8 am, we began our ascent towards Yumthang Valley. If we had time, we’d head further to ‘Zero Point‘. In the month of May, most of the snow had faded away, giving way to gorgeous greens and browns. The drive from Lachung to Yumthang Valley is a winding route – up the mountain. We passed by an army camp and a small settlement of locals selling tea. Such trips don’t come without their tourist traps. Our driver charged us an additional 50 INR for snow boots. He seemed pretty convinced that we’d need them at Zero Point. At that point, the only snow that I could see, was on the mountains.

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 Yumthang records an elevation of 3,564 metres (11,693 ft). The valley, below, was stunning even with it’s bare river bed. The mountains in the background and pockets of white clouds completed the surreal landscape.

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Picture18Our driver promised to take us further to Zero Point for an additional 100 INR. We proceeded further to the tip of the mountain. The average altitude at ‘Zero Point‘ levels 15,300 ft (4663.44 m). We must have stopped shortly before that. The place was buzzing with tourists and stalls. We got off and walked upwards. For the first time, I noticed my breath getting laboured and the boots seemed to weigh a ton. After 5 min of walking, I had to take a break. The honeymooning couples walked without a care in the world. Just when I thought we should head back; the couples decided to go further and forced the driver to take them. Other cars coming back warned him of a vehicular breakdown. The family of four and us decided to wait back. We felt that the odds would be – in our favour – if we waited back.

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We waited, at first patiently, and then not so much. By noon; it’s strangely hot and cool. Most of the other tourist vehicles started to head back and stall owners began packing. Out in the open, I started to feel sick. That didn’t stop Basil from clicking my snaps. Back then, I didn’t know of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). My splitting headache was accompanied with nausea and a general unease. Panic wasn’t far behind. There was no sign of our car and if everyone else left, we’d be stranded on a deserted mountain top. We literally begged the last two vehicles to wait for our car to come back. Many anxious moments later, when they did arrive, our driver was drunk and fuming.

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Our journey back to our homestay was silent and pretty fast. After lunch, everyone prepared to go back, and I decided that I couldn’t go back with a drunk driver. My head was throbbing and I refused to budge. I have to appreciate Basil for thinking fast. Although irritated, he inquired around for a place to stay. Our old room would be given to another tour party. A local offered his attic (100 INR) for the night and our hostess offered us dinner for a nominal charge of 50 INR. I’ve always been grateful for people, wherever we’ve travelled, who have willingly helped us.

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In the evening, we walked around. Although my headache had disappeared, I found it difficult to breathe while walking. Our new host told us that most tour groups don’t give travellers enough time to acclimatize and AMS is a always a possibility. That’s when, I remembered the hotel guy mentioning something about altitude. Ideally, we should have head back for all signs of AMS to disappear.

The next day we hopped on a local shared vehicle. We passed through familiar terrain and feeling of nausea. Locals seem to be immune to the mountain roads. While I dreaded every curve and bend, two elderly men talked without a halt, till we reached our first stop. Basil and I laughed at how weak we were, while the elderly men gossiped along narrow mountain roads. We took another shared vehicle to reach Gangtok. At the hotel, the guy who organized our trip was really worried. Our careless driver had forgotten to inform him about our extra night. With no cellular signal, in Lachung, we couldn’t have contacted him. Strangely, our room in the hotel was given to another guest. Fortunately for us, we were given a room, in another hotel, with a better view. I guess, what they say is right. Whatever happens, happens for the best!

25 responses to “When AMS Strikes

    • Haha! Miriam, this one is the most dramatic of all our trips. I can’t forget this experience because it was terrifying. Not because of my hyper-active imagination, more so because of the actual possibility of disaster. Took me a lot of courage to make the trip to Leh in 2011. The mountain passes are much higher and many travellers suffer from AMS. The landscape is the best placebo there is. I feel that’s the price one has to pay to see nature in her true beauty. 🙂

  1. So sorry to hear that you had ACM. It sounds terrible and it must have been scary. But you were strong and didn’t let it stop you from enjoying your trip. Drunk driver? That is not very professional but in some places you do come across all sorts of people. Basil did very well with the photos. Very scenic, and what a beautiful view from the mountain. I really like that shot of the two of you by the mountain. You two look very happy 🙂

    • Mabel, I was really scared. More like terrified. If anything did happen to our vehicle, we would be stranded on a cold desolate mountain top. It reminded me of stories in the Reader’s Digest, I used to read as a kid. And I was feeling really sick. It’s difficult to describe. Drivers in some mountain towns drink to keep warm. It was the first time we encountered such a driver. The views were stunning. Would love to go back. We were happy to be surrounded by nature. We still get that way! 🙂

  2. Lovely pictures and… lovely couple! 🙂

    You’re lucky that Ams wasn’t severe. here’s a local recipe that learnt from ‘pahadi ‘ people, have 2-3 sauteed cloves of garlic. works with most people.
    Btw I love your writing style. makes me wanting for more stories!

    • Thanks Arv! It’s such an old trip (2009). We look very different now! Haha!
      ‘Pahadi log’ sab kuch jaante hain. Adrak waali chai (bina doodh) aur shehed sabse achcha hai. 🙂 Will try the garlic next time.
      I’m glad that AMS wasn’t severe. The best way to alleviate symptoms is to rapidly descend. Read all about it before our Leh trip.
      I keep running away from ‘writing’. This blog is my daily prompt to get me to face my biggest fear. Thanks for your generous praise! Helps me keep going and not wallow in self doubt. 🙂

      • True.. Who knows better than a local! I have travelled quite a few times in altitude in excess of 3000 meter -above tree line but haven’t experienced AMS in true sense.
        I’m not really very good with words either. before I started
        blogging my grammer was heading towards south direction!! So in a way blogging was also to force myself to improve upon my English skills. Yet to ascertain my progress. 🙂
        Don’t doubt, you’re doing great! Btw, I’ll suggest you to change the theme you’re currently using. I too was using oxygen but then a blogger friend pointed out that it doesn’t do justice with the pictures hence I decided to change it. certainly the change was good in every way. oxygen theme though is good but it doesn’t highlight your pictures as the space gets congested with side bar on both sides. 🙂

      • Good for you! If we hadn’t stayed out in the open, I guess I would have got lucky and skipped AMS. Thanks for your input. I’ve considered changing the theme. It’s just that I’m too fond of it at the moment. I’ll give it a thought when I’ve finished collating all our past trips. 🙂

      • Sure.. Btw, let me also share that changing theme is hell lot of pain. it needs lots of time and effort to change the setting of old posts cause each theme has it’s intricacies.
        No worries, enjoy the theme.

  3. You were so lucky to have Basil with you. I wouldn’t know what to do if I were in your shoes. And the thought of returning back to the hotel through those winding roads with that drunken driver! I had AMS in Ladakh particularly in Leh and Pangong -it’s a weird feeling – headaches, fever, confusion. At that time, I had a friend travelling with me and it was his first time in India. I felt bad for him, since then he never returned to India hahaha..

    • I’m lucky to have Basil with me. Totally agree, Kat. I’m not really a solo traveller, although I do like having many moments of solitude. Most folks face AMS in Ladakh due to the same reason. They don’t give their bodies time to adjust. After two days on the road, travelling from Manali to Leh, we had given ourselves enough time to acclimatize. So, no severe symptoms for me. I feel bad for your friend. He should have probably done the touristy sections of the plains. Hehe! Then tackled the awesome Himalayas. Glad that you came back again. And again. 🙂

      • My friend experienced Delhi a couple of days prior to Ladakh, not exactly THE best place in India to experience for the first time hahaha…furthermore, it was mid June, so you can imagine how uncomfortable he was in the freaking heat! Yeah, I’m glad I came back, again, and again 😉

      • India is a litmus test for travelers. Sadly, the cities are the only entry points to smaller towns. Too bad he wrote India off quickly. But, I can understand. It’s not easy. Glad, you came back! 🙂

    • Thanks Sue! I’m glad it turned out well. The general unease and headache was more scary than nausea. It was a good learning for our trip to Leh (India) in 2011. And that’s why this trip is memorable. 🙂

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