The months of September, October and November make up to the autumn trekking season in the Himalayas. It’s a good time to trek up and explore the rugged beauty of the mountains. The monsoon rains have just ended, which means that it is much greener everywhere and the mountain flowers would be in bloom. The winter snows would only arrive on and after November, so the roads and trails are open for exploration. But while the weather and the setting is perfect, acclimatization remains a big challenge.
Acclimatization is basically the process that your body goes through as it adjusts to the high altitude of the Himalayas. Whether you are heading to Kathmandu to take on the bone-chilling trek to the Everest Base Camp, or you are simply catching a flight to Leh, you will go through acclimatization. Dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting and acute mountain sickness (AMS) are common complaints as you move from the comfortable plains down south to the dizzying altitudes of the Himalayan range. ALSO READ: Top 10 easy Himalayan treks for beginners
Why does this happen?
Your body generally functions perfect fine, or at least as fine as it usually does, up to altitudes of around 8,000 feet, a little less than 2,500 meters. Above that, however, the environment changes. 8,000-12,000 feet is considered High Altitude, while 12,000-18,000 feet is Very High and anything above that is Extremely High. In these altitudes, the level of oxygen in the air drops, but your body still needs that sweet, sweet O2, especially as you huff and puff your way up the mountain slopes. And it starts acting up as it realizes that there is a scarcity and adjusts itself to the new environment. That’s called acclimatization. Some people acclimatize fast, some don’t. But it is a lot smoother and less problematic if you know what to do beforehand.
Chadar Trek over Zanskar
How do you acclimatize better?
You cannot avoid acclimatization, but there are ways to make it less of a headache from hell. For one, you can make your ascent to higher altitudes gradual. Acclimatization can be a pain if you are in Delhi one morning and get down at Leh airport 3,250 meters above sea level in less than an hour and a half. Take the road if you can; it can be less of a pain and is more memorable. As per the rough rules, after hitting 10,000 feet, you need to stay overnight for every 1,000 feet you ascend and for an entire day after ascending 3,000 feet.
You also need to drink plenty of water and other liquids as you climb up. Soup, milk, juices, ORS water and plain old water are great. Black tea and coffee aren’t, however, and alcohol certainly isn’t recommended. You shouldn’t drink too much water either; it may lead to cerebral edema, a more serious condition characterized by weakness, confusion and hyponatremia (low sodium levels). Keep checking your urine levels; it has to be clear and colorless at all times. FIND OUT: Best Time To Visit Nepal, The Best Himalayan Destination For Trekking and Adventure
As you climb up, you need to avoid overexerting yourself or sleeping. Overexertion raises your body’s demand for oxygen where there isn’t much. And sleep just slows down your breathing, which isn’t very good for your body either. At any point, if you feel like you are not acclimatizing properly, you need to get down to safer and more comfortable altitudes. How do you know if you are not acclimatizing properly? Walk in a straight line, toe after toe, and ask your companion to check if you are doing it right. If not, head down a bit.
Other things to avoid: tobacco, smoking and alcohol. You are in the midst of beauty; you don’t need any more substances to give you a kick. Anti-depressants and sleeping pills should also be avoided; if you take these on a prescription or any other medicine, talk to your doctor before you head up. In fact, talk to a doctor about the risks even if you don’t take any pills. Stay warm and dry, and chuck the gym diet and gobble up as many carbohydrates as you can. Sleep upright against the wall if you can, and always, always carry AMS medication, once you run it through with your doctor of course. CHECK OUT: Tips for going on a trek in the Himalayas
What is AMS?
AMS or acute mountain sickness is what happens when acclimatization goes wrong, and it is pretty common. You have medicines available for it everywhere, but check with your doctor before you take any of them. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, poor sleep, a general feeling of discomfort, shortness of breath and fatigue are common symptoms of AMS. You can descend a few hundred meters if you have a mild case of AMS or take some medicine. But severe cases of AMS, like a decline in mental abilities and an inability to walk, requires immediate medical attention and a descend down by 600-1,200 meters.
Diamox or acetazolamide is a popular medication to alleviate AMS and acclimatize better. It lets you use more of the oxygen that you breath, and is particularly helpful when sleeping at high altitudes. Diamox is generally recommended to be taken once 24 hours before you head up the mountains. The standard dosage is 125 mg, taken twice a day. ALSO READ: Himalayan trek guide: 3 totally kickass treks from Delhi
If this whole thing was too long for you to read, start from the top and read it; this is important life-or-death stuff. Travel with a group wherever you can. Different people acclimatize at different rates, so you should only move up when everyone is comfortable. If you think you’re getting AMS, stop ascending and wait until things are back to normal. If it gets worse, go to a lower altitude immediately until things are better. Stay safe, and you can enjoy the otherworldly beauty of the Himalayas in the best way possible.