When planning my recent trip to India one of the main considerations was the altitude. I had never walked at altitude before and wanted to dip a toe or lung in the thin air to see how I got on and perhaps if all went well consider heading to higher climbs in the future.
I’ll level with you straight away; I was a bit worried as even fairly low altitudes on ski holidays or walking in Europe had often resulted in headaches. However, often on these holidays altitude was combined with heavy consumption of the local wine so it was hard to determine the actual cause of the headache.
Such were my concerns that after initially considering a 10 day trek (having never been on a trekking holiday longer than 3 days) with a maximum height of 4900m we settled instead on 5 days trekking with a maximum altitude of 4500m. This, it turned out, was a very good call.
The trip took us from the plains of Delhi right up into the Indian Himalaya, specifically to visit the source of the Ganges and Shivling – known as the Matterhorn of India. From Delhi train, then taxi, then minibus took us from sea level to 3000m at Gangotri in 3 days. From here we walked up into the valley towards the source of the river Ganges camping at 3500m for one night, 3700m for one night and 4500m for two nights.
On the first day I felt wonderful, I think the quote “best I’ve felt in ages” came out my mouth. However, this was not to last. On the morning of the day moving from 3700m to 4500m I awoke with a pounding headache and a feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach. This was not dissimilar to migraine type headaches that I can get at home so I took some pain relief and after an hour or so felt better and ready for the day.
The day’s walk was tough; recent monsoon landslides meant the route was rocky and unstable but no worse than a scramble in the Lakes or Snowdonia with a bit of extra scree thrown in. At the end of the day I was elated to have reached the beautiful plateau at the foot of Shivling but the headache was back with a vengeance. This time it was accompanied by severe indigestion which in turn exacerbated the nausea. I spent that evening feeling pretty under par and after a very cold night awoke not feeling much better. Interestingly I also awoke with a very puffy face! We had planned to spend two nights on the plateau, I joined the optional walk but couldn’t shift my headache and had a very joyful afternoon nap in the tent. Much as the location was beautiful, the nights were brutally cold and I was looking forward to descending the next day.
Descent took the edge off my symptoms; now predominately headache, lack of appetite and indigestion but didn’t fully resolve it until I woke on the morning of the final day. I was developing a cold which was not ideal but the symptoms that I attribute to the altitude had resolved.
At no point did I vomit, become confused, unsteady or exhibit any of the other signs of acute mountain sickness that would have necessitated a swift descent but I did spend a solid 48 hours of a 5 day trek feeling pretty rubbish. This page from NHS direct has very useful, detailed information on altitude sickness. I wish I’d studied it a little more before setting off.
At the time I definitely uttered phrases like “never again” and “I can’t believe people pay tens of thousands of pounds to do this” and “this is NOT a holiday” but on reflection I think there are a few things I could have done differently which may have taken the edge off just enough to make it manageable:
- It was not possible on this trip due to the topology of the area but breaking the height gain at 4000m rather than going straight from 3700m to 4500m may have helped. Due to the constraints of time, longer acclimatisation at lower levels was not possible but likely would have helped.
- I hadn’t predicted the indigestion and would definitely consider taking an acid suppressor such as Omeprazole prophylactically in the future
- I would camp on trek again but I think the cold overnight didn’t help as my symptoms were often at their absolute worst first thing in the morning. We estimated that overnight at 4500m it had dropped to -20 °C outside the tents and -10° C inside.
So the million dollar question: would I go to altitude again? Yes; it takes you to some stunningly wild and harsh environments that are unique and very special to see but I would try and build as much acclimatisation in as possible and take a lot more indigestion remedies!
If you’d like to read more about my trips to India click here. If you would be interested in some more pictures and a lot less text from the trip you’ll find them here.