The gift of Altitude sickness

Our destination, The Hampta Pass, was to be reached the following afternoon. The rainy mist of Vashisht village lay far behind us as we penetrated the upper reaches of the Kullu valley. We swam in a glacial stream with an imposing ice shelf clinging to the cliff above us, yet to be melted in the strong august sun. The chill reinvigorated each trekker after another full day of ascent. The natural hot springs located within the Hindu temple in Vashisht was a distant memory when enveloped by the icy stream. Nevertheless, it eased the pressure on the feet and the tiredness of the body.

We seemed to be on a distant walk in a distant land. No traces of the vibrant bustling of the Indian plains could be found amongst these godly rock faces. Grasses covered every surface in sight instead of dust and the grounds were pocketed with unusually large wild flowers and colossal magic mushrooms. The density of trees diminished with every step taken higher.

Looking back, I sniggered at the merchant banker from Madhya Pradesh, a member of the team, who was far behind the group and struggling to cross a swiftly moving stream, his boots laced together and hanging about his neck. As we sat round the campfire that night with a view of perfect clarity under the stars I thought that this was a heavenly place to be.

I couldn’t sleep before the morning of our final ascent. As I left my tent, the grass seemed a little less green than before and one of the French medic students with us remarked that my face had turned as white as the peaks surrounding us. I began to stumble. Recognizing these as symptoms of altitude sickness, the students told me to lie on my rucksack with my head below my body to send blood to my head. I discovered later that this was one of the worst ways of dealing with altitude as water can seep into the brain. After throwing up several times, I began to feel more conscious again and I sat on the edge of the group watching the others stuff themselves with dhal, rice, omelettes and endless cups of chai. With the nausea, I could merely sip on water.

I was forced to tell our guide Raju that I could go no further up the mountain, but he insisted that we go on without compromise. I was not allowed to go back. At crawling pace I trudged higher. Now it was I who lagged behind. The visibility became limited to short spans of muddy snow, covered in a thick white fog. The others ahead were only silhouettes above me, who never seemed to look back.

Bizarrely, three mysterious wild dogs appeared from within the white out and joined my journey. At no point did any of the dogs ever stray ahead of the last human in the group, which was always me. The benevolent dogs made absolutely sure that I had company in my dizzy malaise. Having lunch 200 metres short of the 4200 metre high pass, I wanted to thank the dogs in some way. My means of doing this came in an unexpected form. What little food I managed to eat, I threw up dramatically down the slope adding colour to the stark whiteness, while I was suffering worse than ever from the altitude. I heard a nibbling noise. It turned out to be the smallest of the dogs eating my own vomit and looking decidedly pleased with himself. He was followed by the other two with equal enthusiasm.

Finally sat on the top of Hampta pass reunited with the party I felt no better knowing that it was all downhill from here in my complete exhaustion. The dogs departed back down the way we had come, perhaps to watch over any other stragglers in the future. Within metres of beginning our descent, the fog lifted to reveal a grand U shaped glacial valley and the Spiti valley could be made out across the higher peaks. A campsite could be made out at the bottom of the valley and next to it a handmade Ohm sign compiled of scatters of rock shone up as we came down. It was an assuring message from previous trekkers.

T Kenning

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