I have been to a few of the higher altitude hikes in the Himalayas prior to the Mt Everest Base Camp (EBC) hike. I had always heard about the altitude motion sickness (AMS) but had never experienced it. But Mt Everest Base Camp hike definitely taught me how important it is to acclimatize and not to take altitude for granted. There is nothing one can do when someone falls ill at these high altitudes. With lower facilities, the only get out point to take an emergency chopper.
Altitude motion sickness or known as AMS is caused by ascending too rapidly to higher altitudes which doesn’t allow the body to get acclimatised or adjusted to the oxygen level and the air pressure. The symptoms include headache, vomiting, insomnia and reduced performance. In most cases, AMS is mild and one can have only slight headaches but these symptoms can severely escalate and can become life threatening. The best way to deal with AMS is to immediately descend to lower level of altitudes and not proceed further to higher levels.
This story is to talk about how important acclimatisation is and it needs to be taken seriously. Let me give you a real-life example, where my porter Ashish suffered high altitude sickness.
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Story of how acclimatisation is important
Day 1 at Lobuche
My guide Lal came into my room in the morning, asking if all our bags were packed. Since my friend Vijay and I were still struggling with packing, he requested us to pack them fast so our porter Ashish can take the bags and go to a lower altitude camp as quickly as possible.
Ashish was standing behind Lal and when Vijay and I inquired as to what had happened, Ashish said he had a headache. He was affected by the altitude and it was clearly visible. We tried to give him Disprins but that did not work and he wanted to throw up.
After sometime and after Ashish said he was fine, Lal asked him to head to a lower altitude camp as soon as possible and we thought that was the right thing to do. We did not see Ashish after he left from Lobuche. Lal told us that he had reached the next camp site Pangboche.
We reached Pangboche that night and we did not see Ashish anywhere. We assumed that he was resting somewhere and was feeling better.
Day 2 at Pangboche
It was still early in the morning where Lal woke us up and told us that he was going to another lower camp as Ashish was serious. He mentioned that Ashish was unconscious and his oxygen level had reached around 30.
At first we were shocked, and immediately after Lal left, we thought of two instant ideas – one is to call a rescue heli to airlift Ashish and take him to the closest hospital which is Lukla hospital (which was about 20 hours walk away from where we were) and two is to call Babu, the Managing Director of Unique Path Trekking to coordinate for the heli.
Babu immediately acted and arranged for a heli. Ashish was taken to Lukla hospital in another half an hour. There was no helipad but the heli landed in a field from where Ashish was picked up.
Note: The emergency airlift costs about USD 500 per person and needs to be arranged either by taking to your tour agency or the tea house you are staying at.
Day 4 at Lukla
Vijay and I visited Lukla hospital to see Ashish. We spoke to the nurse and the doctor there. They informed that when Ashish arrived at the hospital, his oxygen was in 20s and they had to perform CPR to revive him. He was in emergency for nearly 7 hours.
The good news is that Ashish was revived and his oxygen had reached more than 65. He had gained his consciousness and was talking again. He will still need few more days to get back to normal but is on his way for full recovery.
And special thanks to the staff at Lukla hospital, they are doing a commendable job in helping people of Lukla and neighbouring villages. They treat porters or anyone who do not have money for free of charge. Except for the surgical treatments, they have every facility available for patients.
Ashish was lucky to have us there to help him out and save his life. But not all are as lucky as him and hence altitude must not be taken lightly. I would ask each one attempting a high altitude hike to ensure they acclimatise before going to higher altitudes.
Altitude sickness can occur when a person attempts to climb a mountain that is higher than 8000 feet. And this affects human brain.
Conclusion on Acclimatisation
Acclimatisation is very important when doing such high altitude hikes. So please do not take it lightly and ensure you give sufficient time to acclimatise at a place. Rising to high altitude can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and brain. Staying hydrated, not eating oily/ salty food and eating food that is high in potassium (namely, bananas, green leafy vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes helps the body to acclimatise faster.
The best medicine to deal with AMS is by allowing your body to rest and acclimitise before attempting to ascend further. At high altitudes like Mt Everest Base Camp, people stay at one camp for about 48 hours before proceeding to the next camp. My friend Vijay and I were constantly taking Diamox (have to start taking at least 2 days prior to arrival at high altitude) till we started descending.
Note: Some of the tour agencies ensure that the guide has a portable oxygen cylinders, oximetre to check oxygen levels and the first aid kit with them. Our tour guide did not have any of these and definitely we were at risk. These equipment are so crucial while attempting such high altitude hikes.