A simple dinner of rice bathed in lentil curry with poppadum and salad.
Enjoying the view from a tea stall near the airport.

Zalina Mohd Som’s expedition to Leh turns into a case of acute mountain sickness

‘I’M sorry. I can’t allow you to continue the hike. Ahead, there’s a long uphill trek before we reach Mankarmo Camp and I don’t think your body can take it,’ says Jimmy unapologetically.

She turns and talks to a scrawny looking young man whom I presume is the caretaker of the camp. Both Jimmy and Ashraf, as introduced by the former, nod and shake their heads to end their conversation before they both turn and look at me.

‘You’re going to stay here tonight. Ashraf will be here to look after you.Tomorrow, a guide from the next camp will come down with your back pack. You can walk to Stok Village with him, then take a taxi back to Leh,’ explains Jimmy in one breath.

Leh, the capital of Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is about 30 minutes’ drive from Stok Village.

I give a weak nod - notin disagreement but I’m just weak. I’m so weak that I can’t even hold a juicebox. The small 200ml box slips from my grip without me releasing my fingers!

I totally agree with her assessment on my condition and fully understand the whole situation: The consequences of going ahead with the group to reach our intended destination will only resultin disappointment. I’ve been vomitting for the past hour or so. The last — the sixth or maybe the seventh disgusting barf — was about 15 minutes ago. Concerned, Jimmy checks on me again to see if I understand the situation. Even Azlee Mustafa, our group leader, asks me if I’m okay with staying alone. I give a firm yes. “To reach an altitude of almost 4,000 metres is quite an achievement for me. I’ll be okay,” I say, more to hide my disappointment.

‘But yesterday, you reached over 5,000m peak. So you’ve done well,’ Shukor says. Oh yes, I did. I almost forgot that yesterday I stood on the peak of Khardong La Pass which stands at 5,359m above sea level. That marks my highest altitude thus far.

TWO DAYS EARLIER

All was good when we left Stok Village this morning, though some of us still experienced light headaches and were short of breath.

We were excited to actually hit the nature trail after staying two nights at Hearth Hostel in the heart of Leh.

The first day we arrive dat Leh was really not eventful. We just took a slow stroll in its main bazaar while two members spent the day in bed due to headache. ‘That’s an early symptom of acute mountain sickness since we reached an altitude of 3,500m in just 90 minutes from the almost sea-level New Delhi,’ Azlee said.


An acclimatisation climb to the peak of Khardong La

He said that it’s normal for tourists to be affected by AMS as soon as they disembark from the aeroplane at Leh Airport. ‘Some even go straight to S.N.M Hospital instead of their intended hotels,’ he added.

To acclimatise, we took a drive to Khardong La Pass, one of India’s highest mountain passes that connects Nubra Valley to Leh town. The hour-long drive stopped at the base of the highest elevation which reaches 5,359m. We hiked up to the summit. It only took about an hour but there was nothing easy about it - huge boulders, hot, bright sun and cold, thin air.

Back down at road level, Shukor pointed to my fingers. ‘Look at your swollen fingers. That’s the first sign of AMS.” Though a bit startled, I brushed it off as I didn’t feel any pain whatsoever. Five minutes into driving back to Leh, my mouth and throat started to feel extremely dry. Evenahuge gulp of water didn’t help ease the dryness.

‘That’s because the thin air dehydrates our body and the easiest to be affected are our mouths, throats and lips,’ explained Azlee.


Pulse oximeter measuring the oxygen levels in the writer’s blood at Chang Ma Camp.

Despite my symptoms, the reading on AhFatt’s pulse oxymeter showed that I still had a good level of oxygen and heartbeat.

With 80 per cent oxygen level and a pulse of 90 beats per minute, I was all ready for the following day’s hike to Stok Kangri( 6,153m), the highest trekkable summit in India.

FOUR HOURS AGO

The acclimatisation hike to Khardong La however didn’t do much good for one member. Ying’s headache got worse and she decided to back out of the trekking expedition. AMS had got its first victim.

The team was now reduced to 12 who were greeted by the talkative Jimmy. Her plan was to have a lunch break at Chang Ma camp (4,047m), about 7km from the trailhead in Stok Village (3,604m), before heading to the first campsite at Mankarmo Camp (4,380m) located another 3.5km

away.


Walking on the rocky bed of Stok River that is reduced to a small stream during summer

Well, it sounded manageable. We walked at our own pace. Some were far behind, some in the middle and others were right behind Billy. I was in the front. Not because I was fit or fast but simply because I like to walk with guides just to listen to their stories.

The first hour we walked along the Stok River. Yes, we walked, not hiked. The ascent was quite unnoticeable.

Then we reached a fork that gave us a choice - to climb up a mountain or go down to the river and walk on the rocky bed to get to the other side of the mountain.

We chose the latter. It may not test our hiking stamina but the rocky river proved to have its own challenges. While it tested our balance and grip, it also forced us to be more alert on where to step next. And there were a few stream crossings too.

My pace started to slow by then. I was now in the middle of the pact. I made more stops not only to drink but also to take deep long breaths. I could feel that we had begun to climb when we got back on the trail. It became more difficult for me. It felt like there was a huge rock tied to each of my ankles that made every step so heavy and difficult.

I made even more stops. There was a not-so-pleasant taste in my mouth. I thought a banana would help. But no. I spurted out my breakfast and the just eaten banana. And the last hour before we reachedChang Ma camp, I made constant stops to vomit.

A LONE WALK

So here I am at Chang Ma Camp with two strangers - Ashraf and aSpanish lady. But not for long.Ten minutes after the last duo left the camp, Barry turns back. ‘This feels funny,’ he says as he places his hand on his chest.

Since the three of us are ‘[injured’ by AMS, we call it a night right after dinner.

The cold night makes snuggling in the thick sleeping bag the best thing to do all night long. I only come out of my tent when Barry calls out my name. He has decided to continue thehike on his own and join the group at the base camp. All I can do is wish him luck as I still don’t feel like my normal self.

After breakfast, while waiting for my backpack, Ashraf announces, ‘Your friend is coming back. ” assume it is Barry but it is his trekking buddy, Ah Fatt.


One of the team members in the tourist ward at Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital in Leh

‘I really can’t breathe up there. Even though I now have a trekking buddy to walk to Stok Village with, both of us agree that we should go at our own time and pace.

Happy with the arrangement, I make my move when Ah Fatt is getting ready to leave.

The long walk is not physically challenging, except for the rocky river bed. stretch, but it’s challenging to my mind.

With the aim of having a cup of strong coffee at the village, I keep on walking even though at times I feel like screaming at sight of the never-ending trail.

The stretch that forced me to walk for more than four hours, well, today I finish it in two hours. And I get what I wanted - a cup of strong coffee and slices of watermelon!

RETURN OF THE HIKERS

At high noon, Ah Fatt and I reach our hostel in Leh where Ying welcomes us with a baffled look. All freshened up and ready to hit the bed to straighten my back, Ying and I hear a familiar voice.

Pelita and Abang Jono are back! ‘We decided to follow Jimmy’s advice. She said our pace would make us walk in the dark which could be dangerous,’ Pelita says.

That afternoon, the four of them decide to seek treatment at the hospital but all I want to do is stay in bed. Alone in the hotel, I notice that they’ve been out for quite a while.

During dinner, Ying comes back alone. The other three have been admitted in the tourist ward. And I haven’t even left my bed or had any solid food since the watermelon!

Pelita comes back much later at night, sounding as perky as when I first met her a few days ago. Concerned about my condition, she insists that I follow them to the hospital in the morning.

Luckily or rather, unluckily, for me, the tourist ward is closed and the out-patient clinic is packed with locals. So I choose to just buy some medication from the pharmacy instead.


Leh main square is colourful and vibrant

From the hospital, we walk around Leh’s old and new towns before stopping for lunch. Happy with the day’s programme, we head back. Just before the sun goes down, Barry walks in to the hostel compound. Meanwhile, I am dead flat on the bed. My oxygen level has gone down to 65 per cent and I am forced to sleep with an oxygen mask or I’d be sent to the hospital.

The following day, I spend the whole day in bed, restless and hopeless. Even getting into my sleeping bag is a huge effort. I have also not been eating well as nothing tastes good. If this is AMS, it is no joke!

A full day’s rest gives me extra energy the next day and I agree to follow the guys for a day tour out of Leh to visit three monasteries.

Everyone is in good mood and health. We make guesses as to who will make it to the top of Stok Kangri as the group would be returning from the mountains today. None of us guess right. Izwan, the one who was in the last group when we left Stok Village, becomes the sole member to reach the summit!

czar-lina@nst.com.my

Pictures by Zalina Mohd Som

TRAVEL FIL

STANDING at 6,153m, Stok Kangri is the highest mountain in the Stok Range of the Himalayas in the Ladakh

region, India. Its trail head, Stok Village is about 15km southwest of Leh, the capital and the largest town in the region is located in Jammu and Kashmir State, that sits on a plateau at about 3,500m.

Often described as a high altitude cold desert, Leh is not only a getaway to a number of trekking trails but also houses a monastery and Buddhist sites.

OW TO GET THERE

Fastest way to get to Leh is by flying. One can fly from New Delhi or Srinagar. AirAsia X flies to both New Delhi and Srinagar. For details, visit www.airasia.com.my.

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