It was not a sunny day. Rays of sunlight tried to pierce through drifting pieces of dark clouds. Sometimes the clouds came down to greet us as thick, cold shrouds of fog. Temperature and pressure fluctuated as we pushed upward through different atmospheric levels.
I could see the steady movement of our long line of course trainees up the steep slope. The alpine meadow sprawled before us, flaunting slightly frozen flower buds. The gigantic tongue of glacier of the frozen Beas Kund followed on our path. The slope grew steeper, and our ankles grew weaker. The journey never seemed to end.
It probably started after a short pee break. I hoped to catch up with the main lot of our group, and tried to speed up. They appeared like a cluster of ants on the distant slope. But somehow, my legs dragged me backwards. I had trouble breathing as oxygen was low, my legs were weak, and the rucksack dug into my shoulders. Yet I knew that I had tackled these problems before. So what was wrong? Why wasn’t my stamina serving me then, at the prime hour of need?
Only 4-5 fellow trainees, including an instructor, accompanied me. I felt myself growing weak, as my body asked for more rest breaks. Every time I set down my rucksack, looked up at the sky or the picturesque view of the Dhauladhar-Pir Panjal mountain range, I was panting. My head seared with pain. My heart beat had entered my ears, thumping wildly. My eyes drooped low-I was falling asleep! It seemed so tempting, to grab a few winks of sleep, as exhaustion gripped my body. The lights grew dim, and dark blotches appeared as I closed my eyes.
Ears ringing. Heart thumping. Head growing fuzzy.
Where was I? Why was I?
But then a voice rang in my head. It told me that I should not rest right now.
Some loud human voices shook me awake. Oh, it was another trainee and a course instructor. They convinced me that we had almost reached the top. The instructor’s words, and the song playing on his phone fed my growing resolve to see this thing through to the end. He clicked some pictures of me to distract myself from my fatigue.
I picked myself up, not once, but several times. People who had already reached the top came back and offered confidence to me.
When I had finally reached, I rejoiced. Though I was the second-last person to do so. Camp 1 of Kshitidhar Peak looked ravishing with glittering white snow pervading the landscape. My course mates indulged me with photos and chocolates, and I descended with a happy face and aching head.
The above story recounts my encounter with Acute Mountain Sickness during my Basic Mountaineering Course at ABVIMAS, Manali. We were trekking up to 15,700 feet from 10,000 feet on 20th July, 2019.
For those who do not know, when a person rapidly gains altitude above 8000 feet, the air pressure drops and less oxygen is available. This is when symptoms of mountain sickness may set in. (headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, breathlessness, sleep problems, etc.) AMS is the mildest form, whereas High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) when fluid collects in the lungs, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) when fluid enters the brain are more advanced forms, and more life-threatening.
I came to know about my symptoms a day after, at a mountain sickness class! What shocked me was that if I had given in to my fatigue and fallen asleep, my heart could have stopped beating.
So catch hold of yourself before the lights grow too dim.