If you have a cardiac or respiratory condition, then it’s a good idea to share your travel plans for Ladakh with your family physician and get an OK from him. Ask your doctor about Acetazolamide. This drug (sold as Diamox) stimulates your breathing, and is popular with climbers to help speed up acclimatisation. If you are fit and between the ages of 20-35, don’t be overconfident – acute mountain sickness has been statistically shown to be prominent in your age group, and more so with men than women. So for the purpose of this holiday, you can pretend to be a normal person of average fitness. Lastly, drop the cigarettes and the alcohol – these are a complete no-no in Ladakh as far as keeping you healthy and happy.
Make sure that your trip itinerary provides for atleast 36-48hours of zero-activity immediately on arrival in Leh. So transfer to your hotel, lock yourself in your room, get into bed, and stay put and sleep. Order room service, watch TV, and read a book. Resist the urge to step outside the hotel and explore.
And we mean lots, like about 3 bottles full per day. Don’t worry about finding a toilet – Ladakh is the great big outdoors, and it’s very dry! So no one leaves a trace. Keep-up the water intake through-out your trip and you will be a happy headache-free hydrated holiday traveller!
Avoid long day trips with rapid ascents wherever possible. Two of the most visited regions in Ladakh are Pangong Lake and the Nubra Valley. Both of these involve driving over some of the highest road passes in the world, like Chang La and Khardung La which exceed 17,000feet. You cannot avoid the rapid road ascents (done typically in 2hours), but you could minimise the time spent at the top of the passes and instead descend quickly to the other side. Also try and avoid doing such excursions as a day trip, because it means traversing these passes twice in one day. Instead sleep overnight, which allows your body to recover from these ascents.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the most common unhealthy response to altitude and it means that that your body has not acclimatised to the high altitude. You must take decisive steps to descend to a lower altitude immediately. . Do not assume that you have any other illness or try and cover it up (just because it makes you look unfit or weak in front of others). Assume AMS first: it happens to healthy strong people, and if it turns out you are indeed sick with something else, descending to a lower altitude will make it easier for your body to heal anyway.
If you’ve recently ascended, and you have a headache along with other symptoms, you have AMS. Other symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, confusion, difficulty walking (called gait ataxia), and rattling breath.
You and your family or friends should keep an eye on each other for signs of AMS. Loss of appetite is a particularly good sign: if you have been walking or climbing at altitude for a day, you should be hungry for a good meal in the evening.
So you have been to some of the hill-stations in Southern India. How high? 7,500-8,000 feet in the tropics is nothing compared to 11,500 feet on a Himalayan desert-plateau. Unless you were born in Ladakh, in all probability, you will need to acclimatise to the rarified atmosphere, where oxygen levels are much lower. The absence of acclimatisation, means that you have a fair chance of suffering from AMS (acute mountain sickness) which requires treatment.
Secondly, you can easily become dehydrated in Ladakh because of the dry, rarified air, and the high altitude. So you need to make sure you are drinking lots of liquids (and we don’t mean the alcoholic kind!).
Now don’t let all of this put you off. Thousands of people (in increasing numbers) fly in each year to Leh and have a wonderful and rewarding holiday without any of the effects of altitude sickness. But they do so and stay healthy when they take cognizance of the following five important guidelines: