The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.