Oct 25, 2013
Anyone who lives in the mountains or treks among them knows that while the views can be breathtakingly beautiful, they can also literally take your breath away.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a condition which occurs to about half of people who pass the acclimatization line (roughly 11,150 feet). When crossing this line, it’s best to keep your ascents to around or under 2,000 feet per day to allow your body to adjust to the decreased oxygen content in the air. Your body will start producing more red blood cells, your blood will travel to the deepest penetralia of your pulmonary capillaries, and your hemoglobin will give up oxygen more readily than it would at sea level. It’s a fascinating and necessary process.
One major method that regular trekkers will use is the “climb high, sleep low” strategy. This means that you can ascend more than 2,000 feet in one day so long as you descend back to an altitude that is not much greater than 2,000 feet from where you started that day. This technique allows your body to acclimate much more quickly and will improve the quality of your sleep (though once you get to a certain altitude, there really is not much you can do to make sleep a comfortable process, as you’ll likely wake up gasping for air until you’ve spent a few days to a week above altitudes of 18,000 feet or more (and you’re probably not going to take that time in such a cold, uncomfortable climate unless you’re aiming to summit a mountain)).
If you’re not careful about acclimatizing, all kinds of nasty things can happen. Mountain sickness always begins with a headache that may or may not be accompanied by a conscious shortness of breath. Next, loss of appetite (basically, if you don’t feel like you could eat every minute of every day while you’re trekking, that’s a little weird). Third, you’ll get a bit dizzy. Next, nausea and ataxia (not being able to walk in a straight line). By this time, you should’ve already started descending with someone. If you decide to ride it out at your current altitude, you might face more serious consequences, like pulmonary or cerebral edema (when the lungs or brain become flooded with tissue leakage; yum, yeah?). One or two people on the Annapurna Circuit die each year due to AMS.
When I was trekking, I was highly in tune with how my body was feeling, and though sometimes I’d wake up from a shallow nap just gasping for air, I never had a headache, even when most people do (14,800 feet and above). I think I was lucky to have been an obese child because my body grew in consideration of the necessity for hyperventilation. I have also heard that people who used to smoke are less likely to get sick at high altitudes. (Get on that pack-a-day habit, kids!) God knows that my five-month hiatus from running, my cheese habit in France and the generous family meals on the farm in Turkey sure didn’t increase my likeliness to successfully tackle this feat at the pace at which it was accomplished.
Everyone who hikes the Annapurna Circuit is encouraged to take a full rest day in Manang (11,614 feet) to allow the body to acclimatize. On this rest day, it is a good idea to stay in keeping with the “climb high, sleep low” philosophy and take a side trip to a higher altitude. There are many beautiful sights around Manang, but the one that sounded the most interesting to me was to Praken Gompa.
A gompa is a religious shrine where a Tibetan Buddhist monk (aka, a lama) lives. Over the last 46 years in which Tashi Lama (picture #4) has been the resident religious figure here, he has earned the nickname “100 Rupee Lama” for the 100 rupee ($1) donation that travelers will give in exchange for a puja ceremony. The ceremony consists of Tashi Lama blessing a sacred thread so that the traveler around whose neck the thread is tied will have a safe crossing of the Thorung La Pass, which is the highest point on the Circuit (17,769 feet) and the widest mountain pass in the world.
When I arrived at the gompa, the 100 Rupee Lama’s sister was there in his place. Tashi Lama, at the tender age of 97, was in Kathmandu receiving medical treatment. I did not learn whether his condition was serious. In his place, his sister, who is also a lama, was the one performing the short ceremony for me and my guide. After the blessing, she made two black teas and gave us each a mug. It was a cold day, and we were grateful to warm our hands.
The lamas live high up on a cliffside that is 1,640 feet above Manang. For the bulk of the year, they grow most of their own food and come down to the village only for essentials. During the winter months, however, it’s not possible for them to reside so far from town, so they transition to a home in central Manang. And though they are used to the altitude, they’ll take all the rest days they can get.