#6 Backpacking Through High Altitude Deserts of Ladakh - Surviving Deadly High Altitude Sickness at 20,000 Feet Alone

Parth Upadhyay @its.parth.hey
· February 2018 · 8 min read · #life


Greetings Steemians! This blog talks about the most important and life changing event that has ever happened to me, which was during the summit push of Stok Kangri Peak (20,080 feet)


I was waiting at the Base Camp at 16,200 feet for 3 days now and it was snowing continuously. The weather didn’t seem to improve and my chances for going to the summit push were reducing by the minute. Time does not pass quickly when you are stuck in your tent with nothing to do but wait and hope. When you are doing literally nothing, that’s when negative and unproductive thoughts start coming in your mind. I try to avoid it by doing some meditation or reading.


On the 3rd evening, suddenly the snowfall stopped and skies opened up. It was such a surprise. I glanced around the base camp. It was under at least 6 feet of snow and in that I could see a couple of tents remaining. Everyone else had rushed down the mountain. I went up to their tent and asked them what their plan was and if they were planning on heading up the mountain now that the weather had opened up. They were two mountaineers from Delhi accompanied by a local guide. We discussed the possibilities for a while and we agreed to leave together for the summit push tonight as due to continuous snowfall of 3 days the trail would have to be broken again and trail breaking is a very tedious task and can get really tiring especially at the extreme altitude that we were on. We were ready by 9:30pm and all set to go!


The summit push on 6000m + mountains are done in the night as the weather is generally clear during the night time and snow is hard, which makes it easier to walk in. It was very cold though. We started hiking up. The initial bit of the trek is very steep and in 6 feet of snow, we had a very exhausting start. The steep ascent ends on a ridge and a gradual 2 hours walk takes us to the vast infamous glacier. By this time the other people were falling far behind me and I had to wait for them every 5 minutes. In -25 degree C, you cannot stop so often. As soon as you stop moving, your body temperature drops and you get sudden chills. Plus, the whole idea of me coming solo was to walk at my own pace without having to worry about anyone else. I told them I will be going ahead and they could follow the trail I was making. I started walking ahead and breaking a trail through the glacier. In no time, they were left far behind.


At the end of the glacier, a steep ascent to the shoulder of the mountain begins. it generally takes around 4 hours to reach the shoulder from this point. I was at 17,800 feet now. As I was heading up, I started experiencing a slight headache. Now a headache is very normal at this altitude. The headache grew as I was heading up. I was moving up with quite good speed while breaking the trail where needed. I was half way up the shoulder and I suddenly started getting out of breathe and was unable to walk more than 10 steps at a go without having to wait to catch my breath. I realized something was not right and my health was deteriorating very quickly. That’s when I made the biggest mistake of my life; I decided to push on!


Now after every 10 steps, I had to get down on my knees and rest. My breath was getting heavier and heavier and the headache was growing stronger. I started feeling dizzy suddenly. I looked up and I could see the shoulder very near to me so I decided to first reach the shoulder and then assess the situation.


I pushed myself to my absolute limits and reached the shoulder. As soon as I kept my bag down, I fell on the ground unconscious. I must have been out for around 20 minutes straight. When I gained consciousness, I didn’t know where I was or as to why I was feeling so cold. I thought I am in my room and the AC is on low temperature. I got up and looked around for a remote. I was that disoriented. That’s when I realized I am on the shoulder of Stok Kangri peak, all alone and I was struck by Altitude Sickness and there was no one around to help. I panicked a bit and screamed for help but the guys I had left behind were very far away and I don’t think they heard me. I could not stand up, could not think properly, the words coming out of my mouth were distorted. I started crying in that moment thinking I am done for this life but a few minutes later I was able to get control over my mind and I tried to get up. I told myself that if you give up now, you are a dead man for sure, but if you try to head down, you might just live.

I put my bag on my back, picked up my ice-axe and started descending. It was very very steep and I hardly had any control over my body now. One wrong step and I go down 100’s of feet to a sure death. I started taking one careful step at a time and after every 20 to 30 steps, I used to sit down and rest. Every time I sat, I used to feel so tempted to just sleep and let go! But this is when you have to be super strong mentally. I made a rhythm of 30 steps, break, 30 steps and break. From far below down the valley, I could see white clouds coming towards me and I started to rush. I knew I had to cross the glacier before the clouds make it impossible to cross it in a whiteout condition.

During my descent, I found a big rock and I couldn’t resist resting there. As soon as I sat there, my tired body could not resist and I feel asleep. It was a very bad place and a really wrong time to fall asleep. The people who were climbing up woke me up luckily and as soon as I woke up, I saw white out all around me. The clouds had engulfed the valley and the visibility was next to zero. I knew I was in grave danger now and this was nature’s way of staging my death. But I was determined to walk towards safety. If I died trying, that would be acceptable to me. I knew I had broken the trail in the glacier a few hours ago and I must follow it. As soon as I reached the glacier, I started having blackout episodes of about 15 to 20 seconds and then I used to come to my senses suddenly. Something was really wrong with me and I was on a ticking clock. As soon as I crossed the glacier, the clouds opened up and the dawn was breaking. That gave me such a confidence and energy boost that I decided to sit down, relax and eat something.

As soon as I sat down, something very strange happened. I could see the eastern face of Stok Kangri talking to me and threatening me. I got so scared; I closed my eyes and told myself that MOUNTAINS DON’T TALK! I was hallucinating now. I got up and started walking without looking back. It was a horrific experience.


After another hour of walking, I saw the first glimpse of base camp and I had tears of joy in my eyes. I was going to live after all. I managed to take the last few steps towards my tent and believe me, they were the toughest few steps of my life. As soon as I reached my tent, I crashed inside. A few minutes later I got up, removed my crampons and my boots and had a lot of water, some biscuits and some dry fruits. I took out my sleeping bag and I slept for 16 hours straight! I was absolutely fine the next day. A little descent in altitude was all that was needed for my recovery.


In every human’s life, there comes a moment that completely changes you as a person. This was the one for me!
In the eight years that I have been trekking in the Himalayas, I never experienced as little as a headache and because of that I always thought high altitude can never harm me. Maybe there was this ego building up inside me and the mountain God’s thought I needed to be shown my place. After this incident, things got into perspective and I was able to see my significance on a larger scale of the universe and made me realize how little and fragile I was in front of nature. In a way I am grateful that this incident happened to me because I came out much wiser from the mountains than I went in. It was a bitter tasting medicine, but I guess I needed it.

If you guys liked this blog, show some love and up vote this post and follow me. I will be grateful. Cheers!


Share this post