How To Prevent Mountain Sickness On A Motorcycle Tour Of Himalayas
Are you planning to embark on a motorcycle tour of the Himalayas? If so, it is wise to familiarize yourself with mountain sickness. You can start experiencing some symptoms at an altitude of over 10,000 feet which upon neglecting can become adverse.
And while there are several ways to treat altitude sickness, the best thing to do however is altogether prevent it from occurring.
In today’s article, we will focus on why motorcycle riders (or anyone traveling to Himalayas in general) are susceptible to mountain sickness, what are its early indications, and how to recover from it so that you can continue with your expedition.
What Is Altitude Sickness / Mountain Sickness?
The term altitude sickness or mountain sickness refers to a condition that is caused by depleted oxygen molecules in air at high altitudes (because of the lower pressure). This is further aggravated when someone travels too quickly from the low-lying regions to high altitudes causing an abrupt change in the level of oxygen reaching the person’s body.
Altitude sickness is a collective term and includes three syndromes:
- Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
- High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
- High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
Edema refers to a build-up of fluid in the respective tissues (Pulmonary stands for lungs & Cerebral stands for brain).
A common sign of Mountain Sickness is headache accompanied by nausea, vomiting or dizziness and is a result of poor acclimatization of the body to the new altitude.
These symptoms usually subside when the body has acclimatized to the altitude particularly after one or two days along with medication. However, in case the traveler decides to ascent further into the mountains, it can result in HAPE or HACE.
Information Source: WebMD
How Common Is Altitude Sickness In The Himalayas?
Altitude sickness is quite common in the Himalayas and affects more than 60% of travelers who choose to stay at altitudes above 10,000 feet. And although the severity of this sickness varies from person to person, it usually occurs after 5 to 10 hours and in some cases within an hour of arrival.
Even extreme cases of altitude sickness are not uncommon in the Himalayas, as it is not very easy to descend quickly to low altitudes by road.
And in addition to the typical symptoms such as headache and fatigue, altitude sickness also creates difficulty in concentration, which contributes to an increased risk of accidents.
More severe, life-threatening forms of altitude sickness, such as High-Altitude Cerebral Edema and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema, occur more frequently at altitudes beyond 17,000 feet and is one of the leading causes of death in the mountains.
A report submitted by Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) for the year 2022 revealed that in the month of May & June alone, 11 deaths due to altitude-related complications have already surfaced from the Himalayan regions of Pangong Tso (13,862 ft.), Chang La (17,585 ft.) and Khardung La (17,582 ft.)
Each person adapts to altitude changes at a different rate due to their different respiratory systems. As the person reaches to a higher altitude (greater than 10,000 feet), he or she experiences an increased heart rate, palpitations, increased breathing rate, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, headache, tightness around chest and fever.
In addition, this increased breathing rate can lead to respiratory alkalosis, which further disturbs the pH of the blood.
In general, a human body can adapt to the new environment up to a maximum altitude of 22,000 feet. This adaptation is known as Acclimatization, or in other words, getting accustomed to the new conditions. However, beyond a particular altitude, the body’s normal functioning starts deteriorating and it can no longer acclimatize with the surroundings.
Does Altitude Sickness Affect Motorcycle Riders?
Not every motorcycle rider is affected by altitude sickness, as the effects of altitude vary from rider to rider. Some get used to the altitude quite quickly, others do not. However, the higher you ride into the mountains within a short period of time, the greater the risk of getting altitude sickness.
Some of the factors that aggravate the risk of altitude sickness include:
- Consumption of narcotics
- Quick ascent into elevated regions
- Alcohol abuse
- Exhaustion due to prolonged riding
- Previous medical condition (especially chronic)
- Overnight stay at extreme altitudes
Moreover, AMS and HACE affect both women and men equally. And if a rider has a history of altitude sickness, they are three times more likely to get sick again.
To give you an idea, these are the symptoms you may experience while touring in the Himalayas without proper acclimatization.
- 10,000 Feet: Half of all the motorcyclists will experience the first sign of mild altitude sickness (symptoms are similar to a bad hangover).
- 12,000 Feet: Before you ride beyond this altitude, your body needs to be properly acclimatized or you may experience nausea, headache, dizziness, and fatigue.
- 15,000 Feet: Most motorcyclists will experience symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) if the body is not acclimatized enough (vomiting, difficulty sleeping, rapid pulse, shortness of breath).
- 18,000 Feet: The air gets considerably thinner beyond 18,000 feet and the oxygen level in the air drops to half. If the body is not used to this kind of environment, you will experience severe headache, shortness of breath, dizziness and hallucinations.
- 20,000 Feet: Constant riding at this altitude without acclimatizing can result in High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) which requires immediate medical attention.
- 25,000 Feet: This is a death zone! And while the chances are very low for someone to ride through this altitude, but if attempted will lead to death. The vital organs will fail and recuperation will no longer be possible.
How Can A Motorcycle Rider Avoid Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness occurs when a motorcycle rider (or anyone in this case) ascends too quickly to high altitudes, without letting his body adapt to these rapid changes.
However, being a motorcycle rider, there is not much to worry about as in most cases it can be completely avoided by taking ample amount of rest upon your arrival at your base camp. And post 48 hours of complete rest, riding at a moderate pace at an altitude not more than 3,000 feet per day.
For extreme undertakings and expeditions in the high mountains, such as those common on a motorcycle tour of Ladakh, we recommend a carefully thought-out route that takes into account adequate rest on the first two days at the same altitude post your arrival and does not overburden you with prolonged riding hours.
Furthermore, upon reaching your base camp in the mountains, it is especially important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
And it goes without saying that protection from the direct rays of sun is an absolute must by wearing sunglasses, caps and sunblock creams (sunburn dries out the body even more).
In addition, pay attention to your diet by avoiding protein-rich foods. Instead, eat a lot of carbs like kidney beans, chickpeas, and don’t forget to include fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Coffee and alcohol should be avoided completely, as they dehydrate the body very quickly. And try not to over exert yourself and in case you do, remember to take plenty of electrolytes to make up for it.
Most importantly, take sufficient amount of rest. A good night’s sleep will work wonders on your body allowing you to acclimatize quickly and successfully.
Pro Tip: A warm glass of chocolate milk will ease out all the anxiety and calm your senses. Make sure you take one before sleeping on the day you arrive in the mountains.
Signs of successful altitude acclimatization are:
- Normal heart rate (or only slightly above normal).
- Deep breathing while resting.
- Feeling energetic.
- Normal recovery time after exertion.
- No signs of light headedness.
- No signs of dizziness or headache.
- No possible signs of breathing related ailments.
Carry these medications along with you while riding a motorcycle at high altitudes to overcome Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
- Aspirin and Paracetamol tablets for headache & mild fever, but avoid taking strong analgesics that contain morphine derivatives, which tend to suppress breathing.
- Acetazolamide (Diamox): This drug facilitates acclimatization on the first day following your arrival into the mountains by reducing the respiratory responsiveness from hypoxia. Diamox has both a preventive and curative effect as long as symptoms remain moderate
(Recommended dosage: 1 tablet of 250 mg, twice daily). However, discontinue the drug when you have acclimatized or are no longer planning to ascent further up.
Warning: Any trip to high altitude requires prior consultation with your doctor. Only your doctor is authorized to write you a prescription to set up your first-aid kit. This advice, although provided by touring experts, in no way replaces a personal consultation.
Our Personal Opinion – How Do We, As A Motorcycle Tour Specialist, Acclimatize In The Himalayas?
As experts in motorcycle touring, we follow an important rule of thumb: never ride too fast and too high into the mountains on a single day. For this reason, we deliberately stay in the same region on the first two days before heading higher into the mountains.
And although we are acquainted with this region as a tour operator, we still take all the precautions to avoid any adversities. That’s why we have a firm rule for our entire team: increase the water intake to twofold once you are entering the Himalayas. While this will lead to numerous bathroom breaks, but the likelihood of mountain sickness will drop to half.
For your consideration, these are some of our own tried and proven tips to help acclimatize quickly in the Himalayas.
- While riding, don’t look at the motorcycle dashboard.
- Eat light but frequently.
- Ride with an open visor to let fresh air hit your face.
- Do not take sleeping pills.
- Do not unnecessarily exert pressure on the body.
- Avoid shouting or screaming and talk calmly.
- Increase the intake of fluids (drink flavored water in case you cannot drink plain water in huge quantities).
- Observe the color of your urine, it should be crystal clear. Increase your water intake if it’s not.
- Hit the bed early & wakeup early.
- An afternoon nap helps a lot to relax if you are feeling dizzy but do make sure to open all the windows before you do so.
- It takes three to four hours after waking up for the body to restore its oxygen saturation to normal level. So, avoid riding immediately after waking up.
- Avoid consuming spicy foods in the evening (or something that is difficult to digest).
- A warm glass of chocolate milk or a hot cup of ginger and honey drink will prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
- Do not consume alcohol or any other alcoholic beverages while your body is acclimatizing.
- Stay cheerful.
Key Takeaways To Avoid AMS In Himalayas
Being vigilant is the key to avoiding mountain sickness. Whenever you are traveling to Himalayas, always be mindful of the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) we have discussed. Above all, keep this note handy with you that will let you know in case things are going out of hand (either for you or someone in your group).
- Headache – 5 points
- Nausea – 5 points
- Loss of appetite – 5 points
- Vomiting – 5 points
- Headache that lasts for more than 1 day – 10 points
- Abnormal fatigue and body ache – 15 points
- Not able to urinate – 15 points
If the total points exceed 20, then you are suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness and should immediately descend to a lower altitude. If these symptoms are ignored or should you decide to resume with your motorcycle adventure, the risk of pulmonary or cerebral edema will considerably increase.
Prepare for your motorcycle trip to Himalayas well in advance and ride gradually uphill to enjoy the beauty of the mountains safely!
Disclaimer: Riders with cardiovascular or lung diseases should always consult a doctor before planning a motorcycle trip to the mountains. This also applies to a person who has previously suffered a heart attack, stroke or thrombosis or someone with an unstable angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or uncontrolled asthma.
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