Ode to Oxygen

I experienced the vitality and life affirming power of oxygen in the thin atmosphere of the Trans Himalayan region of Ladakh. Ironically, as I stepped out of the aircraft at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee airport in Leh— one of the highest airports in the world —there was little to alert my body that I was at an altitude of 3256 m (10,682 feet) above Mean Sea Level.

I was complacent. A habituated lowlander, I wondered whether all the travails of visitors to high altitude were just traveller’s tales! Here I was at 10,000 feet and not even a remote whiff of the much mythologised altitude sickness! Even my breathing seemed ‘normal’.

In just a couple of hours, however, I developed a constellation of symptoms that began without warning. A strange tiredness spread throughout my body. Blinding headache throttled my head like a cerebral earthquake. Sleeplessness, unsteady gait, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting exhausted me further. The mountains jolted my complacency and invulnerability!

Having researched on the Internet, I realised I was suffering from a clinical condition called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Also known as altitude sickness or hypobaropathy, it affects approximately 30 to 40 percent of people who ascend to high altitudes. AMS is caused by reduced air pressure (460 mm of mercury in Leh as against a sea level barometric pressure of 760 mm) and lowered levels of oxygen in the air.

I was hospitalized at the 153 GH (General Hospital) in Leh and was on oxygen for the next 48 hours. The moment the oxygen mask was capped on my nose and mouth, a feeling of ease and peace swept through every atom of being! My head hurt less and gradually the other symptoms too decreased in severity. Oxygen, the elixir of life! I was in the ICU and on oxygen 24/7 for the next 48 hours.

I wondered how our soldiers posted at high altitudes dealt with AMS and other high altitude related illnesses. What about mountain happy tourists in search of quick fix mountain tourism? How aware and informed are they of the risk of high altitude illnesses, some of them potentially fatal, because of lack of awareness and appropriate acclimatization schedules?

Like so many things in life, we lowlanders take it for granted! We breathe by default! At the end of the second day, I was ‘released’ from the ICU and was eager to begin work. The headaches, and insomnia, however, would remain a constant (although the severity was lesser) throughout my stay in Ladakh.

As I boarded the aircraft to Jammu, the moment I stepped inside the pressurised cabin, I felt like I was in heaven! Breathing seemed joyful and joyous! Later, when I landed in Delhi, I exulted in inhaling lungfuls of air. My transition from default to a conscious aware breather was dramatic.

Despite being a committed meditator, it needed the spiritual energy of the mountains to remind me that breath is the very essence of life. The Ladakh odyssey was an adventure in mindfulness and awareness.