Ladakh, often called the roof of the world, with its sweeping views, windswept plateaus, bluer-than-blue skies, and the barren mountains is worth the price you pay. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is one of the most common altitude-related issues that one faces on embarking on a journey towards High Asia. We faced the devil, for the first time, in Sarchu!

Often, the most obvious warning is the most ignored. As healthy, fit millennials – we are indestructible. Or so we think. We live on the edge, we seek the thrill of our own company, and we want to experience rawness. All of this comes at a massive price when in the lap of Himalayas.

Our land is so barren and the passes are so high that only the best of friends or fiercest of enemies would want to visit us

Local Ladakhi Saying

The post continues on from my previous story on Baralacha La pass.

A Word of Caution before you sleep at Sarchu

As a reference point, Sarchu is approximately the halfway point between Manali and Leh. Also, it should be stated, that heading to Leh from Srinagar Kargil route is easier due to a more gradual and friendly climb. Manali-Leh is a route that tends to take you high up and back down multiple times due to the five high mountain passes sprinkled on the route.

Altitude is categorized as follows:

  • High (8000-12000 Ft)
  • Very High (12000-18000 Ft)
  • Extremely High (18000+ Ft)

There is minimal sickness associated with a High Altitude, although, if you’ve never been to such heights, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and take corrective action, as and when necessary.

It is a good practice to only climb 1000 Ft every 24 hours. Thus, it is imperative to have multiple pit-stops at various places along the way, such as staying overnight at Jispa or Keylong

The views were worth it, although we do wish we had listened to some advice on taking care of ourselves and acclimatizing.
The views were worth it, although we do wish we had listened to some advice on taking care of ourselves and acclimatizing.

All alone in the middle of nowhere!

Around 9 PM, we were nearing our home for the night, i.e., Sarchu. Our long and colorful day of travel from Manali had now taken a toll, and without any light, the views were not present to distract us.

Pro Tip: Please, avoid traveling at night on this route and Ladakh in general.

We literally saw no one on our route after the Zingzing bar and the isolation was not unnoticed. However, we were not very concerned as other things were taking precedence – the cold, the need to sleep.

Home for the day - accommodation in Sarchu is limited. We were lucky to have stayed in the Army Transit Camp. In the background you can spot the victim of AMS!
Home for the day – accommodation in Sarchu is limited. We were lucky to have stayed in the Army Transit Camp. In the background, you can spot the victim of AMS!

The moment we reached our destination, we were jubilant. The moment we got out of the car, we were freezing. Still living in the moment, we were not concerned. My friend had a terrible headache, and he just wanted to sleep. Since we were staying in the Army Transit camp, a camp Medicare came to check in on us. Most of us had oxygen saturation in permissible limits and elevated Blood Pressure. We were advised to drink tonnes of water, preferably lukewarm.

Self Driving to Leh Ladakh is an art, be prepared!

Water is your best friend, don’t forget. However, carry your own bottles and refill as many times as needed.

Sarchu – the most scandalous pit-stop on our journey to peace!

After eating food, I made the amazing mistake of taking a shower! Each step was work, each breath was with effort, and here I was, ignoring it all and exerting myself. The cherry on the cake was when my hair-dryer refused to work. I was scarred for life! Thankfully, a friend came to my rescue, and I believe she saved my life.

The amazing views of Sarchu, and my guardian savior!
The amazing views of Sarchu, and my guardian savior! 

With much effort, and doubling up on quilts, we got into our bunk beds. Everyone was freezing, shivering. You could hear the struggle in warming up. None of us slept too well. Every so often, someone would wake up, some were already awake, and some were snoring intermittently.

Obviously, It was not a happy night. All of the struggles were apparent in the morning. As we had decided on an early start, we had set the alarm for 5 AM. Even before the alarm went off, everyone was awake, but not moving – fearing disturbing the sleep of any lucky soul who could catch a wink or two.

Subsequently, as the alarm went off, everyone jumped out (in slow-mo, of course, given the energy it would have taken for any fast movement!). Brushing teeth was such a task, just applying the toothpaste on the brush took all the life I had in me.

However, that first look of Sarchu the moment we stepped out – with the beauty of barrenness all around us, the first mountain-sunshine on our faces, being bundled up in jackets and sweaters and everything warm –was magnificent.

*A description of Manali Leh Highway shows the strenuous (but so worthwhile) journey to reach our pinnacle point! 

The laughter that follows the pain!

Of course, leaving as fast as we could (again, in slow-mo), we started on the wonderful experience of sharing Sarchu War & Terror Stories (*Soon to be trademarked!)

Here’s our individual highlight (low-light?) of Sarchu:

  • # 1. Slept in shorts and a t-shirt, because that is the only way to sleep. Got up in the middle of the night to pee, and shivered so hard (with actual tremors passing through the floor to reach all of us!) that everyone was scared
  • # 2. Got paranoid that was going to die – drank water, as was advised. Threw up in the morning and multiple times and throughout the day
  • # 3. Got scared of getting up to pee, because # 1. had shivered so hard
  • # 4. A constant headache and blood in nostrils (something all of us experienced throughout the trip)
  • # 5. As a doctor, concerned about everyone’s breathing. Cursing self for not bringing enough warm clothes

Himalayan Lessons: The most important things are the ones we don’t ever think about!

War Stories turning into LEGENDARY tales!

What did come out of Sarchu, however, was the innate sense of bonding. We had lived through this night, together- all huddled up in one room, in bunk-beds, listening to each other breathe.

However, It would have been especially easy to get scared and keep on being scared. Having a group to lighten things and just laugh at each other’s experiences, sharing their worst-moments is just how to live life! Keep on moving on, you guys!

The tale of AMS - man down!
The tale of AMS – man down!

Himalayan Lessons: Your tribe defines your vibe!

Of course, every time someone was getting irritated (one of the many ah-maze-ing symptoms of AMS), we would joke of Sarchu, and all would be well. We tripped hard on Sarchu during our entire trip. Each comparison was to Sarchu, the dread of having to return to the place on our way back was epic!

If you’re planning a trip to Leh by road, do refer to this the Ladakh travel plan by road to make your Leh Ladakh trip easily.

The path ahead was not the either, however, with Sarchu under our belt, we were more prepared.

What to do instead

Now that we have discussed what not to do, let’s get to the advisory part.

  • Drink water, enough of it. Track the color of your urine – it should be clear
  • Don’t fuss too much about what you should be feeling. Enjoy the ride, be aware of what your body is telling you, but also, don’t get too involved in that and worry!
  • There are lots of transit army camps along the way, the moment you feel something serious and unbearable happening, do make a stop – they will take care of you happily. We had met a convoy of Jawans heading to Jammu on our trip; they had encouraged us to do this! Do take note of important Transit Camps on way.
  • Consult your doctor before the trip and, if advised, do take a Diamox. Diamox should be taken at low elevation and not when you have reached high altitude – make a note of that
  • Carry Kapur. It is usually used in Hindu Pooja and ceremonies to light the fire. Kapur helps in facilitating oxygen flow for short periods. Just wrap one of these babies up in a handkerchief and sniff away from time to time. Side note – Kapur became our best friend. It was the joint we passed in a circle; it was the bonding object, it was God-sent!
  • Avoid dehydrating materials such as alcohol, cigarettes, etc.
  • Do not over-exert yourself. It will take a LOT of effort to do normal mundane things, such as sitting and breathing.
  • If you feel that things are getting worse, immediately descend!

Onwards and Upwards

Still, with all the advice to prepare you, please do note that you don’t need to physically unfit to experience this. Ladakh is a barren land, and no matter if you’ve been to higher elevations, AMS can still impact you. Be prepared, and don’t ever let Sarchu stop you from realizing your dreams!

Us and AMS!
Us and AMS!

Now, with all the on-the-ground reality covered today, next would be the happiest post of my life! Do read, know the magic of More Plains, the thrill of back-to-back passes, and the joy of sunshine. Stay tuned.

Have you ever experienced AMS? What’s your war story? Are you scared of heading on your adventure-of-a-life-time because you’re worried about AMS – tell me below, I can help!


Shefali spends most of her time day dreaming about her next big vacation. A happy-go-lucky personality, she is an amalgamation of all the places she’s lived in and experienced! She is always confused as to where to call home, having lived in Chandigarh, Shimla, Dehradun, Mumbai, Hyderabad in India and Vancouver, Abbotsford in Canada. Her love for travel is only challenged by her love for reading and eating delicious food! In order to sustain her dreams, she brought out her inner geek, got an MBA and has a job in the corporate world crunching numbers. Do follow @notravelplans on Instagram for updates on her next great adventure.

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