From the moment I booked my Overland Tibet Tour, I worried how I would handle the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau. I begin to suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) the moment I reach an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). I become nauseous, my stomach feels like it is flipping upside down, my head starts throbbing incessantly, and I gasp for breath. Not usually willing to take prescription drugs unless absolutely necessary, I decided to take the advice of my tour operator and get a prescription for Diamox, a drug used to treat AMS. Unfortunately, I had an adverse reaction to the drug. It made me so dizzy I was bouncing off walls and every inch of my skin felt like it was vibrating. Rather than try to tolerate the side effects, I decided to see if I could tough it out without Diamox.
Fortunately, I had done extensive research prior to choosing a tour company. Many firms that offer this overland journey are Nepali-owned resellers located in Kathmandu. Since the Chinese government only allows Chinese companies to conduct these tours, Nepal-based companies must
turn over their clients to a Tibet based operator at the border between Nepal and China. Even more importantly, most of these tours start out in Kathmandu and end in Lhasa. This means that travelers go from 1,300-meter high (4,365-foot) Kathmandu to 5,200-meter high (17,060-foot) Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet in the space of two days. This rapid increase in altitude, without adequate time to acclimate, virtually assures that anyone sensitive to high altitude will fall ill.
I chose Himalaya Journey because, not only are they based in Tibet, their tour begins in Lhasa and ends in Kathmandu. As a result, the change in altitude is much more gradual each day, allowing the body to better adjust. Additionally, while other tour operators cram the experience into seven or eight days, the tour I selected was 12 days long, which meant we could see more, spend more time in the places we visited, and climb even more gradually.
So, how did I fare? I was anxious the first time we breached my 4,000-meter limit but the incremental increase in altitude each day had worked its magic. I easily managed our overnight stop in Gyantse, which sits an elevation of 4,000 meters. I felt little effect at the 4,441-meter high Yamdrok Lake, and managed a stop at the 5,200-meter high Gyatso La Pass with only a slight shortness of breath, especially since we descended to 4,300 meters for the night. My only difficulty occurred the night we stayed at 5,200-meter high Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet.
We arrived late in the afternoon, just in time to see the peak dripping with golden light in the setting sun. I dragged myself up a low hill on feet that felt encased in lead. By the time I reached the top I was gasping for breath. It didn’t get any better through the night; I gasped continually, never able to completely fill my lungs with enough oxygen. Just before dawn, the rest of my crew rolled out of bed to take photos of the sunrise, but I was feeling too poorly to join them. We left shortly after breakfast and it was all downhill from there. Within minutes of beginning our descent I was my normal self, breathing easily and feeling grateful that I’d had enough energy the prior evening to capture the sunset photo shown above.
Author’s note: After many years of trying to visit Tibet, I was finally successful with the assistance of Himalaya Journey, an absolutely fantastic company that specializes in small group tours of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India.