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Breathless in India // ADV Rider


Photos: Courtesy of Vanessa Ruck

Adventurer, motorcycle enthusiast, and rally racer Vanessa Ruck (better known as The Girl On a Bike) has recently returned from an epic eight-day journey through the Indian Himalayas aboard Royal Enflieds. But while the towering peaks of the mountains, plunging valleys, and pristine military roads along with dusty dirt trails provided the perfect playground for a motorcycle adventure of a lifetime, the trip has tested Vanessa and her crew’s limits.

Navigating massive landslides, braving a blizzard on the Shinkula Top pass, and squeezing their bikes through a traffic jam so enormous the army had to step in, Vanessa and her crew reveled in the stunning scenery from the turquoise waters of Pangong Tso to the vast expanse of the Tso Kar salt flats, encountering wild horses, donkeys, and even a few shaggy goats along the way.

But it wasn’t just the mind-blowing beauty of the Himalayas that took their breath away – riding the highest mountain passes in the world, altitude sickness is no joke.

“Altitude was one the biggest challenges on this trip. Honestly, riding the Himalayas was probably one of the most brutal adventures I’ve taken on, outside of desert racing. Long, 11-hour days on the bikes, gnarly terrain, remote places – it’s nothing like the Alps or the Pyrenees where, if something goes wrong, you can get help quickly. In the Himalayas, you’re out in a very unforgiving environment, and the altitude is a big part of that,” Vanessa shares.

So how do you deal with altitude of over 19,000 feet while traveling on two wheels? Here are some of Vanessa’s tips to ward off altitude sickness when riding on the roof of the world:

Acclimatize Gradually

According to Vanessa, there was no time to acclimatize as she and her team landed in Leh, India: the city is situated over 11,000 feet above sea level. “We immediately noticed that the air was thinner; just getting out of the airport and carrying our bags and gear, we were out of breath, so we wondered how we would do at 19,000 feet,” Vanessa recalls.

“Luckily, Royal Enfield offered us some solid guidance: first off, we spent a couple of days in Leh, drank plenty of water, and let our bodies adapt to lower oxygen levels.”

Carry oxygen cylinders

Vanessa and her team equipped themselves with portable oxygen tanks before starting the ride. These are widely available at local pharmacies and can be a lifesaver: a quick inhale provides a boost of oxygen when needed.

“Although my body adapted to high altitudes quite well, there was a moment when we were stuck in a massive traffic jam at 18,000 ft altitude. I tried to push snow out of the way to make room for us to squeeze through, and because of the exertion, I started to feel out of breath and dizzy; that’s where the oxygen cylinder really came in handy,” Vanessa explains.

Plan a gradual ascent

Another crucial tip is to avoid aiming for the highest pass on the first day and try to ascend and descend alternately to help your body adjust. “Ride progressively – don’t just aim for the highest pass immediately. Ideally, it’s best to climb, then descend, then climb again; this helps your body to adjust more effectively. Increasing and decreasing your altitude is key.”

Limit time at high altitudes

“When you’re on the really high passes, be mindful of how long you spend there. When we got to 19,000 feet altitude and up, we tried to only spend 15-20 minutes there, then get going – spending too much time at very high altitudes can be dangerous.”

Recognize the signs of altitude sickness

“Along the way, we met a group of travelers and later heard that one of them ended up in hospital because of altitude sickness. He was in a pretty bad shape, and it took him over a week to recover. It’s so important to recognize the signs early – if you start feeling nauseous, dizzy, and out of breath, take a hit of that rich oxygen from your tank!”

Monitor oxygen levels

According to Vanessa, clinics in the Himalayas offer to measure your oxygen saturation; if you’re worried about altitude sickness, it’s a good idea to measure your oxygen levels for a peace of mind – and safety.

Listen to your body

Finally, Vanessa suggests listening to your body – and not trying to be a hero.

“If you don’t feel well, don’t pretend that you’re fine and don’t push yourself – that will only get you further into trouble. Practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing, utilize your oxygen tank, and, if necessary, just descend. At and over 19,000 feet, the oxygen levels are just 50 percent of what they are at sea level; just for perspective, some of the Himalayan passes are higher than Everest Base camp – so while utterly spectacular, it can be dangerous if you ignore your body,” Vanessa says.

Have you ridden at high altitude and what was your experience like? Share in the comments below!

 



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