PREPARING THE MAN HIMSELF
A perfectly serviceable bike, a full complement of luggage, spares and all other necessary stuff will make for a great ride only if you – the rider are prepared, fit and capable of using that collected and collated hardware to the hilt. Even though a ride like this ha more to do with a positive attitude in the face of adversity, the physical self too needs to be capable of translating those positive thoughts into action.
Physical Fitness: A motorcycle ride to Leh is as physically taxing as you can get while touring on a motorcycle. Rallies take the same route but add the element of speed and the pressures of winning and losing to make them more physically stressful. But a simple tour is almost as tough and so you need to be in good physical shape for it.
As your pre-ride preparations, focus on endurance training and stretching exercises. Lifting heavy weights and building those 20-inch biceps will not help much up there. In fact the added muscle bulk and volume will put additional physiological demands on your oxygen and hydration starved system. Being lean, strong and supple is the key though a touch of fat does add to reserves and insulation (a consolation for the likes of me). So focus on brisk walking, jogging, swimming, high-repetition low-mass weight training, stretching and breathing exercises targeted at improving physical endurance. Your reference markers for improvement can be slower breathing and heart-rate values taken at rest. A resting pulse of anywhere between 65-70 is indicative of good fitness.
Begin a conscious hydration programme 3-4 days before the ride by increasing both frequency and quantity of your water intake. Primes your kidneys and other support organs to handle more water and cleanses your system of accumulated toxins.
Eat healthy and sleep well for at least a week before the start of the ride. This will keep you fresh and stay away from any kind of fatigue for a longer period of time.
The fact that you’re planning a ride to Ladakh should mean that you’re already a reasonably experienced rider. THIS RIDE SHOULD DEFINITELY NOT BE YOUR FIRST INTRODUCTION TO MOTORCYCLE TOURING. That said, do a couple of long 300-400 km round-trips a few weeks before your ride, with the bike loaded as it would be for Ladakh and get used to the handling, braking and your own fatigue on the saddle.
A few hours of off-road riding practice will only help as quite a large part of a ride to Ladakh is off-road. .
And last but not the least, ride out to enjoy the ride. Don’t make it a ‘chase to conquer’ certain places and heights. Be humble towards Mother nature, thanking her for allowing you to pass through and enjoy her beauty and magic. In places like you’ll be riding through, a bad turn of weather or a landslide etc can wipe out miles of road and anything that gets caught on it.
Most of us live at the bottom of the ocean of air we call the atmosphere. As we climb high or gain altitude, the pressure outside decreases and with it does the density. Our atmosphere contains about 21% of available breathable oxygen by volume and even though this ratio remains the same all through, the quantity of oxygen reduces with the reduced amount of air at high altitudes. This reduction in breathable oxygen makes us ‘sick’ as our bodies are used to living in higher concentrations of oxygen. And this reduction continues to trouble us till the time our body adapts or ‘acclimatizes’ to that lower oxygen content. This acclimatization takes time in terms of days and we being impatient and having means to rapidly gain altitude in a matter of hours, suffer acutely. So much so that too much a gain in altitude in too little a time span can even prove fatal for us.
Higher altitude means faster breathing and of course more effort at doing things than at sea- level. Both these factors imply that you’ll lose more water through breathing and perspiration. Add to that the fact that air at altitudes places like Leh is located is very dry and so it robs your body of significantly more moisture. As a motorcyclist, the dry wind will only make the situation worse. So if you do not consciously increase your fluid intake, you’ll in all probability end up dehydrated. This will only mean that you get AMS quicker.
Avoiding it – The usual thumb rule used by most mountaineers is to drink about 8-10 glasses of water a day when you’re riding. The colour of your urine or rather the lack of colour there is a useful indicator of your level of hydration. Clear urine means a hydrated body. But in your enthusiasm to stay hydrated, avoid over-hydration as that will encourage water-retention in your body cells and would also accelerate the onset of AMS.
Our body reacts to exposure to cold by shivering to generate heat. When exposed to extreme cold conditions (sub-zero temperatures) and without adequate warm and protective clothing, shivering isn’t enough and the body’s ‘core’ temperature begins to drop below 98 deg F. ‘Core’ here implies the inner organs of the body like liver, lungs, stomach etc . That’s hypothermia. And when that happens, you’ll go drowsy, lose strength, have incoherent thoughts and slowly slip away into a sleep that you’ll never wake up from.
Avoiding it – Dress in enough layers to keep warm in the coldest weather you’ll encounter, eat well and keep hydrated. Warm clothes, hot food and adequate fluids will see you ‘breeze’ through the coldest of winters.
Frostbite and hypothermia are brothers in arms. In freezing conditions, the water present in our body tissues chills to the point of freezing. This cuts it off from the regenerative powers of blood-circulation and if prolonged for even a few hours, that tissue is irreversibly damaged. The nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes (your extremities) are most commonly affected. In conditions of prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, the body constricts the blood vessels in your arms and legs. This way the body preferably sends blood to the vital organs, supplying them with critical nutrients, while also preventing hypothermic cooling of the body exposing less blood to the outside cold. Water in the tissue starts freezing, its capillaries get blocked and the issue dies.
Avoiding it – Use good gloves double layer of socks inside thick leather shoes and keep your nose and cheeks covered by wearing a balaclava in freezing conditions. In case your fingers or toes freeze or go feelingless, warm them at a safe distance from a fire or dip them in water not exceeding 45 deg C. Keep wiggling your toes inside the shoes and fingers moving to encourage blood circulation.
Wind-chill is the combined cooling effect of air, temperature and wind on a heated body, rather than temperature as shown by the thermometer. This means that it is a lot colder when the wind is blowing than what the thermometer shows. The effective temperature is lowered in the presence of heat robbing wind. The higher the speed of the wind, the greater is the temperature drop. To grasp the seriousness of the issue, if still air temperature is 0 deg C, then a rider riding at 60 kph will in effect be exposed to – 20 deg C, which is prime hypothermia/frostbite territory. These figures are for dry conditions. Wet clothing retains as little as one-tenth of its insulating value and even fog or mist could get you wet enough.
Avoiding it – So overdress while standing and never forget to have a top layer of windproof/rainproof clothing for your Ladakh sojourn.
SUNSTROKE AND SUNBURNS
There’s an apt saying about Ladakh. “Only in Ladakh can a man sitting in the sun with his feet in the shade suffer from sunstroke and frostbite at the same time!” and it is true. It’s the altitude and the clear atmosphere that lets the sun shine upon you in all its ferocious glory. And so sunburns and sunstrokes are an unexpected reality that needs to be protected against. In fact sunburns become all the more easy to get in winters as the snow all around reflects sunlight and can double its intensity.
Avoiding it – Keep your limbs covered and use sunscreen on exposed skin to avoid sun-burns and wear a cap when not wearing your helmet to avoid sun-stroke. The intense sun heats up your head and the body’s temperature control goes haywire. If affected, you’ll feel thirsty, dizzy, possibly high temperature and unduly fatigued. To affect a cure, get out of the sun, rest under shade, drink plenty of fluids and avoid exposure to the sun for a day or two.
A motorcyclists’ back usually takes a beating during long rides and this is all the more accentuated during a ride into rough terrain as found in and around Ladakh. Constant riding over broken roads strains the back, neck, shoulders and wrists to the point that they start aching badly.
Avoiding it – While such aches and pains will remain a reality on this ride and cannot be completely eliminated, proper riding posture, using your legs to cushion the shocks, proper working suspension, a good seat, frequent rest during long riding stages and good physical fitness levels can make a big difference towards lesser pains and aches.
Long hours on the saddle means that the crotch and buttock area stays in constant contact with the seat of the bike. Bumps, braking and acceleration etc cause you to move up, down and sideways in the saddle. This movement causes friction between your skin and the clothing you’re wearing. Also, lack of ventilation to the groin area means persistent perspiration. This softens and sensitizes that skin locally and friction causes surface wounds called chaffing. That part of the skin burns and pains as if lacerated.
Avoiding it – Remedies include long underwear made of absorbent fabrics like cotton, liberal use of some antiseptic ointment on the skin folds, avoiding garments that have thick seamlines which will form pressure points on your skin, good personal hygiene of the crotch area specially and frequent ‘bum-off-the-saddle’ stops will help avoid this problem.
ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS
Most of us live at the bottom of the ocean of air we call the atmosphere. As we climb high or gain altitude, the pressure outside decreases and with it does the density. Our atmosphere contains about 21% of available breathable oxygen by volume and even though this ratio remains the same all through, the quantity of oxygen reduces with the reduced amount of air at high altitudes.
This reduction in breathable oxygen makes us ‘sick’ as our bodies are used to living in higher concentrations of oxygen. And this reduction continues to trouble us till the time our body adapts or ‘acclimatizes’ to that lower oxygen content. This acclimatization takes time in terms of days and we being impatient and having means to rapidly gain altitude in a matter of hours, suffer acutely. So much so that too much a gain in altitude in too little a time span can even prove fatal for us.
Disclaimer: The information disseminated and recommendations of suitable drugs given here is NOT a substitute for qualified medical advice. Please consult a qualified doctor before proceeding with consumption of any of the medicines discussed here.
This sickness, aptly termed ‘Acute Mountain Sickness’, usually affects us at altitudes higher than 2500 mtrs (8000 ft) above mean sea level (AMSL). Our first feel of reduced oxygen in the air is by getting breathless during activities that would be commonplace to us at home. The body strives to adapt and so our breathing patterns change along with other physiological changes. We breathe deeper and quicker, we urinate more frequently and the fluid/electrolyte balance of our blood changes. Whenever the oxygen balance of the body is upset i.e. you cannot replace as much oxygen through breathing as you consume, an oxygen debt occurs (called Hypoxia) and you enter the AMS zone. In fact our body has a certain ‘tolerance range’ for lowered oxygen levels and as long as your gain in altitude lies within this ‘tolerance range’ you shall be fine. In fact, acclimatization is a process of extending this tolerance range further towards lower levels of available oxygen. To avoid AMS completely, you need to limit your daily gain in altitude to where it remains within your tolerance range. Usually this amounts to about 1500 ft (500 meters) in vertical height as ‘sleeping’ altitude. Sleeping implies that even if you exceed a gain of 1,500 ft during your day travel, you should not sleep at a place that’s higher than 1500ft from the place you slept the previous night.
As motorcyclists who can cover lots of distance (both horizontal and vertical) during a riding day, that’s usually far from what we do. We typically end up way higher than the ideal at night, especially on routes like Manali – Leh. So AMS expectedly affects most of us, a lucky few escaping due to some unknown physiological advantage or previous exposure to that altitude say within the last few months. The accompanying chart details the symptoms of AMS and its two more serious and at times fatal iterations vis a vis High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).
Both HACE and HAPE are the most severe forms of AMS and need emergency descent to lower altitudes in sync with proper medical attention. Fortunately, this would be a rare occurrence for motorcyclists even on the Manali – Leh route as long as the riders’:
- Don’t get adventurous enough to stay the night on top of high passes and descend as low as practical for the night e.g. Bharatpur,
Sarchu, Pang etc.
- Refrain from smoking, consuming alcohol (the latter reduces breath-rate and so worsens hypoxia), taking sleeping pills and narcotics.
- Exert only as much as is necessary
- Remain hydrated and eat light food
It is the best to acclimatize naturally even if it means an extra day in the itinerary. My old favorite method for the Manali – Leh route is to ride to Rohtang Top the day after arriving in Manali, spend the entire day lazing around above 12,000 ft, keep myself hydrated with soups, tea and water and return to Manali for the night. Leaving for Leh the following morning, I have rarely faced anything more than mild AMS during my night stay at Sarchu. For those who insist on accelerated acclimatization, Diamox (Acetazolamide) is the usual recommended though with its own disadvantages.
- It’s a Sulfonamide salt and those allergic to Sulphur should not use it.
- Numbness and tingling in extremities (hands & feet) and the edges of the lips
- Carbonated soft drinks play havoc with the taste buds. It’s like drinking liquid electricity!
- Ringing in the ears and/or tinnitus is also pretty common as is blurring of vision.
- Diamox is a mild diuretic and so you’ll lose more water through frequent urination, thus increasing the risk of dehydration.
The usual recommended dosage for adults is about 125mg twice a day (12 hrs between doses). The same dosage can be started a day before gaining altitude as a preventive. BUT REMEMBER THAT EVEN IF YOU’RE ON DIAMOX, A RAPID ASCENT (>2,500 FT sleeping altitude) COULD STILL LEAD TO SEVERE AMS.
The other drug commonly discussed and used for AMS is Decadron (Dexamethasone). This is a steroid used primarily to treat swelling of the brain tissue. While Diamox treats the ‘problem of AMS’, this just treats the symptoms. It does not help in acclimatization and can in fact mask the symptoms of AMS. This masking can bring about a false sense of security and the rider would continue higher even when not fit for altitude gain. Decadron is NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR DIAMOX. It is meant to treat HACE and that is where it should be used. And certainly not without proper medical direction.
All said and done, there are 3 golden rules for avoiding, managing and treating AMS that mountaineers follow unquestioningly. And we motorcyclists can certainly take this leaf out of their books. The 3 rules are:
1. If you feel unwell at altitude, assume it is AMS unless categorically proven otherwise
2. Never, never continue to ascend with symptoms of AMS
3. If your AMS symptoms get worse with time, descend at once.
|COMMON MEDICINE KIT||QUANTITY||WHY TAKE IT?|
|Gauze Bandages (1″ & 2 “)||4 each||Big injury dressing|
|Savlon Liquid||1 bottle||Antiseptic cleaning liquid|
|Calendula Ointment||1 tube||Antiseptic ointment|
|Boroline Cream||1 tube||Rashes, chaffed skin etc|
|Burnol ointment||1 tube||Burns|
|Cotton (rolls)||2 small packs||Injury dressing|
|Bandaid Strips||15||Small injury dressing|
|Diamox Tabs (125mg)||10||Preventive for mild AMS|
|Voveran SR Tabs||10||Pain-killer|
|Combiflam Tabs||10||Fever and body-ache|
|Perinome Tabs||10||Anti nausea|
|Electral Packs||3||Oral rehydration solution|
|Elastic Bandage (2″ type)||1||Sprains, muscle tears etc|
Motorcycling to Ladakh : Complete Series
Part 1 : About Ladakh, Reaching There, & Best Time to Visit
Part 2 : Choosing the Right Motorcycle & Preparing it
Part 3 : Preparing Yourself for Ladakh Ride
Part 4: Some useful Tips About Riding and Photography in Ladakh
Part 5 : Ladakh in Winter
Part 6 : Superbiking in Ladakh