Headed to the Himalaya? Tips for High Elevation Travel

By Justin Black

Prayer flags at Tsemo Gompa (12,000 ft.), with Stok Kangri peak (20,187 ft.) in the distance, Leh, Ladakh, India. Photo © 2017 Justin Black


One of the first things people ask when they see that we are going to 17,585 feet elevation on our June 2018 trip to Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya is, “How do you deal with the elevation?” It raises a serious issue, but one with which we have successfully dealt on past travels. First of all, to a person who knows from prior experience that they are predisposed to have serious physiological problems at high elevations, I would say that this isn’t the trip for them. Second, to someone who’s never before spent a few days over 10,000 feet, I would suggest making such a trip closer to home before committing to a visit to the Himalaya. Unusual sensitivity to high elevation has surprisingly little to do with age, sex, fitness, or how “tough” a person is. It just depends on the individual.

In our experience, however, we have found that most people tolerate well the elevations at which we will be traveling, so long as they take it easy the first couple days over 10,000 feet, stay hydrated, reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption, manage minor symptoms such as a bit of a headache, ascend to higher elevations during excursions by vehicle but sleep lower, and gradually increase elevations visited over the course of the itinerary, rather than going straight to the highest point.

Where you sleep makes a difference. On the high-elevation portion of the trip, we fly from Delhi directly to Ladakh’s capital of Leh, which is at 11,500 feet elevation. From there, we actually descend to about 10,500 feet to the village of Nimmu, where we spend three nights. The remaining nights in Ladakh will mostly be between 10,000 and 11,500 feet, with one night at 14,000 feet at Pangong lake, late in the trip.

As we acclimate, we monitor everyone’s condition, help ensure that everyone is staying hydrated, and that any altitude sickness symptoms are recognized and addressed. We recommend that anyone concerned about the effects of elevation consider having the medication Diamox (acetazolamide) or at least a standard over-the-counter pain reliever like Ibuprofen or Naproxen on hand, though medication is usually unnecessary.

Buddhist nun praying in the Temple of the Protectors, Thikse Monastery, Ladakh, India.


By the time we travel by road over Khardung La (17,585 feet) en route to the Nubra Valley (about 10,000 feet), we will have been sleeping for four nights at between 10,500 and 11,500 feet, and making excursions to locations as high as 13,500 feet. We should be well acclimated to those elevations by then. As we will be traveling over Khardung La by vehicle, will only make a relatively short stop at the top of the pass (with the option to take a short and easy stroll on relatively flat terrain to photograph), and will be over 15,000 feet for no more than a couple of hours going over the pass, significant negative effects from the brief exposure to this elevation are highly unlikely. Well-acclimated participants on past trips have been pleasantly surprised to find that the high passes didn’t feel as high as they thought they would.

Just in case, we travel in Ladakh with a rather large oxygen bottle in one of our group vehicles in order to provide supplementary “O2” if needed. Plenty of drinking water is always on hand as well. At both high passes, medical facilities are maintained by the Indian Army that are well-equipped to handle cases of altitude sickness, in the unlikely event that anyone has an adverse reaction.

In summary, there’s a method to high elevation travel. By applying some simple principles, what appears intimidating can be surprisingly easy and comfortable. We anticipate that those who join us in Ladakh will have a very positive experience indeed.