it's a common misconception that group travel is safer. This is not always the case, as I learn during the days following our arrival in Tibet.After two days in Lhasa at 3,650 metres, we start the five-day drive back to Kathmandu. We stop for lunch in a village on the way to Gyantse, where I order steamed bread and head off to explore the town, feeling invincible. I subsequently pay the price.
I spend the next day losing a lot of precious bodily fluids. By the time we're in Xigatse, violent vomiting and diarrhea keep me a prisoner in my room. I know it's vital to stay hydrated at high altitudes. Dehydration will lead me down the rocky road to acute mountain sickness (AMS), a condition that claims lives every year.
The next day, as we begin the climb over one of Tibet's spectacular mountain passes, I start getting a headache. As the day wears on and the altitude increases, the dull pain in my head becomes a pounding nightmare. I have read up on AMS in the guidebook, assimilating detailed descriptions of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and I know immediate descent is what I need. But we're spending the night at 4,390 metres in the village of Tingri before we start going down.
I have no appetite, feel nauseous, disoriented and confused, and my motor skills are failing. My Dutch roommate keeps me supplied with water. I still believe I will acclimatize soon and there will be no need to organize the group for an emergency descent.
From 4 o'clock in the afternoon until 4 in the morning, I lie in bed, mumbling incoherently. When the dry cough starts, sometime in the middle of the night, my paranoia kicks into overdrive. I go over what I know of the symptoms of advanced AMS. A dry, irritative cough is one of them.
I've been in dangerous situations before, but never such complete and utter helplessness at almost 4,400 metres in a tiny village in the Himalayas, on the roof of the world, without a medical professional to be found.
We are a solid day's drive from the next town. The presence of the group is closing in on me -- everyone will have to be woken up, bags packed and loaded onto the bus before I can even consider getting myself down to a lower altitude. Then there's the 5,000-metre climb yet again to get over the last mountain pass on the road to the Nepal border. Can I even survive this?
If I were travelling on my own, I would have stayed a few extra days in Xigatse until I was fully rehydrated. These thoughts go through my head as I lie there. I truly believe that this is the end. I want to shout, "Not yet!" My tears feel cold on the pillow, an icy touch against my cheek. But toward 4 am, my thoughts slowly become more lucid. The pain in my head subsides. I am acclimatizing. I stumble outside.
Despite my weakened state, or because of it, I'm overwhelmed by what stands before me. The moon is full and the air feels icy cold on my skin, as if tiny frozen fingers are gently tapping my face. Spread out in front of me bathed in moonlight are Mount Everest and the Himalayas, the snow-capped peaks luminescent in the ethereal light. I stand transfixed in overpowering relief: I am getting better.