The horrors of altitude sickness in Ala Archa

Barely able to stand, let alone climb, Anna knows she must get to the car. She is in excruciating pain

Rising 4,000 metres above sea level, deep in Central Asia, the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains are majestic. Covered in scree, they climb through the tree line.

A huge boulder sits on the edge of one of the cliffs. From the top, there is a line of sight along two of the valleys — Ben Finch kyrgyzstan ala archa altitude sickness
A huge boulder sits on the edge of one of the cliffs. From the top, there is a line of sight along the valley — Ben Finch

The glacial water of the Ala-Archa river tumbles down the cliffs, over waterfalls, and roars towards its mouth in the Chuy Valley, Kyrgyzstan. Today, we are in a rush to climb as much as possible. And it is this speed that will be our downfall.

My girlfriend Anna and I have only three days in Kyrgyzstan (it’s a flying trip so that we can receive a new Kazakh visa), but it is the mountains that we are here to see.

Yesterday, our hotel in Bishkek, the Ambassador, booked a taxi to take us to the Ala-Archa gorge and this morning the car slowly climbed from sea-level to the entrance of the national park at 1,500m.

As soon as the car pulls to a halt, we jump out and arrange our meeting point with the driver in the empty car park. He will wait for us at the gates in three hours.

Hopefully, this will be enough time for us to reach the waterfall – the signs appear to suggest that it will be possible.

A stony path leads us around through the pine wood and around the contours of one of the mountains. It is gentle, but every so often we must scramble up a slope.

The glacial water of the Ala-Archa river roars  towards its mouth in the Chuy Valley — Ben Finch altitude sickness kyrgyzstan
The glacial water of the Ala-Archa river roars towards its mouth in the Chuy Valley — Ben Finch

The path splits into two; one trail runs straight up the mountain, and the other gently curves around the side. To save a bit of energy and not make things too hard on ourselves, we go for the second.

We pass groups of ageing German hikers with their hiking poles. The odd fell runner nips past. Gradually, the trail steepens until it becomes a proper climb and points towards the first viewpoint on the edge of a plateau.

A huge boulder sits on the edge of one of the cliffs. From the top, there is a line of sight along two of the valleys. Both stretch until another mountain rises into view. It is wondrous.

What we don’t realise is just how high we are going – the plateau is around 2,500m above sea level. The peaks are so high that they never appear to be any closer. Despite the height, and the snow capping the pinnacles, the temperature is pushing thirty degrees.

We push on to the next stop. But we should stop pushing so hard. We have now been climbing for an hour and a half and the waterfall is still a few klicks away. There is no way we can make it in the time we have.

Anna takes a seat on an outcrop to rest and enjoy the view of the plateau when her head starts to hurt  — Ben Finch Ala Archa, Kyrgyzstan – Ben Finch altitude sickness
Anna takes a seat on an outcrop to rest and enjoy when her head starts to hurt — Ben Finch

The climb is gentle along the plateau but the air is thin. It is taking longer for us to catch our breath whenever we stop. Anna takes a seat on an outcrop to rest, while I whip the camera out. We must turn around soon if we are to make it back to the taxi in time, so this will be the final stop.

“My head hurts,” Anna says once I have finished snapping and return. We decide to rest a little longer and have a drink. I assume it is a mixture of the heat and thirst. But we won’t be pushing ourselves quite so hard on the way down.

After ten minutes or so she decides that it’s possible to move and we begin the trek back. We are slightly disappointed that we can’t make it as far as we wanted but we did the best we could.

However, within a few minutes, the headache is only getting worse. We stop and rest, and stop and rest. Panic is beginning to set in as she begins to slip on the dusty earth. It is becoming apparent that something serious is happening.

We are not paying attention and miss the gentle path homewards. The trek becomes a scramble. Barely able to stand, let alone climb, Anna knows she must get to the car. But there are only so many times that she can fall without losing her mind. She is in excruciating pain.

Finally, we pass through the tree line and back onto a gentle slope. With less exertion, the pain begins to subside. We know the car is waiting for us just ten minutes away. After a quick break, we carry on and reach the gates.

There is no car. There is no driver.

Unfortunately, the waterfalls were simply to far — Shutterstock ala archa altitude sicknes kyrgyzstan
Unfortunately, the waterfalls were too far to make it in time— Shutterstock

I pull out my phone and call the number he had given us at the start of the day. No answer. I ask Anna to wait while I begin searching the car park. It is full of cars, 4x4s and trucks. The taxi is nowhere to be seen and there is still no response on the phone.

We decide we will slowly walk along the road and check every car we pass. About a kilometre down the road we still have not found him, but then he finally answers. I tell him where we are and ask if he can pick us up so we do not have to walk back.

Anna takes a seat in the shade of the tree. She is silent now.

I wait on the road. Twenty minutes pass and I call the driver. He will be there soon. Thirty. She begins to sob.

The only reliable way to treat altitude sickness is to descend. Luckily, Bishkek is almost at sea level — Andrey / Shutterstock kyrgyzstan ala archa
The only reliable way to treat altitude sickness is to descend. Luckily, Bishkek is almost at sea level — Andrey / Shutterstock

After forty-five minutes she is screaming. I am on the phone to the hotel telling them to get our driver to us as fast as possible or find another way to send help. A stranger stops to offer help: “Is it the altitude?” he asks. He rushes to his car to see if he has anything, but there is nothing.

The screams subside and she lies catatonic by the side of the road. It is as if the driver knew to wait for her to fall silent. He pulls up beside us and we lift her into the car.

Anna sleeps as he apologises; he had allowed the car to be blocked in, he could not move, he hadn’t told us because he thought we would be angry.

Bishkek is almost at sea level. As we drive through the rolling hills, Anna begins to rouse – although she makes no sense. By the hotel she refuses help, and she pulls herself out of the car to go to bed with chocolate.

The only reliable way to treat altitude sickness is to descend as fast as possible, and then rest. In the worst cases it is fatal. 

Thankfully, despite the pain – the worst I have ever seen, and the worst Anna has ever felt – within a few days, she was back to normal. And as soon as she could, she insisted that we go climbing again the next weekend. And we did.