Sleepless in Sarchu : Tweaking the Manali-Leh Highway
Manali-Leh is only one of four land routes to Leh. It is also the road you love to hate , if you recognise the early signs of hypoxia and altitude sickness.
Doing this road you have two main options : basic risk reduction (which probably will spare you from anything more dramatic than headaches and mild nausea ) and tweaking the itinerary so that you are closer to full working order , every day.
BASIC RISK REDUCTION :
* Get a night in Keylong
* Don´t sleep in Sarchu , aka The Vomit Hilton
That´s all there is to it , really : with a night in Manali (1950) and the next in Sissu or Keylong (just under 3100 ) , you´ll certainly feel better the night in Keylong than anyone flying in to Leh, from three reasons : Manali is higher than 1500 meters , Keylong is some 400 meters lower than Leh , and the Rothang La is 900 meters higher than Keylong. The second leg of the road is the real challenge , moving for a major part between the altitudes of Mont Blanc and Everest Base Camp but most people scrape by even when doing the the all night Manali-Leh run if they don´t get any lengthy delays at max altitude . This is an important caveat , I have experienced being snagged around five thousand meters twice , and the first time it involved dealing with an unconscious fellow passenger.
TWEAK # 1 : THIRD NIGHT RULE
The first major change that adaption to altitude brings about is the ability to hyperventilate , a change that you obviously want to be on the right side of before hitting the 5000+ passes . This shift occurs somewhere around the third night at altitude, 2000 to 3000 meters, for the large majority. The more time you´ve spent around 3000 , the better : always chose a night in Keylong over a night in Manali. After your three nights , safe ascent guide lines still apply : if you want to do Sarchu , do it on the return leg.
TWEAK # 2 : STARTING POINTS
The plane :
Acclimatization starts , very slowly , at 1500 meters altitude. A marginal tweak that comes in to play here is the time before Delhi : a long intercontinental flight can be a slight advantage , if you don´t faff about in Delhi. If you don´t have a clear goal with staying in Delhi, arrange your next leg of the trip beforehand : trains from the IIndia Rail site , buses via Redbus
Shimla is at 2200 meters , and easily reached from Delhi : take the night train (22-ish) to Kalka , and the connecting toy train 5.30 , arriving in Shimla , lunch time. Overnight buses connect with Manali.
Dhasa is at … well , to start with it´s spread out along a series of ridges . The highest sections are around 1800 meters , just over the threshold for acclimatization response. Don´t expect any substantial acclimatization effects from a short stay. On the other hand there are some treks starting here which will give you a definitive edge , like going to and staying overnight at Triund (2800-ish).
Manali is at 1950 meters , a working but far from ideal altitude to start acclimatization. The first tweak is to go on past Manali to Solang, some twenty klicks north , which lands you at 2500 meters.
Secondly you have Vashisht on the east side of the river : a lot lower than Solang , but still higher than Manali , and within backpacker budget.
The third possible tweak here is to take a day trip up to the Rothang . HPTDC buses makes daily runs in season.