"The Himalayas,"I said to myself as the sky grew dark around us.

The Annapurna Circuit is the most popular trek in Nepal. The entire trek lasts three weeks from start to finish, weather permitting. Most trekkers begin the trek out of Pokhara (about five hours outside of Kathmandu). From there one must obtain an easy-to-process permit in order to spend more than one night on the circuit. The area is administered by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, which strives to preserve the cultural, and natural resources.

Without any hassle my friends and I hired a Sherpa to take us on a guided tour throughout the circuit. I am thankful we did because our experienced Sherpa saved my life.

My travel companions and I edged our way along the Annapurna Circuit towards our rest stop for the night, trying to beat nightfall. It was December and the air was cool that time of year in Nepal. The night before we left, I had come down with a simple head cold.

I never thought this trip would bring me danger.

In the distance I could barely make out a village where we would be spending the night, after our long eight-hour day of hard climbing. The word village was a funny way to describe three shacks and a mud hut restaurant perched on a mountainside, lit up only by candlelight. I remember this one night in particular, the night my trekking adventure took a turn for the worst.

A weathered but beautiful Nepalese woman greeted us upon arrival. Her hands were dirty and callused from an obvious hard day in the vertical layered fields she plowed into the mountainside. Her eyes were deep, dark, and told a long tale without her saying a word. She warmly smiled at our tired expressions and showed us to where we would spend the night. Her children played and curiously popped their heads in and out of the doorway to our room. Playfully they would yell "Namaste" then run away excited for us to respond. They were so content in their world, far away from the noise and chaos of the city; bare feet and torn clothes, but not a care in the world. To them happiness was really within and not in the circumstance.

After a warm meal I was more than ready for bed. My cold had spread down into my lungs, so most of the night was spent hacking. Even though I was exhausted, I stared out into the dark sky unable to fall asleep. Suddenly, the rooster outside was letting us know that the sun had risen and it was time to get up. Although I knew it was in my best interest to to eat breakfast before our long day of trekking began, for some reason I had no appetite and the thought of food only made me nauseous. It was then that I first noticed our Sherpa taking a special interest in my cold and myself. He asked lots of questions and pressed for me to inform him if and when I felt a headache coming on. Very quickly, I knew where he was going with this. He was concerned I was developing altitude sickness. I had done some research before we left Canada, and I knew the symptoms: Sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and chronic headaches. At the time I was convinced he was wrong, and besides that morning was our first clear view of the beckoning Annapuma. We were so close. I was just fighting a common cold, that's all. I was in tiptop shape and we were not very high up into the range. Although I appreciated his concern, I felt there really was no need for alarm, and we proceeded with our joumey.

That afternoon I felt an excruciating headache coming on. Trying to hide it from our Sherpa and my friends I pulled my cap down tighter to better shade my brow from the blazing sun; I hid my squinting eyes behind dark glasses. The pain grew stronger and stronger. I couldn't even look up anymore. I didn't care, I wasn't going to turn back and ruin the trip for everyone. I fooled myself into believing it really was just a cold irritating me. My charade didn't last long. The Sherpa decided to stick close to me, to keep an on eye on me the whole time. What was I thinking - trying to fool an experienced mountaineer? This was his home, and lucky for me he understood the dangers of high mountain distress.

Suddenly, without warning I began to hyperventilate. I collapsed. I had gone from an even breathing pace to not being able to catch a breath at all. Everything grew dark around me, - I was passing out. It was then that I felt a yank under my arms and I was instantly dragged down the mountain. Is he crazy I thought? I could.barely breathe let alone try walking! I was scared and tried to ask the Sherpa to stop and let me rest! He wouldn't listen and kept rushing me down the mountain. My feet could barely keep up. I didn't understand what was happening to me.

Within a few minutes my breathing began to ease up and it was then that I was allowed to sit down and I slowly breathed a regular pace. I had contracted altitude sickness, just as our Sherpa had expected. He explained to me later that day if I had gone on climbing the mountain that day I could have ended up very sick or even died in a few days. He proceeded to inform me that altitude sickness can hit men, women, and children of all ages, and all physical abilities. It is not always predictable. After a day and half rest in a nearby village I spent the rest of our trek (hiking along the river back to Pokhara) thanking our Sherpa for saving me from something that could have been deathly serious. I will never forget him. I will return back to Nepal one day to complete the Annapurna Circuit. This time without a cold!

Tips to help avoid altitude sickness: Give your body a chance to acclimatize; realize that everyone acclimatizes at different rates (don't be afraid to take your time!). Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and pain medications. Pay attention to the following symptoms: loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, sleeplessness, and confusion. Drink plenty of water. -
By Joanna Niebler, Toronto Correspondent.

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