Thousands of Nepalis make the pilgrimage to Gosainkunda Lake every year during the Janai Purnima festival. The Newari community all it Silu.
Gosainkunda sits at an altitude of 4350 meters above sea level. The steep trails and high altitude make it a challenge to reach the lake. Hundreds of pilgrims suffer from high altitude sickness every year, some even die as a result.
In August 2016, a Nepali group went on the pilgrimage to Gosainkunda Lake. They filmed their experience along the way and also spoke with other pilgrims, festival organisers and health workers. Their objective of making the film was to raise awareness about high altitude sickness among the future Nepali pilgrims.
Gokarna Giri (pilgrim): We have reached a place called Rasuwa in Dhunche district today. It is an altitude of 1950 meters.
Sagrit Ranahbhat (pilgrim): We have interviewed people at the information centre here.
Santosh Ghale (festival volunteer): We provide valuable information to those visiting here. Information on the trail, where the stops are, walking distances between places, information on the cautions they need to heed. We give information on the things they need to carry for the journey and also about preventative measures for high altitude sickness. We also inform people about medical facilities and emergency services and also about communication during emergencies.
Sagrit Ranahbhat (pilgrim): We realised people mostly enquire about altitude sickness here as majority of the pilgrims come from lower altitudes. Since it is full up because of the festival, people also seem to have many questions regarding accommodation facilities.
Bhai Kaji Banmala (pilgrim): One of the biggest difficulty we faced on the journey was the expensive nature of things here. Also the place lacks in basics… there are no toilets. It’s dirty, people bathe iin the lake and throw their clothes in it. I did not like what I saw. It is difficult for those who cannot walk as oxygen levels are lower there. Medical facilities were not always at the right places and one does suffer from high altitude sickness.
Manoj Khadka (pilgrim): Many people come on a whim, without any preparations and they suffer as a result. The festival falls during the monsoons so people should come with proper weather gear… there are leeches along the way. Since altitude sickness is an issue, people should carry medications for it. I noticed many brought local remedies for altitude sickness like ginger and garlic. Some people tend to get the sickness while some don’t get it. So come prepares, bring extra money. In case of accidents or emergencies, the extra money helps.
Sunil Jakibanjar (pilgrim): Our journey to the lake was made more difficult because we carried very heavy bags. The walk involves very steep uphills. There were many eateries set up along the way and food was easy to come by. Instead of carrying provisions, just carry light warm jackets and clothes. Carry more cash instead, that helps. We suffered because of our heavy load. We saw many suffering from altitude sickness so carry medications for it. Also take along painkillers and such.
Gelbu Sherpa (trekking guide): Keep in mind that you will come across pack animals, cattle and horses along the trails. During such times, remember to be always on the hill side and not on the cliff side. They can bump into you and send you over so always be very careful where you are when crossing them. Such accidents happen often.
Always stay warm. Don’t take off clothes while resting even if you feel the walk is making you overheat a bit. You must be wary and take care after passing 3500 metres.
Bijol Giri (pilgrim): we have reached Deorali and are breaking for lunch. The trail just keeps getting steeper and steeper.
Laxmi Twayana (pilgrim): The walk has been very difficult. There still are so many hills that we have yet to climb. I am getting breathless, my legs are shaking and I have a headache, must be because of the energy loss. His friends left him on his own. Always walk in a group to support one another. Some walk better than others and they tend to leave slower ones alone. Like the incidence I witnessed yesterday where the army had to rescue a youth left behind by his friends. Come in a group and never be separated.
Subba Lama (hotel owner): I feel that high altitude sickness is the result of imbalance created within the body. People tend to say that those living at higher altitudes do not suffer from altitude sickness but that is not true. I myself have got the sickness twice. If you go too high too quickly, your body weakens and you become sick. Ascend slowly and take plenty of rest along the way. In my experience, drinking garlic soup minimises the effects of altitude. The most important thing however is that if you are showing signs of altitude sickness – descend immediately. Don’t try and make it in a day by rushing. Most who get sick are such people who ascend too quickly. You will get sick if the body does not adjust but having said that it does not affect everyone.
Santosh Baniya (health camp volunteer): He is suffering from acute mountain sickness. We’ve done a cerebral edema test to see whether he has fluids in his brain but he seems ok regarding that. Given his condition, his chances of developing cerebral edema is very high if he remains at this altitude. We are treating him for the moment but he has to descend immediately after that.
Gobindra Bashyal (health camp volunteer): There are few places in the world where ascent is as rapid within a short time frame as is the case with Gosainkunda. From 1950 meters at the starting point of Dhunche, people sometimes come up to 4380 meters in a single day. Their bodies cannot acclimatise well in that time and they develop various forms of high altitude sickness. Their conditions turn very serious and the only option is to evacuate them from here. It happens every year. Luckily we have prevented deaths in the past few years for which we take certain pride.
The common signs of high altitude sickness are headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, lethargy and breathlessness even at rest. With such symptoms, one must never ascend higher; they have to descend to lower altitudes where oxygen concentrations are higher. Richer oxygen levels lower down will help in the recovery of such sick individuals. It is because of this lack of awareness that many pilgrims face difficulties and sometimes even death.
Santosh Baniya (health camp volunteer): When traversing high mountain areas, one must not ascend more than three hundred to five hundred meters in a day. More than medications, the best treatment is to acclimatise your body to the altitude and in the case of illness - it is to descend.
There is a saying that if able, a person should make at least on pilgrimage to Gosainkunda in their lifetime. Should you consider making the pilgrimage, we hope the experiences of pilgrims shown in the film helps you better prepares. This knowledge should also help make your pilgrimage a more comfortable and safe experience.
Remember - if you are s ick at high altitude, you most likely have altitude sickness. Don’t ascend further if you have symptoms of high altitude. Descend immediately if your symptoms are severe or you cannot walk in a straight line. Never send someone with altitude sickness down alone. It is ok to have mild altitude sickness but it is not ok to die from it as it is easily preventable.