A Run in the Clouds
By Lesley Mochan, New Zealand
If the altitude doesn’t make you breathless, the scenery will.
Our bus squeezes between two other vehicles. Horns are blaring, and a cow casually wanders across the road bringing a halt to the ever moving stream of traffic. Welcome to Kathmandu, a city of chaos. We arrive at the Hotel Shanker, a Maharaja’s Palace built in the 1900’s. I feel as though I have walked into an Agatha Christie novel. The building is grand, and is surrounded by glorious gardens with a pool.
Seventy or so people gather here from all around the world. They are here for one purpose – to run the 2007 Everest Marathon. We are to be joined by three group leaders, six doctors, and a Nepalese team of porters, sherpas, cooks, sirdars and yak drivers. They are here for one purpose – to get us to the start of the Everest marathon.
We have couple of days in Kathmandu to do some of the tourist spots, a bit of bartering with the locals, and a 10km fun run through a nature reserve. This was after a teeth chattering ride up a four wheel drive track definitely not built for buses. The fun run is fancy dress and the four Kiwi army guys dressed as jersey cows steal the show.
Preparations for the trek include splitting us into three groups, gear checks, weighing of kit bags (bad news if it’s over 12kg), altitude sickness lectures, and our group leader words of advice – go SLOW. It’s only been two days and the first of the group are struck down with D & V (diarrhea and vomiting).
A 4 am wake up call and we are loaded into buses bound for the airport. Fog grounds us for a few hours but in hindsight it may have been good to have landed in fog, as the Lukla airstrip is built on a side of a hill and I swear it is no longer than 200 metres! The pilots are given a hearty round of applause as we land safely.
In Lukla we experience our first taste of lemon tea and are told to get used to the taste, as we will need to drink four to five litres of fluid per day. Funny how something tasting so good at the start of a trek, can taste so bad after 24 days. Ever tried to drink this amount? The amount of urine produced is unbelievable. This is part of the body adapting to the altitude and results in several toilet visits per night.
We meet the trekking crew (and yaks). We now have 16 days to get to know these guys and the daily schedule of trekking. It goes like this: bed tea at 6.30 am, breakfast at 7.00, trekking at 8.00. Lunch on the way or at our destination around 1.00 pm, camp set up at 3.00, camp tea at 4.00, dinner at 6.00, announcements and the silly hat nominations at 7.30, bed at 8.00pm. In amongst this schedule are four acclimatization days (or so called rest days but owing to the nature of the group rest was an unknown word).
The first night camping is a bit of a shock to the body, even with a camping mat and thermarest. Nevertheless, I was so tired, the discomfort was only tempory. The real shock was about to hit the next day, when we meet our first ‘major’ hill. Climbing at altitude is like your worst day training. Everything is an effort and heart rates skyrocket. I felt like I had lived all my life on the couch, and my body had never exercised – not good for the psyche. Combined with the fact that I am slower than a sick snail, porters carrying 60+ kilos pass me, and yaks carrying even more than that, leave a trail of dust that infiltrates every pore and wrinkle, and sticks to all clothing. Then I look around and inhale the extreme beauty that surrounds me. Snow clad peaks 7,000m and above dominate the skyline.
Our next stop is Namche Bazaar, which reminds me a bit of a one last stop shop town. Friendly locals are busy selling trekking gear, supplies, yak souvenirs, and Tibetan traders hock off cheap Chinese merchandise. We have two nights here, in lodges that have hot showers and real toilets. On the second day we get the opportunity to run/walk the last 10km loop of the Marathon course. They call this the infamous ‘Thamo loop’, the breaking of many previous marathoners. The course seems fine to me, a bit undulating. I can’t really understand what all the fuss is about.
The next day I wake with a headache, which I don’t shake for five days. The D & V bug is slowly making its way around the group. We begin the first part of the journey – destination Gokyo, with a summit called Gokyo Ri (5483m). This part of the trek took us through Khumjung (the first Sir Edmund Hillary school), past the Everest bakery (awesome apple pie and custard the colour of buttercups). We wowed at amazing views of Ama Dablam, and continued to Dole (4084m). At Macherno (4465m) a few of the trekkers took on the Nepalese porters in a game of ‘touch’, using a sleeping bag as a ball. I have never heard such infectious laughter as I did from the Nepalese that day: they ran rings around us and seemed to get immense enjoyment from seeing the westerners lying on the ground gasping for air.
By this stage we are starting to get used to the extreme temperature drop at 3.30 pm when the sun disappears behind the mountains, and any drying clothes immediately turn to frozen sculptures. Liquids in the tent freeze over night and the sleeping bags are covered by a thin layer of white frost. We learn that turning over in the night and visits to the outhouse can leave you breathless. We also become quite relaxed about the nocturnal sound of the neck bells attached to the yaks as no one yet has had their tent or tent buddy trampled. We were even relaxed about the fact that we haven’t had a shower for several days and bad hair days are the norm.
During the final climb into Gokyo (4791m) I held my breath as the heavily laden yaks climbed a series of stairs that were so narrow that they hardly took the width of a yak. To the side was a 10m drop to the partially frozen river. At the top of the climb, we were stunned as we came across the first of five turquoise lakes. Magical is the only way to describe the scene. Goyko village overlooks the third lake, and to the right hand side is the Ngozumba glacier, cracking as it moves. Then to the north, just over the 6000m range is Tibet.
It was at this glorious spot that the D & V bug caught up with me and I spent a most uncomfortable night struggling with my sleeping bag zip as I earnestly made my way to and from the toilet tent. The next day was a very slow trip back down, and upon reaching camp I crawled into my bag and slept for fifteen hours.
Within a day we were back down the valley and heading up the race route on our way to Gorak Shep. The first stop was Tengboche monastery after a serious 600m climb. The monastery was open to the public and it was a real honour to be able to see inside the prayer room and observe the chanting of the monks. Deboche (3737m) was the camp site for the night and it was here that the brown dog appeared. That night we experienced our first -12°C, and it sure was cold. So cold that one of the yak drivers must have drunk lots of chang to keep warm. At the time we met him, he was stumbling off the track, and his yaks were blocking the path. A quick check by Dr Dave confirmed he was indeed inebriated, and hence Dave assumed the role of yak driver, something med school had definitely not prepared him for. The pickled porter was not seen again.
Dingboche (4343m) was the second rest day spot, and the camp became a Chinese laundry with lines strung between tents. The brown dog, who had definitely attached himself to us, even managed to sneak into the lodge and get himself a place by the fire. That night we introduced the chicken song and were treated to Nepalese folk songs. It was about this time that food lost its appeal, which is fairly unusual as I do have a ‘healthy’ appetite. Doc Baz confirmed ‘giardia’, which will explain the eggy burps I had had for the last few days.
The views of Ama Dablam (6812m) along this route are absolutely stunning. We passed stone huts which are used to store food for the yaks. The huts had slate roofs with patches of grass sprouting from cracks. The vegetation is now very sparse, and most plants have lost their leaves. Soon after passing through Duglha (4593m), we come across the memorial cairns for those who have perished on Everest. As we slowly make our way across the site, no one speaks. There are dozens of cairns. We move onto Lobuche (4930m), and the cold wraps itself around us like a wet blanket. I cannot get warm. Even the dog is shivering.
The last rest day dawns and I decide to go with the group to Gorak Shep and attempt to climb Kala Pattar (5623m). The track follows the Khumbu glacier and becomes very rocky. Everest appears and disappears as clouds swirl around the summit. I feel the full force of the altitude monster as I start the climb. I am breathless after five or so steps, and my heart is red lining. Is this a smart thing to do two days before the race? I continue on and the temperature plummets. As I climb the last ten metres to the summit the wind is so strong that I am blown sideways. I struggle to hold the pole at the top and get a quick photo taken. Wow, I am higher than base camp!
As we descend to Lobuche, it starts to snow. The tents and brown dog are covered in a thin layer of white. I cover the dog with one of my jackets. Later I discover that he has crawled into the tent foyer as I head out for one of my nightly pit stops. It has stopped snowing and the sky is lit up with millions of stars – another magic moment.
That morning the wind is so strong that one of the dunny tents is uprooted. The porters struggle to hold down the tent fly sheets as the camp is dismantled. The group leaders and medical team meet to decide whether we go on, or move the start of the marathon to lower down. Ram, the senior sirdar gives the thumbs up for going higher. First we have our medical checks and we wait patiently as our turn comes about. All but two in our group pass and we say our goodbyes to those needing to go lower and the aid station crew. The trek back up to Gorek Shep was bitterly cold and we took turns leading. Much to our delight we were assigned lodges for the night, and set out sorting our race packs prior to the race briefing later that afternoon.
A knock on the door at 4.15 am indicates race day is here. I pile on four layers and step outside to ‘test the water’. It’s dark and calm. The temperature lingers at about -15°C. A nervousness mixed with excitement is in the air. The Kiwis perform the haka as the other competitors line up at the start line on the lake bed. The brown dog joins in. At exactly 6.27 am we head off, and at 6.30 we hit the first hill. My heart is pumping so hard, I think my chest will explode. I watch the Nepalese runners (wearing only tee shirts) disappear into the distance. Each step becomes a potential ankle twister as I make my way over the Khumbu glacier. Aid stations are about every 5km where sterilized water and choc bars are available. My race plan is to drink 500ml, eat a bar, and attempt to complete each leg within 60 minutes. As the course was predominately downhill, it was achievable, but I was unsure how I would cope with the two grueling uphill sections. It wasn’t long before I had stripped off to one layer. The section leading to Pheriche was very difficult as there were no definite tracks, and it involved several stream crossings over ice covered rocks.
The closer we got to Deboche, the prettier the course became. Snow was hanging from the surrounding trees, and rays of light danced on the track ahead. A mountain goat stood proudly on a rock, raising his head as I snapped a photo. I was now over half way and heading up the first hill to Tengboche. A quick glance at my watch showed 11.15 (about the time the first Nepalese runners were finishing). After turning down the rice pudding at the Tengboche aid station, it was a very steep decent to the Dudh Kosi river. I knew that the new bridge at the bottom signified the start of the gut busting Sarnassa hill. I had mentally prepared myself for this climb and after1 hour and 16 minutes I reached the top. I felt pretty good, but some of the others I passed obviously did not. I knew the remainder of the route was undulating, but every small rise was starting to become a mountain in itself.
Upon reaching the aid station above Namche I could hear the cheering of the crowd down in the village. I was asked how I was feeling, and I replied “tired, but I’m gonna make it”. The Thamo loop that was so easy to run fifteen days ago now became a battle of the will. The first 5 km was predominately downhill, so I managed to shuffle most of the way. Upon passing oncoming runners heading for the finish line, a quick high five was easier than talking. Finally, another hour later, I reached the turnaround point and managed the last 5km back five minutes faster. Down the stairs into Namche, along the narrow street, past cheering onlookers and I was there! Eight hours and one minute! I was ecstatic as I had prepared myself for 8-9 hours (as they said, double your road marathon time).
Who do you think was sitting with the finishers? Yes, the brown dog. He had come all the way down, so I took off my finisher’s medal, placed it around his neck, as he posed for photos. The next day he was gone, probably already latched on to another trekking group.
Wow what a great feeling to have finished not only the highest, and most spectacular, but the hardest marathon in the world. If it wasn’t for my chronic blisters I would have jumped for joy. The first runner had completed the course in 4.12 and the last runner came across the line in 11.47. British mountain champion runner, Angela Mudge, set a new female course record of 5.02, and 8th runner overall (with 6 Nepalese runners ahead of her) – an amazing effort. I was very happy with my 4th female vet placing, but being the first Kiwi female (and oldest) was pretty special too. Of the original 92 starters, 7 did not finish, and unfortunately 3 of the group had been evacuated previously due to medical reasons.
The following day was spent relaxing and eating, with non-stop chatter about the race. It was a sad night as we said goodbye to our amazing trekking crew. Had it not been for these guys, we would not have even made the start line. We gave gifts of clothing and money which was much appreciated.
The next morning was another early start, and a 200m climb up to the airstrip at Shyangboche to meet the Russian helicopter that ferried us in four groups back to Lukla for our flights back to Kathmandu. The chopper ride was not for the faint hearted, and I heard Gerard praying in French.
Back in Kathmandu we had a couple of days for shopping or sightseeing, or just doing nothing. We had our prizegiving dinner the night before we flew out. Everyone from the first to the last runner was given a huge round of applause. It was hard to say goodbye, but it was also nice to know that it was time to go home. The whole adventure was very well organized and I am sure that every participant acknowledges the amazing medical care we got from the doctors and the group leaders. Nepal is a beautiful country, with wonderful people and I look forward to the day I can return. I also hear that there is a great race in Mongolia…