Saturday, December 10, 2005

Everest Trip Report -Part 1

Oct 31 – Nov 28/05
Part 1

Photos may be viewed at

The Everest Marathon – billed as ‘the highest and toughest marathon in the world’ lived up to its billing. What the brochure left out was that is also the hardest marathon in the world to get to the start line!

The marathon first attracted my attention a few years ago and my research revealed that it is only held every two years in the fall/Nov. and you had to ‘qualify’ for the race. You had to have experience in endurance events at high altitudes and the cut-off age was 65. I requested more details and learned that it was an expensive race/event to run because the packaged trip/tour lasted 26 days that included three weeks of trekking in the Himalayans. I tried unsuccessfully to find a corporate sponsor to help with the costs but in the end finally accepted Maddog’s advice: “forget the cost – you don’t know how much time you have left in this world so go for it – it may be your last chance”!

I figured I had an advantage in that I could train all summer in the Colorado Rockies to get used to mountain trails and high altitudes. As most of you know I trained very hard all summer in ‘Maddog’s Suicidal High Altitude Training Camp’. By the end of the summer I had climbed eight ‘14ers’ and raced three mountain trail marathons and felt I was in pretty good shape? I was ready for the Himalayans and Everest!
Now I had to put my kit together. I am not a camper and had very little of the required camping gear – a sleeping bag good to –20C, warm hikingclothes, headlamp, etc. The only compromise I made was the sleeping bag. Instead of spending a lot of money on a top quality down bag I bought a cheaper bag that was rated for –20C but was twice the weight and volume. That decision did cause a lot of inconvenience on the trek! However I did buy the best (and largest) Camelback Daypack I could find and that turned out to be a great decision.

So now that I have explained some of the background it is time to get on with the story. Before leaving for Nepal at the end of Oct I had to return to Europe to run my last two countries in Europe –Bulgaria and Bosnia. I finished Bosnia on Oct 15/05 and returned home on Oct 20th. I had ten days to get ready for Nepal. To save money I had booked my own air travel with free miles and would meet the group in Kathmandu. The downside of the ‘free’ travel was that I had to accept a routing that took 41 hours of airplane and airport time from FL to Katmandu! I left FL on Mon 10/31 and arrived in Kathmandu on Wed 11/2. I arrived one day before the main group so I had an extra day to recover from the long trip and jet lag. While I was waiting for the main group to arrive on Thu I met a few runners from Christchurch, NZ who had arrived a week early and had been trekking on their own in the West region of Nepal. Robert was a fell runner and serious about winning the marathon – not in my league! He had been running every morning at 4am in Kathmandu to beat the traffic pollution and congestion – I had just decided that it wasn’t worth it to run in those conditions?

The main group arrived from London on Thu night and on Fri we held some group meetings to discuss the plans/itinerary for the trip. There were a total of seventy runners, race volunteers and medical staff so we were split into three groups of about 24 people: ‘The Early Birds’; ‘The Late Birds’ and ‘The Cuckoos”. I was with the ‘Cuckoos’ and my roommate/tent mate for the trip was a very nice gentleman, Francisco, an economist from Buenos Aires, Argentina! Our group seemed to be the most laid back. We had a few fell runners from the UK but most of the team members were running their first marathon? The other groups had fell teams from different regions of the UK and most were very intent on competing and winning the race! I soon realized that I was totally out of my league!

On Fri afternoon our tour operator took the group on a tour of Kathmandu. We started with a visit to the 2,000 year-old Buddhist shrine of Swayambhunath or the ‘Monkey Temple’ located on a hill overlooking the city. It has one of the oldest stupas in the world but is a strange mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Next we visited Durbar Square with its multitude of palaces and temples. It was started in the 1500s by the Malla kings and enlarged in the 17th century. We stopped at the Kumari Bahal, the home of Nepal’s living goddess – a young girl selected from a Newari Buddhist family at the age of four. She can only leave her palace seven times a year when she is carried through the streets to assure Kathmandu of her protection. When she reaches puberty she is no longer considered ‘pure’ and is replaced!
We walked past many of the Hindu temples as we made our way to Thamel – the main tourist area of the city! It is a madhouse of pedestrians, rickshaws, motorcycles and cars fighting for room on the narrow streets as hawkers try to sell you their junk souvenirs!

We were limited to a total weight of 12 Kilos for our kit bags that would be carried by the sherpas/porters and the bags were weighed before they were transported to the airport on Sat morning. My oversized/heavy sleeping bag was already a problem. I had to stuff more equipment into my Daypack that I would have to carry myself! I also left a lot of clothes and gear in Kathmandu.

On Sat morning we departed early for the airport for a flight to Lukla. Lukla is the gateway into the Everest region in the East region of Nepal. There are no roads into Lukla – only an airport and trails! The airport is built into the side of a mountain at 2860m/9438 ft - it is only 500m long and looks like a ski jump. Planes land up the ski jump/runway and take off down the ski jump. All landings/take offs are visual and there is only one chance! The Airlines use old Canadian Beaver aircraft equipped to carry 16 passengers and land on a short runway. It is an exciting flight in both directions! We all arrived in Lukla safely, collected our kit bags and assembled near the airport to meet our Sherpas and depart for Phakding where we would camp for the first night.

Phakding (2652m/8750 ft) is 200 m lower than Lulka so we actually trekked downhill through the Lukla Valley. Francisco and I trekked together and arrived in Phakding in about three hours. Along the trail I had noted that at that elevation the terrain was similar to Colorado – lots of forest/trees but the mountains were higher. Lukla Valley is dominated by Khatang (6353/20,969 ft) – higher than any mountain in CO. I also noted that the trails were much wider than CO and much busier. There were hundreds and hundreds of trekkers, Sherpas and Yaks going in both directions. I thought I was trekking (or hiking as we say in CO) on 45th St in NYC? And since the trail from Lukla to Namche Bazaar is the main route into the Everest region there are teahouses or lodges located every 1000m along the trail. These ‘teahouses’ serve tea/beer/ pop and food to the trekkers and offer lodgings – a dormitory room or double room for as little as 50 cents/night! I am used to hiking in CO where I can go for hours or days and never meet another person. This was just too busy and commercialized for me. We were supposed to be in the Himalayan Mtns – not 45th ST in NYC!

Francisco and I ate lunch while we waited for our Sherpas to arrive with our tents and kit bags. Typically the Sherpas would set up our tents in an area adjacent to a lodge. There was a charge for using the campground and an outdoor cookhouse. If we ate in the dining room of the lodge which was warmer and more comfortable than eating in a mess tent there was also a fee for that. (paid by the event organizer). That first night we ate in the mess tent – I assume to get us used to such luxury? Although it was not too cold at that elevation the pattern of the trek started to emerge. The Sherpas would usually arrive at our campsite after us (since they were carrying 80+ pounds of gear up and down mountains) but hopefully before the sun went down and it started to get cold. After they put up our tents we would empty our kit bags and get our sleeping bags, etc prepared for the night. We soon discovered that when the sun dropped behind the mountains the temps dropped 20/30 degrees and it got very COLD – very quickly! Thus it was necessary to change into your sleeping clothes/PJs before the sun went down! At 4pm each day the Sherpas would serve hot tea and biscuits in the mess tent or lodge dining room. I went to afternoon tea in my PJs and stayed in the warm lodge until dinner was served at 6 pm as did most of the team! We would read/play cards or write our daily logs until dinner. By 5 pm it was dark and very COLD in the tents! Read – DAMN MISERABLE !
Dinner always started with a bowl of hot soup (usually quite good) with some kind of bread or popcorn – they put popcorn in the soup because it is easy to carry and prepare! Then there are two or three portions of veggies – usually potatoes and/or rice served with lentil soup (the Nepal traditional dish of dal bhat) and another veggie such as steamed cabbage. I became very frustrated that there was very little meat served! After our delicious ‘veggie’ dinner they would serve a dessert. All of this food is prepared in an outdoor cookhouse and carried to the mess tent or dining room. After dinner hot tea and/or hot chocolate is served. I soon became so tired of tea that I started drinking a lot of hot chocolate.

Now back to Phakding. While the Sherpas were setting up our tents I decided to do a short hike along the trail towards Namche to explore the next day’s route? About 1 mile from the camp I came upon a young Nepali woman lying on the side of the trail. Another woman was trying to coax her to get up. I asked if she was sick and if she had sent for help. We had a communication problem because I understood that help was coming. So I continued on. But 30 minutes later when I returned the woman was still lying on the trail? I ran back to our camp and explained to our team doctors what I had found and asked them to go and look at the woman. I escorted them back to the young lady and she was indeed unconscious and they could not revive her so we carried her back to the camp in a portable stretcher. They revived her and gave her some IV and antibiotics to treat a serious chest infection. The docs arranged to put her up in the lodge for the night so they could continue to treat her but when they checked on her in the morning she was gone? She had yanked out the IV and left during the night?
I still felt good that I had done my good deed for the day!

The next morning we enjoyed our first breakfast in the (COLD) mess tent and learned the morning pattern. First a Sherpa wakes you about 6am with a cup of hot tea. Then you have about 30/45 minutes to pack up your kit bag and leave it outside the tent for the Sherpas to pick up and carry to the next campsite. That first morning I changed from my PJs into my trekking clothes – damn cold on the butt at 6am in minus temps! Then you go to breakfast. Breakfast would start with a bowl of cereal but it was served with HOT milk. The milk is made from powder and they can’t use cold water because it wouldn’t be safe to drink. I just couldn’t stomach cereal with HOT milk so I skipped that after the first day. Sometimes there would be porridge – kind of a sloppy/liquidy mixture of oatmeal. I had wisely brought a pound of brown sugar that I carried all through the Himalayans – but it helped make the porridge edible! That was followed by eggs – usually an omelet on dry toast or some kind of local bread. This was actually quite good but after 18 days I swore that I would never eat another egg or drink another cup of hot tea!

After breakfast it was time to move on to Namche Bazaar. We continued up the valley through blue pine and rhododendron forests with Kusum Kanguru (6369 m/21,017 ft) on our right and crossed the river several times on wire/rope suspension bridges. If you met a Yak team on the bridge you would have to retreat and give them right-of-way! We entered the Sagarmatha National Park and started a very steep climb to Namche Bazaar (3446 m/11,400 ft) – a 2400 vertical foot climb! I noticed another big difference from CO – Nepal does not use switchbacks. The trails go straight up the mountain – if it gets too steep they add steps. Believe me - climbing steps for a ½ mile at 11,000 (or 16,000 ft) is not easy! But I kept chugging away and was the first runner to arrive in Namche!

Namche is the administrative center of the Khumbu or Everest region. Our itinerary called for two nights in Namche for altitude acclimation. Our race organizer had booked rooms in lodges for all runners so we got to live in (relative) comfort for two days. Francisco and I shared a room above the kitchen so our room actually had some heat until about 9 pm each night. Each room had two beds/cots where you spread your sleeping bag out. The walls were paper-thin so we could hear people snoring/coughing three rooms away. There was no indoor plumbing – the toilet and hot shower were located outside. This didn’t bother Francisco and I since we had come equipped with ‘pee’ bottles – you peed in the bottle during the night and emptied it in the morning – instead of getting out of a warm sleeping bag at 3 am! Don’t know what the women did? Renting a room for $1/night also required that we eat at least one meal in the lodge so the Sherpas did not prepare our meals for those two days. I was able to order meals with meat – always pieces of Yak meat. I even ordered a Yak steak for one dinner!

Many of the runners were able to buy additional gear that they already realized they needed. I bought a fleece sweater for another layer of sleeping clothes and some trekking poles for the steep trails. Since we had two ‘rest’ days in Namche many of us explored the area and got in an actual training run. The marathon finished in Namche and the 20-mile mark was located on a trail above the village and the final 10K of the marathon was a 5K loop from Namche to Thamo. Namche and Thamo are essentially at the same elevation but there were several hills between them so the loop was not that easy as Francisco and I found out on our first day. We ran an easy 5 miles out and back – it took 80 minutes! The following day the whole group ran the 10K loop to become familiar with the route – 90 minutes to run 10K – on fresh legs! It would be much harder on race day after 20 miles! I was beginning to realize that my pre-race goal of 6 hours was probably not realistic?

Many of also took time to visit the Sherpa Museum dedicated to the Sherpa people. It was very interesting. And most of us trekked about 3 miles up above Namche to the Everest View hotel for our first view of Everest – about 30 miles away. Our two days of rest were gone quickly and it was time to start the real trek. The first leg of the trek would take one week as we trekked up the Dudh Kosi Valley to Gokyo (4750m/15,675 ft). This trek would be the first attempt to acclimate to the high altitudes and strengthen our legs for the race!

I will continue the story of this trek in Part 2 of the trip report.

Stay tuned!

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