Sunday, December 11, 2005

Everst Marathon Trip Report -Part 2

Oct 31 – Nov 28/05
Part 2

Photos may be viewed at

Now where was I? Oh yes – we were getting ready to leave Namche Bazaar on Tue 11/08 for a trek up the Dudh Kosi Valley to Gokyo. Since the marathon finished in Namche on 11/21 we were advised to leave a clean change of clothes in Namche to change into after the race. I took the opportunity to leave some more clothes behind to lighten the weight of my kit bag and daypack.

We trekked from Namche to Sarnassas (miles 20 to 17 on the marathon route –all downhill which meant a steep uphill during the race) before turning north into a very dense forest and climbing 300 m to Khumjung (3760 m/12,408 ft) to camp for the night. Khumjung is a fairly large village with a school and hospital that serves that area of the Khumbu region. It is dominated by Ama Dablam (6856 m/22624 ft). Although the mountain is not that high it stands alone and looks quite spectacular!
It was expected to get very cold that night so I changed into thermal underwear as part of my PJs before going to afternoon tea. Dinner actually had some meat – Yak curry – to fortify us and get us ready for the cold night. Temps dropped to –5C and my water bottle froze. I became quite skilled at guessing the overnight low temps by how solid my water bottle was frozen each morning.

Wake up/tea time was 6:15 am on Wed. It was so cold that I left my thermal underwear on and pulled my trekking clothes on over them for breakfast. We continued to trek through a forest that blocked the sun and kept the temps so cold that most of the waterfalls we passed were solid sheets of ice! The trails were rocky and covered in ice – very dangerous! We descended to Phorche Tanga where the trail split off to Phortse and Dole and took the fork to Dole. It was a very steep climb up to Dole (4048 m/13,358 ft) where we would camp for the night. Taboche (6501 m/21,453 ft) towers over the village. After we left the forest and started the climb to Dole the sun came out and it got so hot that I had to strip naked on the trail to take off the thermal underwear. I was either too hot or too cold? After another veggie dinner I went to bed early. Expecting another cold night I added a liner to my sleeping bag but actually found it too hot during the night?

After an early tea (6 am) and another egg breakfast on Thu we set off for Machermo (4460 m/14,718 ft) where we were scheduled to camp for two days to acclimate to the higher altitudes. Machermo sits in a large valley that is dominated by three mountains: Machermo (6186 m/20,413 ft), Taboche and Cholotse (6410 m/21,153 ft). There was less traffic/people on this route but the trails were very dusty and covered in Yak shit and this contaminated combination was constantly stirred up by the traffic and ingested by the trekkers so that by the time we reached Machermo everyone was suffering from the ‘Himalyan cough’ – a dry, irritating cough caused by the dry air/dust/Yak shit! For many the cough turned into a chest cold and/or infection. By now many of the runners were also having intestinal problems (vomiting and diarrhea) in spite of our constant attention to hygiene. But we could only take care of our hygiene. I watched a Sherpa in a lodge add Yak shit to a fire and then prepare and serve food to trekkers w/o washing her hands. We were eating Yak shit!!! Thanks to our doctors/medical teams and drugs – they were able to keep all of the runners going in spite of the problems/illnesses. But at 15,000 ft some of the runners started suffering from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness or Altitude Sickness as we call it in CO). One of our teammates, Justin, got so seriously ill with AMS that he couldn’t walk and had to be carried by Sherpas down the mountain in the dark accompanied by the team doctor. The only cure for AMS is to get to a lower elevation to acclimate so they carried him back down to Dole where he stayed for three days acclimating and waiting for us to pick him up on the way back down. Even some of the team doctors suffered from AMS and had to retreat to lower elevations for additional acclimation.

The doctors and race organizers warned/advised us to rest and acclimate during our two days in Machermo – not to do anything too strenuous! I followed that advice for the first day. Francisco and I did our laundry in a mountain stream – the water coming off the Machermo Glacier was so cold that my hands turned blue within a few minutes of scrubbing! Then I enjoyed a hot shower at the lodge where we camped. The shower was an outdoor stall with a 40-liter bucket on the roof that was filled with hot water heated on the kitchen stove. I stood on an inch of ice covering the concrete floor of the shower stall while the hot water scalded my head and body – it was wonderful as I washed all the dust and Yak shit off my body and washed my hair! All for a cheap fee of $2! Then I enjoyed a Yak steak and chips at the lodge. It was a great rest day! However the next day I figured I ‘needed’ to do a hard training run and ran a fast 10K back towards Dole. The first 5K downhill was OK but on the way back I started to suffer a slight headache - a sign of AMS. After the run Francisco and I climbed up a ridge overlooking Machermo. We climbed to 16,000 ft and the headache got worse – not good! I decided to rest and take it easy for the rest of the day in the hope that the headache would disappear by morning?
Actually found some Yak meat in my dinner that night but the headache still persisted.
It had been very cold the first night in Machermo so I added the liner to my sleeping bag to keep me warmer. Good thing – my water bottle was frozen solid in the morning!

On Sat morning we had to pack up everything to continue the trek to Gokyo. It was a short journey and we only climbed 300 m/1000 ft but my headache came back by the time we reached Gokyo (4750 m/15,675 ft). I was disappointed because I wanted to climb Gokyo Ri but decided it would not be wise to climb another 750 m with a headache/AMS. Instead I joined some teammates to climb a ridge about 200m above Gokyo that overlooked the village and the Ngozumpa Glacier. The glacier starts at Cho Oyu (8153 m/26,905 ft) – about 10 miles north of Gokyo and flows down the Dudh Kosi Valley for about 20 miles. When we returned to Gokyo we learned that the lodge where we were camping could not accommodate all our tents and eight of us needed to volunteer to sleep in the lodge. Being the oldest members of the team Francisco and I volunteered. The lodge rooms are not heated so they are not much warmer than the tent but they are still more comfortable than the tent. However it did cause some problems/confusion because of the rule that lodge guests must eat their meals from the lodge. It makes it difficult for our Sherpas to figure out how many to cook for and who they are supposed to feed. But that night turned out to be the coldest night of the trek so we were happy with our decision.

The next morning I was also happy to wake up w/o a headache so I joined some teammates to climb to the summit of Gokyo Ri (5483 m/18,0893 ft) early in the morning. I have climbed many 14ers in CO but believe me there is no comparison when you start climbing at 16,000 ft and have to climb 2,000 + vertical ft on a very steep ascent. I was sucking air all the way up and had to make a lot of rest stops. But the climb was worth it! Gokyo RI stands all alone and thus offers a spectacular and panoramic view of ‘The Top of The World”. You can see twenty peaks over 20,000 ft – from Cho Oyu (8153 m/26,910 ft) in the North to Everest (8850 m/29,205 ft), Lhotse (8501 m/28,053 ft), Makalu (8475 m/27,968 ft) to Thamserku (6608 m/21,806 ft) near Namche. That was a sight/memory I will remember forever!

But now it was time to end this part of the trek and head back down the Dudh Kosi Valley to the Khumbu Valley. After we descended Gokyo Ri we trekked back down the valley past Machermo and camped overnight in Luza (4390 m/14,487 ft). On the way we passed by the Gokyo Lakes again and sighted some lamagons (look like eagles) playing in the mountain downdrafts. After camping in Luza we continued our trek on Mon down through Dole where we picked up Justin and another team mate who were acclimating there and continued on back past the ice waterfalls to camp again in Khumjung. The lodge in Khumjung now looked like a paradise compared to some we had camped at higher up in the mountains. But the Sherpas still fed us another veggie dinner!

On Tue it was time to leave Khumjung and trek back down to Sarnassas to rejoin the actual marathon route. Francisco and I skipped the usual egg breakfast and stopped at a bakery in Khumjung – the highest bakery in the world- for a good old-fashioned cinnamon bun and hot chocolate. It was wonderful! We then descended to Sarnassas and continued on down to the river at Phunki Tenga (3250 m/10,725 ft). This was the lowest point of the Everest Marathon course – about 17 miles. Then we had to climb 617 m/2036 ft to Tengboche (3867 m/12,761 ft) over 3 miles. We had been warned that this was the steepest/most dangerous section of the marathon course and would be a descent on the actual marathon. The trail was indeed very steep and dangerous and at that point I decided that “my primary goal would not be time but rather to finish the race safely and healthy”! After a few hours of very difficult and strenuous climbing we reached Tengboche. There is a very important Buddhist Monastery in Tengboche and we arrived during a 5-day religious festival so the Monks were blowing their horns and performing some very colorful ceremonies that we watched. I managed to order a chicken burger at one of the lodges – pressed/canned chicken but at least it tasted like chicken. I also discovered a satellite Internet café – the highest Internet café in the world – and emailed an update to my loyal readers.

In the afternoon we continued our trek on and downhill to Deboche (3770m/12,441ft) where we would camp for the night. For a marathon course that was supposed to be mainly downhill there seemed to be a lot of ‘uphills’? The lodge and campsite were not great but we did get some Yak curry for dinner. It was another very cold night in the tent.
On Wed, 11/16 we departed early for Dingboche. There were some spectacular views of Thamserku and Kantega (6685 m/22,060 ft) along the way. I was looking forward to our stay in Dingboche because we camped there for two nights and I needed to wash some more clothes. Dingboche (4410 m/14,553 ft) is surrounded by mountains and spectacular views – Thamserku, Kantega, Taboche, Lhotse, Ama Dablam and Island Peak (6189 m/20,423 ft).
By the time we arrived in Dingboche members of our team (and the other teams) were falling like flies. Nine days of trekking, ingesting dust and Yak shit and bad food and water were taking its toll. Many were very sick and opted to stay in a lodge room instead of suffering the cold and misery of the tents! My teammate deserted me and stayed in a lodge room. I decided to tough it out and stay in the tent which I now had all to myself. About half the team stayed in rooms which really confused our Sherpas.
I did pay attention to the advice about rest during our 2-day stay. I made a few short hikes to explore the area around Dingboche but no running! Instead of freezing my hands doing my own laundry I found a local Sherpa woman who agreed to do my laundry. I sent her many customers from our team and she was very happy with the extra income. I enjoyed another shower – I knew it would be my last until I finished the race in Namche!
I expected the weather to get colder again so added another layer to my PJ ensemble in addition to the liner. I can’t say that I was ever actually cold at night – but I can’t say that I was ever warm either! But I was miserable and I was worried that my ‘cough’ was turning into a chest cold?

Soon it was time to move on and up the Khumbu Valley to Lobuche (4910 m/16,203 ft) for another 2-day camp and more high altitude acclimation. We had been warned that Lobuche was a dump – they did not lie! The village is located in a very small desolate valley and only has a few lodges. The lodges and campsites were filthy, the outhouses were so filthy and despicable that everyone refused to use them and instead found an empty spot on the mountain to ‘do their job”. The lodge where we camped was a dump. The first night they didn’t even start a fire in the stove until we chipped in and bribed them to start a fire – and then they let it go out after a few hours! The 2nd night they had a full house of guests and kicked us out of the dining room so we had to eat in the mess tent. There was one exception. A new lodge had been built on the edge of the village. It was modern and clean. And our team rented every spare room in the lodge! Mainly the members who were sick but also some who were just sick of staying in cold tents! I opted to stay in my tent (by myself again) and stick with the program.
By this time all the teams were sick and had frayed/tired nerves and were edgy. So the other teams (including their group leaders) got angry/upset with the ‘Cuckoos’ saying we were wimps and would have an unfair advantage in the race because we were staying in lodges! One group leader forbid his group from staying in a lodge – “it would not be in the true spirit of the game”? It started to get very ugly and personal until one of our team members – a young British army officer – invited the belligerent group leader to step outside to settle the affair. Good thing he declined because Matt is a champion kick boxer! Finally the group leaders got together to diffuse the situation. It is amazing how quickly a group of total strangers can bond and become a close-knit team when they face hardship and adversity together?

On Sat many of our team members decided to trek 3 miles to Gorak Shep, climb Kala Patthar (5623 m/18,55 ft) for another/different view of ‘The Top of The World” and return to Lobuche. It was a long trek but we decided it would be best to do it a few days before the race and not the day before the race. Some thought the climb was harder than Gokyo Ri but I thought it was easier? But it was worth the effort because the views were much different. Everest and Nuptse are only a few miles away and just tower over Kala Patthar. It is hard to believe that you are standing at 18,000 ft and those mountains still tower 10,000/11,000 ft above you? Other than that great memory the two days in Lobuche were the two most miserable days of the whole trek! I just kept counting the time and hours till we moved on to Gorak Shep, ran the marathon and put an end to the MISERY!

Finally on Sun 11/20 it was time to move on to Gorak Shep where the marathon would start. But first we had to pass a medical check and collect our numbers in Lobuche before we could begin the trek to Gorak Shep. Almost everyone was sick – chest colds/infections, intestinal problems and AMS. All runners would be assigned three race numbers for the race. We had to pick up the first race number which we then took to one of the team doctors. If we passed a medical test the doc would sign the number and we could pick up the other two numbers. The medical test relied mainly on honesty – although nobody wanted to be held out of the race it would be foolish to lie if you were seriously ill with AMS. We also had to perform a toe-to-heel walk forward and backward – much like a sobriety test. Apparently this is difficult to do if you have serious problems with AMS? Thanks to the supreme efforts of our medical staff (and drugs) all 56 runners were deemed fit to go to the start line!

It was a 3-mile trek to Gorak Shep across a moraine field deposited by the Khumbu Glacier. It was not a steep climb but the moraine was very difficult and dangerous to cross. I realized that this 3-mile section and the 3-mile descent at Tengboche were the two most difficult/dangerous sections of the course! It took us more than 2 hours to trek those three miles and we arrived in Gorak Shep (5200 m/17,160 ft) – our final camp - by noon. The marathon was getting close!

I will leave the report on the final preparations and final night of the trek and the actual race for the final chapter of this report.
Stay tuned!

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