EVEREST TRAIL RACE, Nepal
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa Tenzing) are the stuff of legends; real comic book heroes for this modern era. They had the RIGHT STUFF! You know what I mean, stiff upper lip and the ability to ‘take it on the chin.’
Think back, 50+ years ago clad in wool and leather boots they departed Kathmandu on what is now considered one of the most iconic journeys ‘ever’ on the planet. A journey that would take the duo and a British expedition step-by-step, stride-by-stride from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp; a journey to climb the highest mountain in the world, Everest.
To follow in the footsteps of these pioneers, to follow in the footsteps of Hilary and Tenzing and retrace the ‘53’ journey is beyond running. It’s a life affirming and life changing experience and one that the Everest Trail Race provides.
Kathmandu is just the most incredible place. It’s a cacophony of noise, colour, people, cars and dust. Nothing can really prepare you for the assault on your senses. A dichotomy for the mind; I embrace the poverty around me and I make it look amazing with stunning photos. Am I a fake? It’s a question I often ask. Do I prostitute the locals for my own gain? I think the answer is yes! But with each photograph captured I receive a smile, an acknowledgement that I have made them happy.
Departing Kathmandu, the road to Jiri is a twisting and gut-wrenching series of bends and miles. At 1905m altitude base camp 1 is warmed by the glow of yellow tents. As the sun lowers behind the surrounding mountains, anticipation of the journey ahead is high. Sherpa’s and porters prepare dinner and we spend a first night under canvas. Suddenly, the journey ahead feels very real.
The Everest Trail Race (ETR) follows the route of Hilary and Tenzing from Jiri all the way to Tengboche and then turns around and heads back to Lukla, thus facilitating an easy and manageable exit point to fly back to Kathmandu.
At 100-miles in distance an experienced ultra-runner may well think the race to be easy. Think again. The combination of relentless climbing, long descents, technical terrain and high altitude makes the ETR, mile-for-mile one of the toughest races of its type.
Broken down into manageable chunks, the race is divided into 6-stages with daily distances of approximately 22, 28, 30, 31, 20 and 22km. Altitude gain starts at 3000m and builds to 6000m. The ETR is a journey to widen one’s eyes and lungs. The visual splendor of the Himalayas is beyond words. The mountains, trails and people arguably provide one of the most stunning backdrops to any race on the planet. It’s easy to become stuck in the moment; the moment of relentless forward motion, then something stirs, you look up and as your jaw hits the floor, the visual splendor takes what little breath remains away; you are left gasping, breathless at the beauty.
Large eyes, dried dirt, runny noses and wide-open welcoming smiles; the Nepalese people really are the salt of the earth. Living in a harsh, demanding and remote environment they have adapted to the surroundings and have found a peace and humility that we can all learn from.
The trekking route, on which we travel, is the motorway of Nepal. We are the tourists, a constant stream of heavy goods vehicles surround us: porters, mules or yaks. Porters transport goods and services up and down this trail motorway daily, an important lifeline to the whole community. For £10 a day they will carry 30kg’s on their backs covering high altitude and long distances with the ease of mountain goats. Experienced porters have been known to carry up to 120kg per day. It is beyond belief or comprehension. It is easy to look on from the outside and nod disapprovingly. However, this is normal. No roads exist here, the only method of transporting any goods along the trail are by porter, yak or mule.
Day 1 to Bhandar eases runners into the race with 3700m+/- of vertical gain and descentand approximately 21km in distance. The mind is released, and the legs and lungs try to follow. The sound of horns from local villagers announce the race is underway.
Bhandar to Jase Bhanjyang is a beast and arguably day 2 is considered one of the toughest of the race. It’s a brute! A brute of epic proportions; it leaves every runner questioning the journey ahead and the possibility of completion. Deviating from Hilary and Tenzing’s route, the ETR does not circumnavigate Pikey Peak at just over 4000m but goes over it! As one runner said, ‘It would certainly appear that day 1 really had been just a hors d’oeuvre and the race would miss the entrée and go straight into the main course, ready or not!’
Like any good meal, you can sometimes be a little over faced with the plate in front of you. Pikey Peak was such an indulgence. It was a climbing journey that made a vertical kilometer look like a small hill-rep. Front-runners can anticipate 2-hours plus of relentless climbing, the remainder of the field can spend 4, 5, 6 and maybe longer negotiating the steep slopes of these Himalayan foothills. From the summit; each step of pain is rewarded with a wonderful vista of the Himalayan range. In the distance Everest, Lohtse and Ama Dablam making this 4000m-peak dwarf with their 7000m plus splendor.
Kharikhola provides an incredible end to day-3. A monastery perched atop a mountain. I have often heard how runners have discussed and explained out of body experiences while running. It’s not something one can pinpoint, like a mirage they come and go leaving one to question ones sanity. Kharikhola may well have provided such stimulus. ‘Is that real?’ one may ask and as the final steps arrive and the ETR finish banner awaits.
“Travel is the discovery of truth; an affirmation of the promise that human kind is far more beautiful than it is flawed. With each trip comes a new optimism that where there is despair and hardship, there are ideas and people just waiting to be energized, to be empowered, to make a difference for good.” – Dan Thompson, Following Whispers: Walking on the Rooftop of the World in Nepal’s Himalayas.
The trail changes and suddenly more trekkers, more porters, more mules and yaks populate the trail to Lukla and beyond. Dropping down and climbing up, the trail switches and twists and as you turn a bend at Kari La, the mountains hit you through the mist. They are no longer distant peaks but massive snow-covered monsters that make you realise how completely insignificant you are.
I see a woman carrying wood to her home. I stop her and ask for a photograph. Without hesitation she stops, looks me in the eye and patiently waits while I work my craft. Her face is leathered, full of lines and adorned with gold jewelry. She is beautiful. I can’t even remotely pinpoint her age, but her face tells me a multitude of stories. Each line an experience. A story of laughter, a story of childhood and I am sure many stories of hardship.
Tengboche, the finish line of day-5 offers a panorama to bring a tear to the eye. Everest, Lohtse and Ama Dablam are close and the finish line of the ETR frames them beautifully like a classic painting. Relief, emotions and an outpouring of tears make the journey worthwhile. So tough the journey, many a runner needs to be reminded to turn around, look, and see what is behind them. The reaction always the same, a huge intake of air, a hand to the face and then a lowering of the head.
Hillary and Tenzing carried on from Tengboche. In the process they created a new world, a world where anything is possible. They climbed to the top and looked down and in doing so they paved the way for all of us to set new horizons, new goals and they have made us all ask the question, what if?
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Passing through Sagarmatha National Park, crossing Hilary Bridge, navigating through Namche Bazaar the final calling of Lukla confirms the end of the ETR.
Nepal and the Everest Trail Race provides more than a race experience, they provide a spiritual journey that transcends running. Running may be the vehicle but the trails of Nepal provide the highway, a highway to a new experience, to something magical and to something special.
Words taken from the book RUNNING BEYOND HERE
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