If you have 5 minutes spare that you can split into 30 seconds and 4 minutes 30 seconds, then take 30 seconds to download Alex’s amazing images from Everest basecamp this year. Click the picture or the link below and download the PDF linked to the lower left of the page.
This is the wife of a tough man. She is pretty tough herself.
The photo is a rushed shot as I was basically late. The helicopter took two days to come, but I was late when it did. So, a snap of a tough man’s wife in her waiting position with two flasks of tea. In the background, a helicopter taking off with a ‘kitchen boy’ (perhaps in his late 40s) with broken ribs and a 65000 dollar paying client with a couple of frost bitten digits.
The shadow lurking in the background is Dr Jeph, the doctor of the two patients’ expedition.
I have forgotten the name of both patients. I think the man who broke his ribs is called Tsorten or something similar. He was working as, tells Jeph, a ‘kitchen boy’ – his reverse pejorative term – and I guess it means general all rounder with a large bias towards load carrying. With such a load, a big one, he was decending to basecamp through the ice-fall. On bending down to clip into the fixed (safety) rope lying on the snow, his overly tall load toppled him into the crevasse infront of him before his clip was on the rope. He fell 20-30m and landed on his back on a snow bridge. Subsequently rescued he was carried down to basecamp in a basket, although the story goes he got out to walk the last 3 minutes to save face – same on leaving basecamp, painfully walking until the tents were out of view.
For a couple of nights he stayed in the lodge waiting for a helicopter to take him to hospital, pneumonia was a worry. It was interesting to watch him sitting snoozing in a corner of the warm room in the lodge. As breath went in and out of his mouth, his left side remained still, not lifting. A respiratory limp I suppose. Although pain would come with every chest movement, even although he’d been given a good amount of morphine, he never complained or showed the pain on his face.
I am sure I saw his wife wipe a tear away as the helicopter rose above its dustcloud – such injuries would normally be very serious in a remote environment. But now the client and the employee were safely off to Kathmandu to get repaired and both, with time, will be ok.
Oh, and this ‘kitchen boy’ has reportedly summitted Everest several times as well as other high peaks in the area. Tough as nails.
This is a guy from Namche Bazaar working as a porter returning on the loose and rocky trail from Everest Base Camp with a load to take to the (helicopter) landing strip close to Namche.
One gas bottle, if completely empty, is 14.9Kg. The blue drums could weigh anything. In total he stated the load weighed around 90Kg which is carried via a strap over the forehead. Just to watch his strained face as he put the load down, trying to keep it vertical, was painful.
This opportunity to make money comes around only so often so when it comes, however the load looks, you take it.
Due to a need to put my signature on a piece of paper in Kathmandu, I missed running the official Everest marathon race on the 29th May. I did run the beautiful course, however, 4 days before, alone, in the snow and rain.
The marathon has been run since 2003 aiming to commemorate the historical ascent of Mount Everest by Late Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. From the marathon website:
The Marathon Event is to salute these 2 Great Heroes of our Human Civilization, regardless of their Nationality & origin, ventured out into the unknown and carried Human spirit to the TOP of the World or the Summit of Mother Earth, glorifying the success of the entire mankind civilization.
That’s quite a lot to salute.
On the other hand it is reasonably good business taking around 50 or so Westerners on a $2200 trek. Perhaps a bit of the profit can be spent on hiring a copywriter for the website.
Running a marathon on your own is quite different to being part of an event. Firstly, there is no build up to a deadline, a start line or a start time. You can just saunter up to the starting location on any day you please and go. There is no collective excitement or sense of competition or importance and hence people can’t really take your proposed activity too seriously as it is just your own private business. And so it is quite pleasant: no nerves, little competitiveness, just a whiff of adventure and a hint that you’re under the direction of your own free-will.
Still, with tired legs from a week of trekking about and tired everything else from poor nights’ sleep at altitude, I had to rely on strength from the pages of a book I had just read. Mike Stroud’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ recounted his months of dragging a sled across the Antarctic on a starvation diet; his and Ranulf Fienes’ 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents just months after Fiennes’ near-fatal heart attack; and the story of the 72 year old ultra-marathoning grandmother competing in an 8 day Eco-challenge across the wild west of the United States. Then there is the amazing Lizzy Hawker and team who had trodden this trail some years before with Kathmandu as a destination.
The mantra ‘don’t wish it was easier, wish you were tougher’ hung limply in my mind.
So on a glacier at 10:21 on a Monday morning, after several hours of focused procrastination stealing cups of coffee in various expedition mess tents and welcoming climbers back down from up, after slipping on ice and cutting a finger deeply and after chatting with an expedition tired Dawa Stephen Sherpa and about the weather and where the path had gone, I began slowly walking through the thickening snow in the direction of the finish.
The course begins at Everest basecamp, which is a strange and colourful mess of tents planted on the Khumbu glacier. It’s also a sort of psychiatric ward, but that is another story. The stony path winds around the glacial, mini-mountainscape of crumpled ice and meltwater streams. After a kilometre or two, it climbs on to the lateral moraine, the huge pile of debris skirting the glacier. Only after about 5km is solid ground encountered but even then it is far from smooth. This and the following 5km remain over 5000m.
It is this section that the organisers must be referring to when they claim it to be the “World’s ultimate race”. Yes, its difficult but it is just a limitation. There’s less oxygen going to your muscles, including the muscles of your heart and lungs, so it is ever so easy for your oxygen demand to outstrip supply in the heavy blink of an eye leaving you in a crumpled, oxygen-indebted pile needing precious time to recover. To prevent this, I implemented a strict no-running-up-hills policy. I followed it to the letter of the law and it kind of worked: walking is moving and hands-on-knees-panting is not, and it looks silly.
But by jogging here in a careful and controlled manner, it is possible to collect admiring comments from ascending exhausted trekkers, from descending unsummitted mountaineers and even stationary, resting porters who don’t realise what they could also do if they put their baskets down and ran.
Relief, but not much, comes at about 15km where the path heads steeply down hill past Thukla at 4600m and then rolls along looking down on the wide-open Pheriche valley to Dingboche at 4400m. The downhill is wonderful and takes only the minimum of breath to keep you rolling along like a shopping trolley in a sloping car park.
Running your own race you also have to manage your own refreshments. Running on a trekking route makes this easy and you can burst into any lodge and order a cup of hot lemon, black tea or beer of course and hand over your soggy money. This is a slower process that the grab-and-run water station on a marathon course, and out of politeness you’ll sit while the tea is made making it a little tricky to start off again, so before you know it you’ve been stopped for 5 minutes already, longer if the tea is hot.
With the decreased altitude, the ‘ultimate race’ became simply a beautiful, wet and muddy run in the hills. But the altitude was replaced by rough descents and steep uphills. In Pangboche, just over half way, I was joined by a boy of about 16, who, standing in the doorway of his house, threw down his cigarette and started running. He kept this up for the next 8 kilometres and he was a great help to keep me from stopping to admire the view or re-tie my shoelaces.
At over three-quarters of the way came the first major uphill and it felt like the wobbly change from bike to run in the triathlon as different muscles were asked to wake up. The muddy slope up to Tengboche was like climbing up a greasy pole. Reaching the monastery at the top was a relief but then came 600m of crashing decent to another cup of tea and the realisation that the legs were past their best before date. And then 600m back uphill todo.
The remainder of the marathon was a heavy push up to Kumjung and Khunde where the famous Hillary School is located followed by a decent to Namche Bazaar and the cheering crowds that wouldn’t be there for four more days.
Kumjung and Khunde are beautiful in the rain. Neat and tidy they look like a Welsh holiday village. Not at all like a ‘normal’ Nepali village, whatever that might be, but quiet, litter free, maintained and even with streetlights, though there are no motorable roads. It points to the extensive positive affect Edmund Hillary has had on the area over the last five decades.
And to the final disadvantage of solo marathoning: getting lost. With just 7km to go the stopwatch said 5h15. In actuality, the last 7km would take me 1h30. Some how I left a good trail I believed to be nice but wrong and headed into a pigmy-forest full of pretty, pretty flowers and a rather odd number of animal skulls. The small cattle-trodden paths led in spirals, the branches of the tiny fir branches dropped their caught raindrops onto my legs soaking and quickly chilling me. I thought I saw a ginger bread house for a moment. But it was just a seemingly deserted farm building.
Tired and more than ready for this slow slog to be over, I climbed loose walls and over sun-bleached bones to reach it, hoping that the owner’s well worn route to bingo night would also lead to the finish. I was given a helpful shot of adrenaline by a hairy, crazed maniac on a long, but short enough chain who sailed out of his kennel on an upward trajectory. He, or perhaps she, put on a wild show of property-protecting-prowess to earn owner kudos and perhaps a little bit extra food in the bowl after the evidently quiet, trespasser-free recent times.
Within minutes of leaving the dog barking itself hoarse, the coloured rooftops of Namche came into view, sat below in a natural amphitheatre, signalling the near-end of the run. After few hundred steps downhill, a slip and fall that was embarrassing and a few moments of being lost again among winding alleys, I found myself in the heart of an unimpressed Namche Bazaar, wet, cold and wondering what to do next.
From a kind woman at the View Lodge, I borrowed some clothes including a putrid purple tie-dye (tye-die?) ganja t-shirt and a hulk of a down jacket. Dry underpants were not on offer and for that I had to wait for my hired 16-year-old porter to finish the long march he began at 7am that morning with my belongings. He arrived at around 7pm, 12 hours after starting, drenched and smiling claiming that he was just about to turn around and head back to exactly where he came from. I gave him a good tip for his work, happy that he found the lodge given that it had a name different to the one I told him, and sent him off to the cold and bare porter hostel rather than invite him in to share the warmth of the lodge I was in.
And that was the end of it.
I think in the west we hold marathons in pretty high esteem and as ¬¬a benchmark of physical achievement. While there is seemingly mass participation these days, the masses are still in the tiny minority. Most of us spend so much time sitting on our rears for work or leisure and even while moving between the two, that a marathon truly is an achievement of will, coaxing flabby, unconditioned behinds across 42km of paved road for flimsy medals and certificates.
Up in the Khumbu however the marathon seemed more like a quaint fun-run: not particularly necessary nor particularly well understood (where’s the fun). All around you is hard, physical effort on display. Digging fields, planting, grazing cattle, building or repairing houses, hauling firewood. At base camp there are the climbers, the guides, the climbing Sherpas, the ice-fall doctors, the kitchen and cook boys, the load carriers.
The trail itself is not just a pleasant route conjured up by an organising committee but a highway. It’s the main route from village to village and so people are familiar with it as they walk it frequently. Porters, from old to young, male and female, routinely carry baskets along it containing their own bodyweight in goods. Witness young Mr. 90Kg walking through the thin air of basecamp to just above Namche – his walk over two days will be just a few kilometres short of the marathon route. Leisure time sensibly equates to resting time. Apart from the sherpas running the race that is, the winner completing in an amazing 3:40 this year.
So how do I feel after running this ‘ultimate’ marathon? Sub-whatever you might expect, for sure. Neutral, ambivalent, content, could-have-done-better, hungry. It was a beautiful run, and it was for fun, for the experience and really not the extreme event it might have seemed. In contrast to previous marathons, where the next day required negotiating stairs on buttocks and running was out of the question for weeks, this marathon’s surprisingly pain-free morning after brought a 15km jog to Lukla followed by 2 more long days of running to the road head at Jiri 50km further on.
On the first day of my trek into the Everest region I met a girl who turned out to be an ultra-marathoner. She was retreating from a climb after she started hosting a gut soap opera. I asked her how on earth she could manage to run 100 miles in one go. She told me that the legs began to hurt after 15 to 20km but after that the hurt didn’t get much worse. As long as you ate a big burger at 50 miles, was her caveat. Now I see what she meant, and though it would be a veggie burger, keeping going is easier than I ever thought it would be.
It is quite amazing how far what you can do is from what you think you can do. Its about timeI joined the weird extremists and see just how far ‘can do’ can be.
Its around 6.30 in the morning perched on the black rocks of Kala Patthar. Its a prayer-flag-wrapped point of rock with truly stunning views. The dull and serious black triangle of Everest to the east, Pumo-ri to the north so close you could lean on it (you’d need thick gloves though, its icy) and numerous other peaks of rock and snow scattered in every direction.
I am standing contemplating this sunrise view. A Dutch couple are doing the same. Not much needs to be said. There is so much to absorb visually. More people will soon be arriving and there is a small, slow trail of early morning people trickling up the hillside.
“Yea, I’m just going to put some layers on Pemba”, informs the girl, who has just arrived with her guide, reaching into her rucksack. Pemba says nothing, rightly, as this just audible brain activity and needs no response.
“Can you take a picture of me, Pemba?”
“And one more? Ooh, one more, the cloud’s moved!”
“Now can you get one or me and Everest together?”
Pemba does his best to keep his client happy and moves around carefully, snapping the American girl in various poses, taking care not to fall to his death.
Meanwhile a few meters below on a small platform, the boys from South Carolina have turned up.
“Hey, I know exactly what picture I want!” Boy gets down and begins doing press-ups on the cold rocks while his friend takes pictures.
“Yeah! That’s definitely going on Facebook. You’re tagged bro!”
To Pemba I mentioned that it is a shame that people summiting Everest late this morning won’t enjoy the spectacular view from the highest point on earth. Between 6.30 and 7am a thin cap of lenticular cloud over the summit has thickened, darkened and descended.
“My friends are summiting today.” Informs his client. “They’re really strong climbers and they can probably do it in like 5 hours from camp 4 so they probably like summited at 5am already.”
Maybe its just early and I am tired, but I feel deflated. In a few short moments I’ve been Americanated and now it is time to go away and leave this view behind.
This morning, inpired by a book I just finished, stolen from Billi Bierling‘s tent, called ‘Survival of the fittest’ by (forgotten his name) I tried to run 10km from Gorak Shep to Lobuche and back.
Going was just about ok. There is a drop in height of just over 200m (from 5100m). It was snowing a little. I stopped and had two cups of hot lemon in a lodge in Lobuche and spent a while gazing at the photos on the poster of the Croatian Women’s 2009 Everest Expedition. Then it was time to return. Going out took 35 minutes and the return took a painful 50 minutes.
It seems the legs are fine, it was just a short run after all. What did I learn then about running at altitude?
– Arms are surprisingly heavy things to carry.
– Running anything remotely uphill ‘crashes’ the heart
– Having conversations with people is hard when breathless but necessary
– snow in eyes makes keeping feet on level ground doubly hard while eyes are wobbling in their sockets
– Running at altitude gives you a big headache
– It feels a bit pathetic to feel so pathetic when a guy walks past, albeit slowly, carrying 4 large, empty gas cylinders on his back.
7 days to go until this Everest Marathon but I fear that boredom will kill me first. There is little entertainment here in artificial Gorak Shep and not much to keep busy with apart from reading and making the hour long trip over to base camp. While it remains misty it is cold and the spectacular views can only be seen on the postcards behind the desk in the lodge.
Tomorrow I will go and visit basecamp as Billi returns from summitting yesterday. Looking forward to see her and hear her story. And then I think I will go and visit the Croatian Everest Women’s team camp and say hello.
In about 21 days (29th may) I am planning to join the runners doing the Everest Marathon. There are a few dilemmas associated with it besides risk of heart attack. Firstly I am not going to pay the entrance fee: $US 999 just for receiving boiled water on the run seems nonsensically high for an unemployed layabout. So I am going to print my own number, perhaps either ‘666’ or ‘$US999’ would do, and somehow tag a long avoiding the start line, finish lines and shameful cheapskate embarrassment. As far as I can work out it is just a commercial venture, unlike its competing, non-profit Everest Marathon in the autumn, so I don’t feel too bad, not at all in fact.
The second dilemma is that by doing it I will outstay my visa. I has a chat about this with a man in the immigration office today. He suggested that going over just by one day would be “just a mistake, that’s human nature isn’t it? We all make mistakes all the time.” However if I was 15 days over, then “that would be deliberate and naughty. You would get a 15,000 Rp fine (150 Eur0) and up to 5 years in jail.” I’d better buy some good books to read.
Training has been going okayly and probably I will make it. As usual the objective will be to get it over with as quickly as possible. 5 hours of pain would be better than 6. Still the altitudes on the route horrify me.
As this is not a legitimate entry in a legitimate event, I won’t be raising money for charity. However, if you are feeling flush to the tune of one dollar per month, take a look at this:
Quite amazing and hopefully it’ll aid education, and speed up essential communications rather than facilitate moronic chat conversations replete with smilies. Though I guess if your brother is working his ass off in the hot sun of Bahrain and you haven’t heard from him in 6 months, a few smilies are ok.
Well this is a bit weird, but we’re just practising for taking pictures at Everest basecamp – subject to anybody wanting to have their picture taken that is. There we need to somehow capture the physical change that spending time on the mountain brings. It is a before and after shot – but we’d like to bring them together in one frame. Will be a challenge!
Here is a plan for a photography book that friends Alex and Billi are going to do. Billi is climbing Everest this season and Alex, mentioned before on this blog, will be up there taking pictures.
I have never been involved in the making of a book before. It is pretty tricky. Do we want to do it to make the book, or make money. How to find some money to make the project happen, to cover the 2 or so months to get the material and edit it into a draft? Who really buys these kinds of books? How many get printed? Are coffee table books all loss leaders?
We’ve sent the proposal out to quite a lot of people now. We’ve had a lot of feedback: From the point of view of the (pre-)proposal, it is not snappy and salesy enough. Perhaps there is not enough writing proposed (600 words, perhaps 1500 is nearer the mark)? And from someone involved in expedition leading, that the residents at base camp are already rather treated like lab-rats: medical research, physiological research, pictures, books and so on.
Anyhow, see what you think. Click the picture above and download the 3 page proposal. See what you think. Would you buy a copy? What would you call it?