If you’ve ran a marathon (or ultramarathon), you know it’s a tough gig. Hours on the feet and all pistons firing especially in the mental regions. But having to do a race at very high altitude is another kettle of fish.
And trust me, this fish can you kill you, as it got one of the marathoners before the race even started…
But before I continue, let me give you some context.
If you’ve been following The Wounded Pelicans journey the past month, you may have seen that I completed the world’s highest ultramarathon from Everest Base Camp @ 5,360m (17,600ft)!
Not only that, there was the task of summiting a 6,189m (20,305ft) glacial peak the week before…
Surely, there’s some reason for taking on these 2 absurd events – to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis because the high altitude is in direct correlation with a CF patient having trouble breathing.
What’s it like running at high altitude exactly or having CF for that matter? Imagine breathing through a straw for hours (or days) on end. If you have a few dollars you’d like to contribute to this cause, please click here.
And the world's highest ultramarathon from Everest Base Camp is done! Incredibly challenging with limited oxygen that this race was using more mental strength than usual. This one is dedicated to Cystic Fibrosis because the struggles of breath at very high altitude correlates to what it's like living with CF on a daily basis. If you have a couple dollars spare, please donate to the link in our bio because CF is currently incurable when the research scientists are so close to crack this one. 🏔️🇳🇵🤙 . . . . . #thewoundedpelicans #mteverest #ultrarunning #everest4CF #findacure #worldshighestultra
But besides the restricted 9% oxygen (as opposed to 21% at sea level), this is one of the toughest races to take on… simply because it takes 2 weeks to get to the start line.
Sounds simple, but anything can happen in that 2 weeks. If the weather goes wrong or if anyone on the team isn’t acclimating properly, it can throw everything out of whack.
It doesn’t help when the air gets thinner as the days go by and moods can change quickly…
The journey of this climb and ultramarathon started from the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu. For what is a mad house full of shop hustlers, monkey temples and international trekkers, this is where our team met up at the beautiful Hotel Shanker prior to our 3 week adventure.
The Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon (THEM) is an iconic annual event in Nepal to commemorate the first successful ascent of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa on May 29, 1953.
THEM added a 60km ultramarathon into the series a few years back and recently gave racers an option to summit Island Peak – a nearby mountain in the Khumbu region.
Having no idea what I signed myself up for, I had good indication after meeting with my team. There was only 6 of us climbers but it was a good number and an even greater team to work with – any more people and it can be a little stressful to manage.
Because our group was taking on an extra mountain climb meant we were to fly a couple days earlier and this is part 1 of the uncertainty of heading to Lukla, the base of any climb or trek.
Lukla airport is coined, ‘the world’s deadliest airport’ – its runway is only 400m long, straight off a mount cliff. So, first step was to survive this bad boy.
The landing is one thing, but flying to Lukla can be a hit or miss if the weather is temperamental – strong cloud cover is another factor.
Fortunately, we made the flight on the first try. There were 4 other marathon groups and one group had to wait a day or 2 because of bad weather.
Then we had our Nepali team guiding us the way there. 5 porters carried our big duffels while 2 Sherpas were our eyes.
It was safe to say we were in good hands with our 2 Sherpas – Pemba and Arjun from their previous climbing experiences. Arjun who has summited Island Peak 19 times now and several other peaks in the Khumbu region while Pemba summited the top of Everest twice in back-to-back years of 2013-2014.
Pemba comes from a dynasty of great climbers. His dad has summited several times and his uncles have a very impressive climbing record. One uncle, Ang Dorjee had summited for the 19th time this year while his brother had 16 times and was headed to K2 (world’s 2nd highest mountain and more technical than Everest) for the 6th time!
Along the trek, we’d stop in several towns (often ending in ‘tse’ or ‘che’) and camp there the night in lodges to get used to the current altitude. For the Nepali who are a little more accustomed to the thinner air, it meant any foreigner would require several rest days to settle in time.
The rest days did involve hiking 200-400m higher in vert then head back to the lodges but it would be safer to do this method than rush to Island Peak or EBC – high altitude sickness is a bitch.
The entire journey had a series of highlights but one that stood out straightaway was our encounter in Pangboche with the head Lama to bless us with prayer flags and scarf garments to ensure we’d have a safe climb. For any climber that was to summit a peak was recommended to pass the chief on the way up to pay respects but it was an honour to meet him in action!
Our team (a.k.a. ‘Island Peakers’) was unique in the sense that we all came from different countries. You would think there would be international conflict in this situation but noone had a single problem – instead we accepted our differences and blended like a family because we had a long 3 weeks ahead.
What surprised me was even though I was the youngest to be climbing Island Peak and the ultramarathon, I was made team leader of the group. What an honour!
Where the other marathon groups were headed to EBC, we were making our way to Island Peak. During the trek we’d come across several porters carrying anywhere between 20-120kg of weight, yaks, and walk across multiple suspensions bridges.
These amazing structures were held in place plenty of steel rope that could hold an unbelieveable amount of weight. How they made them initially baffles me but crossing them were fun as hell!
One bridge in particular was 997 ft up – you could definitely feel the sway in the middle of bridge, but it just got us ready for what was coming up.
The last bridge we encountered was right before we arrived in Namche Bazar – the Sherpa capital of the Khumbu region, if not the world. Namche was a mini city but shaped like a bowl with all your necessities before you were to trek any higher.
Even got a training run done here because a rest day was planned and maybe a few beers at the 24hr bar with the locals was included in the training 🙂
Before we knew it we had reached Island Peak Base Camp at 5,500m. This would be our first night camping but it was nice to change up the accommodation being out in the open and living like true climbers.
The day of summit for Island Peak was next-level. With a 1am wake-up in our cozy tents and ready to roll at 2am, it was a long strenuous morning to the top of the 20,305ft peak.
The first 3.5 hours consisted of continuous switchbacks. This was the easy part of the climb but it still wasn’t joyous. Constantly going back-and-forth higher and higher followed by rock scrambles to the next point, the glacial hike.
This is when shit got real with having alpine boots with crampons (ice spike feet attachments), ice axe, and the harness came into play.
The next 1.5 hours had us tied together like a centipede (and not talking about that human centipede!). To ensure we stayed together through any crevasses and in deep snow, the 8 of us (6 climbers and 2 Sherpas) had to be stuck together, literally.
From what was a gradual uphill hike became 2 ladder crossings… One ladder crossing to get to a higher point that’s too slippery to scramble up and the next crossing over an open crevasse. A crevasse is a deep open crack that has been a notorious killer for most climbers.
Once you fall into a crevasse, it might be the end for you.
To see an open crevasse in person was unbelievable, but to cross it over a ladder was something else. To the sides are steel ropes that you must link on with the carabiners on your harness while the person behind you holds the ropes tight for tension.
Soon after, it was time to use the ropes to summit this bad boy!
Having done a couple hours of mountaineering training the day before on a hill next to camp had made the situation easier but now it was time for the real thing but on a glacier where it felt as if you’re walking on a slippery bowling ball…
There must’ve been 5 or 6 different ropes to the top. Lots of changing and readjusting but moreover, lots of climbing and lifting.
A 60 degree angle might not seem like much but it is when you’re only getting higher in altitude. Luckily, the weather was the best we could ask for – blue skies with minimal wind!
By the reach of the summit just after 9am, it was better than we’d all expected. All the struggles the past 7 hours was beyond worth it.
Feeling on top of the world, surrounded with beautiful mountains and the people who have been climbing with you these past couple weeks was a feeling indescribable.
Finally, at the top, there was no chance of us descending straight away. The obligatory “holy shit I’ve reached the top!” pictures and videos were taken as well as several videos for sponsors that helped contribute to this trip.
Massive respect to our Sherpas and team for getting to the summit with a 100% person successful rate! There’s been incidents in the past of climbers passing away during Island Peak.
Descending was another story. The wind picked up and feelings of tiredness and exhaustion started to come into play.
On the descend, only one person per rope at a time can belay their way down – this took longer than expected but took alot of weight off the shoulders heading back to the glacier where we removed all the excess climbing gear.
Things started to go haywire for myself at this point. Tied up with everyone near the back and I collapsed a couple times. This would be my first taste of true altitude sickness and it’s not pretty – felt like I was intoxicated to be honest.
We got back to the glacier to have lunch and I just passed out for an hour into the snow, face first. Absolutely knackered and unable to walk. This unintentional necessary rest was needed but I did start to feel better after a quick nap and a bite to eat and knowing it was time to head back down to Island Base Camp at 5,500m meant more oxygen and better breath.
To put into perspective how high Island Peak is, its height is in between Camp 1 & 2 of EBC but we did this without supplemental oxygen.
Coming back into Island Peak Base Camp and the entire team just exhausted after a 15 hour day. Straight into the sleeping bag and a solid 10 hour sleep to get ready for another week of trekking to EBC and an ultramarathon at extremely high altitude.
There are many symptoms of high altitude sickness and one is no appetite. A little frightened with my debacle earlier in the day made me slightly worried on how I’d pull up the next day and if I’d be okay to continue (even if I forced myself to). Thankfully, after a long sleep, I was good as gold, and more importantly, hungry as hell.
We were only a couple stops from EBC and the team heavily eager to see the start line, with what seemed like smooth sailing to get three after the Island Peak summit. A gradual walk up to Lobuche (4,940m) from Dingboche (4,410m) was a walk in the park. It may have been for the team but that’s when we noticed something quite odd…
Arriving in Thukla (4,860m) for lunch at midday didn’t feel necessary but a little break wouldn’t hurt. Heading into lunch and passing several zombie-like trekkers… the high altitude can get the best of you when you’re hypoxic struggling to breathe.
One woman we noticed in particular was forced to go back to Dingboche to declimatise – if you’re not feeling well from high altitude, it’s highly recommended to get yourself to lower altitude as quickly as possible and stay in that area for a rest day.
While that woman went down, another semi-unconscious one went higher…
Our trek to Lobuche from Thukla was a cruisey one, getting into our lodges early and exploring the nearest glacier from a nearby hike. The great thing was EBC was merely a few kms away, the distinctive yellow tents were an eye-saw away.
We even passed the Everest memorial – an area to commemorate the lives of climbers and Sherpas who hadn’t made it back. An incredibly moving place to visit.
Dinner time changed its dynamic after a series of events. Not sure if it was the change of drastic weather earlier in the day but at around 8pm, the woman I mentioned earlier that continued to trek when she shouldn’t have arrived at our lodge. And she looked terrible.
She was placed in the dining room in front of the fire wheezing for air and looking as if she was heavily intoxicated.
Word had it she suffered from HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) – it’s when liquid leaks into the lungs and you need to get to lower altitude, fast.
This lodge we stayed in the night was paper thin. I could hear our teammates in the next rooms quite clearly. The other thing I could hear was a conversation to get a helicopter to take the struggling marathoner back down to Namche Bazar at a tamer 3,340m above sea level.
Then it’s 6am the next morning – lots of noises and phone calls. With was initially loud chatter drastically changed into screaming to get oxygen and crying that “she’s not breathing!”
I know this because I could hear anything and everything that happened in this lodge because of how thin the walls were.
I won’t disclose the runner’s name or details but she was a sky runner (mountain runner) that was heading to the infamous Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) after this race – UTMB is famous Europe 100 mile ultramarathon in mountains covering 3 countries that you need to qualify for.
So her experience with high altitude was nothing short of new.
The theory was she rushed it. No rest days to let the body acclimatise along the way up. And the people she was with mentioned that because she did a great deal of mountain running, it was hard to diagnose her.
The medic she was with checking on her multiple times the night the before she died and could see her snoring which is a good sign she was alive but it was too late by 6am.
Approaching EBC and the other teams are on edge and grumpy from living in struggles and lack of breath.
Not only physically, but I noticed that it affected a few people psychologically.
When there’s news that one of the marathoners passed away during the trek, it creates a very emotional setting.
A moment like this goes by and certain thoughts and self-doubt is magnified in every racer’s head that it becomes first-hand thinking in the lexicon over the next few days. A few racers were choppered out to lower altitude or simply trekked back down to Dingboche to downgrade to half marathon instead.
Only way is to push through and realise what we are here for. For me, it’s to run for people with CF.
Over the past 2 weeks we had the most amazing clear weather which actually put us a day ahead of schedule and meant we could camp an extra day at Base Camp.
But the weather during any trek in the Nepali Khumbu region can be a hit or miss… the first night we were meant to stay at EBC snowed down hard. It also meant our chances of seeing an amazing view at Kalapathar of all the peaks at once was not happening.
But it was probably a good thing that we had to spend an extra night at our lodge in Gorak Shep than at rocky and icy Base Camp – even though it’s warmer in the tents than the rooms, believe it or not. Just meant we could be inside a house near a fireplace as opposed to sleeping in -10 degrees.
The next morning cleared up so much you wouldn’t have known it was snowing the day before. But that’s Nepali mountain weather for you. At least it was a short 2 hour hike to EBC from Gorak Shep and time to regroup with the other marathon groups the night prior to the race we’ve all been waiting the past couple weeks for!
Staying the night at EBC was an honourable feat in itself. The only time you can sleep there is if you have a climbing permit or if taking on the marathon or ultramarathon.
EBC is quite a sight to see. You’re literally on an ice glacier in an exciting energising field of constant flying helicopters and climbers about to embark the world’s highest peak and those descending the beast.
After setting up camp, it was time to explore the devil’s playground… the start line was something else!
The morning of race day was one to remember, -5 degrees and only 14 of us stupid enough to take on the longer distance. There were 150+ taking on the marathon distance – the only pro we had was the start line wasn’t a chaotic mess haha.
The first 2 hours was the probably the most pleasant mainly because it was gradually lowering in altitude meaning more oxygen but at this point, the Nepali marathoners who started an hour after the ultramarathoners were coming at full force flying past.
Everyone who raced knew that the Nepali would be the favourites to win and after taking on this race, I now know why. These freaks of nature live at these ridiculous altitudes that what seemed incredibly suffering for us international runners would’ve been nothing different for them.
With my logic that it would be an entire downhill race was later found out that I’d be far from correct with my presumption. Starting at 5,360m and ending at Namche Bazar at 3,400m seems like it’ll be a gradual declining run but that all changed when the marathon and ultramarathon separated paths…
Going uphill in a race wasn’t the problem, increasing in altitude was.
The extra 18km detour the ultramarathoners were to take was easily the most heartbreaking thing to see in a race. While the 42km runners continued in the gradual path, we had to continue higher over several mountain ridges.
For hours on end it was climb higher, run lower then climb higher to where we were before.
During the race, I caught up with my American Island Peak roommate, Craig Longobardi who had been with me the entire journey leading up to this race that we decided to stay together and finish the race together.
It probably didn’t help that my watch was not accurate whatsoever… with what said we had completed 60km was a tad off by 27km… Mentally this threw us out thinking we were only a few km away when there was still so long to go.
Already had our post race antics planned out then realising we were only going up was beyond disappointing.
It was mentioned at the race briefing the night prior that if it got too dark to continue, you’re allowed to spend the night at a nearby lodge and continue the race the next morning but you’d get a 3 hour penalty.
Fastforward to 5:30pm and we had finally reached the small village of Nah La – neither Craig or I had eaten anything more than a couple muesli bars that we were very close to get a lodge for the night to rest and cop the 3 hour penalty but instead we got some soup in the warm tea house and thought “how badass would it be if we continued the race throughout the night?”
No point in staying in now, let’s just finish the race even if we get in after midnight!
The next 6 hours sucked out more mental strength from us combined from the two weeks leading up to it. The unsurfaced terrain and continuous rise and drops in altitude messed with our heads.
However, crossing that finish line was one of the best feelings to have experienced. With what seemed like a race to some, was merely a day of surviving high altitude and most rugged terrain I’ve dealt with.
The events you remember are the ones that involved the most adversity and hardship because you truly have to push the most out of it. You’ve surpassed your daily thinking glycogen than you’re digging so deep to find any mental energy to keep yourself sane and awake.
This was one of the toughest races I’ve done and I’ve completed longer races in shorter time. But would I recommend it? Hell yeah! This event will test your physical and mental capabilities that will question your sanity every 2 minutes.
Plus you can’t pull out. No phone reception around and it’s an expensive call out to get a helicopter if you can somehow get one to arrive.
With what I’d expect to finish in 10 hours took us 18 hours… the distance was never the problem, the high altitude was. It felt like breathing through a straw with our lungs failing and heart rates maxed out the entire race.
By the end of the event, going downhill was a strenuous quad and knee workout, and uphill just thrashed the hell out of the lungs and heart.
The day after was a relief. Not too sore but the lungs parched from all the dust – meant we could take it easy and not stress about any upcoming peaks or races for the next week.
What it did mean was head back to Lukla where we started and head towards lower altitude and more oxygen!
Within a couple days we had reached what was the start point of this epic 3 weeks at Lukla and our last night with our porters and Sherpas.
Our porters involved 5 Nepali guys who were machines amongst men. On average, they carried 35kg per day including our big duffel bags that had our clothes and climbing gear. These gentlemen were a pleasure to work with. Not one complained and looked after us as if we were their children – nothing but respect to our porters.
Then there were our 2 Sherpas, Pemba and Arjun. The 2 lead guides made sure we were safe and gave us a deeply warming welcome to their country like we were part of the family. Plus these two know to made the trips fun each day – hopefully we can climb together again! (maybe 2019….?)
Now I couldn’t complete this adventure without the amazing team I was apart of the 3 weeks in Nepal. Craig, Crazy Dave, Christian, Daciana, and Chris R were my noble steeds for the Island Peak climb, EBC trek and the race back down to the start. You guys honestly rock and glad we worked together better than I expected. I’m sure we’ll cross paths for another absurd race in the near future.
Lastly, I want to thank the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon team for putting on an event to remember. It was brilliant in everyway possibly and it was a 100% success in my eyes!
Now that I’m back in Australia, I do miss my time in the Himalayas but it feels just as good to be back at sea level 🙂
Within an hour of arriving back in Australia, the friends at Channel 7 News TV wanted to catch up for a post interview… watch it below!
Would love to hear your thoughts, leave a comment below.
Next up, Ant and I have a 100km ultramarathon this Sat with our blind and amputee friends as event 4 of The BIG 10! Keep scrolling to find more info about it.
Chris (Tofes) – 1 half of The Wounded Pelicans
Event 4 of The BIG 10 isn’t too far away!
Now that Mt Everest is done, the next event is just around the corner! – (click here to check out what’s happening).
We’ll be running a 100km ultra with our blind and amputee friends this Sat June 17!
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