Completely shattered after the second day of the Karrimor International Mountain Marathon I was wondering if I would ever be fit to run again. Alec my running partner had also given everything over the peat bogs, tussocks and heath and grassland mosaics of the border hills near Langholm. Our attempt to finish in the top three was not to be, finishing just 3 minutes down on 3rd place and being pipped for 4th by one minute. Would there be enough recovery for the start of the Everest marathon trek in 10 days time?
After a hectic last few days completing reports for my environmental consultancy business and finalising arrangements for my other business, an activity company, Wildoutdoors, I was on my way, in much need of some time for recuperation after a hard and long season.
It was great to finally arrive at Edinburgh airport on a fine sunny day with Joanna and Paula both in good form and waiting for the plane to London. We met almost everyone else on the Everest Marathon expedition at Heathrow airport where we gathered for the Binam Bangladesh flight to Dakar and onto Kathmandu, over 18 hours of travelling in total. The aircraft was fitted with old but brightly coloured, oriental seat-covers with an old pull down screen acting as the focus for the in-flight movies. Half full the plane didn’t fill us with confidence, but somehow the late 70’s appeal gave it an unusual aura.
The flight was long and enduring but we made it safely to Dakar to enjoy (?) a day trip around the city. We visited the military monument of independence and realised on departing from the confines of the airport that we were truly in a different world to the one we left 12 hours before. We were mobbed by young smiling kids at the monument, a stark reminder of the poverty and necessity for obtaining the basic essentials, food and water. But three things stuck in my mind most of all; the flat green almost treeless landscape with water everywhere; the crowded squalor of people mulling around with open drains and litter everywhere along the road to the city and a sand and gravel quarry we passed en route. The quarry was fascinating because as we slowly drove past on the bus we realised everything was virtually done by hand with the minimum of machinery. They lifted the gravel out with small spades and buckets, not unlike sandcastles on the beach. Young boys and girls probably only 12 years old were lifting huge loads onto their heads and backs carrying the sand and gravel to huge barges in the river. Meanwhile dogs barked and fought a few yards away. I felt distinctly privileged to be riding on a bus. It was a rude awakening to another world.
We finally arrived in Kathmandu at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, met by Highland Sherpa staff and adorned with lovely marigolds. We had a few hours of sunshine on the lawn of the Hotel Shanker, a glorious old colonial style hotel within its own luscious grounds. It was a good time to meet everyone on the trip in a more relaxed atmosphere. However in a group of forty-five it was going to take some time to get to know everyone.
The following days in Kathmandu were preparation for the trek into the Khumbu region surrounding Everest, which lies within the Sagamartha National Park. Kathmandu is like any other city, busy with traffic coming at you from every direction. However the air pollution was terrible and the general chaos and mayhem of crazy drivers were best avoided. We had a tour of the city to a number of temples then back through Durbar Square, a world heritage site, with wonderful temples, ornate wood carvings on every doorway, and a holy place to respect. Thankfully cars were not allowed in this area and it was more peaceful to walk here except for the constant harassment by the street hawkers, selling their wares. It was a contrast to the thriving metropolitan part of the city Thamel, bustling with cars, rickshaws and street sellers on every corner. I was keen to move on but not until I haggled for a chess set made of Sandalwood, a bargain at 2000 rupees (about £18). I was robbed guv and the incident became famous for the famous expression “Sandalwood my arse”. By now I’d come to know a large number of people Derek, Tony, Neil, Barry, Robin, Helen and a few others who I already knew from back home including Alan and Eric from my club, Fife AC.
I was keen to move into the mountains and so the next day’s dawn rise and dash to the airport for the first flight to Lukla was great. I found out that many people had boozed the night away and had a few hangovers getting on the plane including Pete who was to be a running partner for much of the trip. The Lukla flight held a lot of trepidation for many people as Joe Simpson had described it as one of the most awesomely scary flights anywhere. Personally I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about as we came out of the clouds, surrounded by huge peaks, banked sharply to the right, hit the uphill runway and bounced followed by a screech to halt all within seconds. A few people looked a little green getting off that flight but hey that was the easy bit. Everything else required our own steam!
As the last few arrived, each plane carrying about 16 people, we prepared to meet our porters and guides. These relationships were to last for three weeks in some of the highest mountains in the world. By now we had been divided into two groups of roughly 25 people in each, the early birds and the late birds. Barry, our leader, directed us to our sherpas and Sirdar, the Nepali trekking guide who organised the porters and team. After lunch, which consisted of sandwiches of spam and veg with chapattis, we departed in dribs and drabs, Pete and I at the back. We soon realised we were among the fittest in the group, eating up the ground. But we were hear to enjoy ourselves and so took a leisurely stroll taking in the scenery, pine and birch forests, talking to yaks and other animals on the way. We passed a few in our group even going slowly as we were sure-footed and confident on the rough paths. We sampled a few of the teahouses en route to Phakding, our overnight camp spot. I soon found my tent mate Allan wandering about the other campsite and we soon all realised he was the first victim of the Khumbu diarrhoea bug. He had a terrible night and I did what I could but getting Jo our doctor to keep looking in on him was as much as I could do. It was a restless night for him and we woke to a dog barking in my ear literally a foot away outside our tent at 6.00am. Allan looked very weak in the morning, but fit to walk – just, and fortunately I didn’t catch anything.
The day started with an easy gradual uphill section to several bridge crossings before a final pull of over 400m to Namche Bazar. It was quite an uneventful day but I walked with Pete, then Derek and Helen for a while, then Wish before I decided on marching up to Namche to claim a good bed. It was great to see the first resemblances of high mountains with Tam Serku towering through the woodland canopy just before the second last rope bridge up to Namche. I finally reached the armed guard at the entrance to Namche at 3.30, which was now shrouded in mist at the same time as Bruce and Hugh, and we squeezed past and up to the town centre. First impressions of the Tibetan market (apparently illegal immigrants) and the open sewer that also served as the water supply, draining down the street left me a little uneasy. Diana was perched on a rock directing people to the lodges. I enjoyed a little banter with her and stood amazed as a yak tried to enter one of the gear shops when no one was looking – obviously it was after a duvet jacket in the sale! I found a room for Allan and I and we settled into the Ama Dablam lodge. After some coercion they finally put the fire on. It was very cold once the mist descended over Namche, apparently a common weather pattern every day at this time. Everyone finally joined us – not all in good health unfortunately as many had now come down with the skits. It was therefore a quiet night and early to bed after a meal in the lodge and my choice of what appeared to be harmless food almost completely backfired as the mashed potato and vegetable had a mixture of yak cheese in it and two spoonfuls later I was almost sick. However, Allan was still really suffering.
A rest day today and many people needed it. I was up early after another restless night but the fresh air was good at 6.30 in the morning and the weather and views were excellent at this time of day. I met Allan Meiklejohn also out for a walk and we trekked round toward Saranasa to view the huge towering peak of Ama Dablam and also Lhotse with Everest just behind and rather inconspicuous. Further fantastic views emerged after breakfast as Barry guided us up to an army lookout post. I then decided to go to Everest View Hotel and joined Joanna and Paula on the climb. The exposed ground was covered in beautiful blue gentians, one of the few flowers left flowering this late in the season. It was a slog up the hill but the views once in the hotel were stunning. Neil, John and Phil were also there enjoying the beer and it was splendiferous watching the rooks flitting on the trees near the veranda. Only 30 minutes later the mist appeared again, to rob the last few people of the view, but Neil and I were on our way down at this point. The night again passed quietly with Pete, Neil and I eating in the other lodge but I didn’t dare risk the yak sizzler just yet.
Today was Sunday and we set off early to recce and run the Thamo Loup. It was the first chance to see everyone run and Pete and I seemed to have the measure of the others especially on the descents. I was bursting with energy and felt great although the breathing was a little hard at this altitude. After a lovely lunch Pete and I set off after the others to Sarnasa and Khumjung where we caught up with most of the late birds. There was a lovely series of Tibetan stalls there selling beautiful blue stones and amber necklaces and bracelets, very appealing jewellery unique to the area. Arrival in camp started with a great game of Aussie football, then a good dahl bhat with curried potatoes and veg…excellent. It was cold up here at 3,600m so we turned in early after I treated people to a beer in the Khumjung bakery
Onward and upward toward Mong, along a lovely hill trail with rewarding views of the mountains. We saw a few gliding lammergeyers on the thermals. There were several yak trains too and they were more difficult to pass here. The next few days were basically for acclimatisation and we had some good stops sampling the teahouses up to Dule at 4010m. We were now above the tree line and the vegetation was sparse with heath like shrubs and some grass but little else and it was very dry. Lunch stops tended to comprise of a large blue tarpaulin being laid down and food laid out on it for everyone, often with soup and then a sandwich of some potatoes. It progressively got noticeably colder as we made our way to Machermo, a two-night stop before pushing on to Gokyo. Bed tea and porridge was an excellent start to the mornings and the climb to Machermo was short and sweet. Pete and I opted for a run once we arrived but it turned horrible and snowed and was so cold I could hardly breathe at 4410m. We only managed 30 mins before scurrying back to the lodge covered in snow and very cold…mad.
We stayed in the lodge for dinner and played cards afterward. Pete joined me in the tent as Allan was ill and stayed in the lodge but it reached minus 16OC overnight. My sleeping bag really did come in useful now and several people were extremely cold. The nest morning was clear, cold and beautiful and Pete and I soon set off up a nearby peak - Machermo Ri. We climbed quickly by 500m and I decided that was enough for the day but Pete and several others pressed on another 400m to 5300m. It proved to be a mistake in Pete’s case as he caught a bad cough that night. However the views even at 4900m were fantastic with Everest in view behind Lhotse and Nuptse. We managed a Fife AC photo call. We had a good laugh and craic in the lodge that night over cards and tea.
The following day was the big push up to Gokyo and Pete was hammered so I went alone today. I pushed on as I now had a cunning plan to try and get fit and remain healthy. I was trying to run every second day enabling some recovery time. I was also supplementing my daily dahl bhat and potatoes etc with vitamin pills and a fruit bar each day for extra vitamin C to keep the colds away. So far so good. I felt free on my own, unencumbered and it was like being back home on the lovely Scottish mountains again during my survey work. I arrived first at Gokyo at 9.30 only 1hour 30 mins from Machermo so I settled down with lots of tea to rehydrate, write my diary and plan the ascent of Gokyo Ri at 5450m. It was still a good 700m climb from Gokyo but the weather was fantastic, no wind and stunning views all around. I set off after Hueng and Mike after lunch and was up on the summit in 50 minutes, but I felt the altitude kick in here. I was ecstatic on top, overtaken by the amazing panorama all around huge mountain chains with snow covered peaks and glaciers as far as the eye could see. It was perfect weather too, not a breath of wind, and I joined Neil, and Aussie Chris on top of this huge scree boulder-field with extremely large drop-offs on each side. I was captivated up here looking into Tibet and over to Cho Oyu to the north with Everest and Nuptse to the east. The glaciers and moraines were huge extending miles down the valley and the village of Gokyo appeared a dot up here, dwarfed by the scale of the landscape. The ravens waited for scraps from the few tourists and Japanese photographers waited for the light to change and sun to set. Steve and Hueng who photographed endlessly with prayer flags flapping over the exposed rocks joined me. It was not a place to slip. The prayer flags almost seemed to belong to this environment and it was quite easy to see how they create an additional ambience with the bright colours amplifying the suns rays onto the surrounding backdrop of snow. I finally descended only to find Derek and Helen almost at the top, so I helped them up to take in the last light of the sun on the surrounding peaks.
It was a very cold night with Neil in my tent but I was up a lot for the loo. Dawn was cold here, as the sun didn’t get up over the moraines until about 8.00, after breakfast. A large contingent of the early birds set off for the Gokyo summit while the rest of us went up onto the moraines and viewed the creaking glacier. It was dangerous on the edges of the moraines as it was very friable rock, in fact just a loose conglomerate of stones, sand and gravel which you could hear landsliding steeply down to the glacier some 50m below. The extend of the grey hewn glacier covered in rock debris stretched as far as the foot of Cho oyu and beyond, almost 20 miles away. Every now and again you would hear a huge crack as the ice within the glacier pulled at the sides and forced its way down - nature at its most forceful and powerful. The tea and noodle soup was much appreciated after this in a lovely lodge overlooking the deepest blue Gokyo Lake. I accompanied Steve and the medical porter down toward Luza where we met some of our group in a lodge who’d stopped for tea. Wish, Tony and Martin were there with Helen and Derek. Wish was told of my chess set fiasco in Kathmandu and retorted “Sandalwood my arse” to a belly load of laughs. I was so chilled out by now that I enjoyed the friendly ribbing, and we made good time passing Machermo then on to Luza. We met up with Aussie Bill and Joanne in the Luza lodge as they had been there for two days recovering from illness. They both looked a lot better than the last time I’d seen them, the colour back in their cheeks. It was a bitterly cold night as I walked with Bill in the moonlight; totally clear skies, an excellent Milky Way stretching from each horizon outlined by rugged peaks.
The next day was great, a fantastic run down the valley with Derek and Helen in Red Arrows formation to the delight of the aviators in the group although Derek had a crash landing in front of Wing Commander Wish Gdula and got a right bollocking. His landing carriage had failed to come down in time and he’d wiped out – everyone else laughed as he picked himself up covered in dust. After a wee inspection, tea and biscuits, we were off again toward Khumjung. Lunch was taken at Mong with a lammergaier falcon gliding overhead. Jo also decided he wanted legs like mine, tanned that is, so ventured to get a photo by making me donate them, its a long story.
The run down was fun, past a few yak trains and then the rock steps cut out of the cliff face. A lovely day out but not such a good night. Unfortunately Allan had a wee accident in the night and flooded the tent although my karrimat carried me above the flood and kept my sleeping bag dry. It was too close to risk that again, I want a transfer!
Pete, Derek and I decided to tour Khumjung today, with Ama Dablam in constant view in the distance. The locals were friendly and it was much more like a real Nepali town with people living there all year round. We then ventured toward Sarnassa as I had seen some lovely blue stoned jewellery that I thought would be suitable for Moira. Indeed it was a lovely colour and the silver bracelets were pretty but I had to get Pete to model it. Enough…off we sped to catch the others past a few yak trains and down to the river. In our haste Pete fell over and grazed his knee, not badly but he broke his £500 specs in the process. Ironically I had been given a bandage for my knee that morning so I donated it to give Pete the correct look. The bridge crossing leading up through the pine forest to the Tengboche monastery was lovely, the wild raging torrent, transposed against the yak trains. Pete and I marched up and met John and Phil perched on a rock staring at the massif of Tam serku. We carried on up, the steepest climb yet, rewarding at the top with views up the Khumbu toward Nuptse and Everest. We stretched out while waiting for lunch, the clouds coming and going, the temperature going up and down about 15C every time. It was a good place to share my chocolate while waiting for lunch and then we could explore the monastery and the visitor centre. They were very active promoting the herbal medicines, which I found very interesting. The monks, in traditional dress and still practising their beliefs, are dependant on any income they can get up here. It seemed a long day and finally after heating up again with Derek and a few others I reached my camp and stone cold tent but I was warmed by the now commonplace garlic soup and dahl bhat.
I slept well on my own, and the next day I wandered off early to watch the birds, an amazing finch like bird, bright yellow rump with a dark buff coloured head, back and breast, swooping among the juniper and stripping the berries. I was told by the sherpas that they were poisonous to people. The trek upward was easy going and even going easy we caught the rest by half way stopping in Pingboche for a wee break. Everyone watched with great hilarity as a horse wandered in to the lodge garden where we were having tea, and tried to help himself. I continued a massage session for everyone, there were some stiff necks and shoulders to rub, some very tense people about. It was almost embarrassing listening to Stevie who seemed to be in heaven or orgasm as I massaged her shoulder muscles, to the amusement of everyone, but I think she had her eyes and ears shut! Lunch was less exciting and onward to Pheriche and Dingboche in gorgeous weather with Neil, Dan and Ben and Kevin, the Ghurkhas. I was not impressed by Pheriche, the first lodge filthy and the second not much better, but the tea seemed fine. Finally we climbed the hill to a stupa for a wonderful view and then down to camp for lunch in a cramped smoky lodge. We played some cards and eventually wandered off to bed. The following day was a rest day and after a wee run with Martin I knew there was something wrong. I’d run out of my vitamin C intake - fruit bars the day before, but today I felt sluggish and then the cough started. It soon had me completely and I felt every step was a huge effort. I went off on my own and perched on a rock for a few hours reading and relaxing. I then ventured up to Island Peak base camp but only made it to the lodge where I met most of the others. It was a real struggle getting there and I felt awful. I struggled to eat anything although the tea was good. Derek and Helen accompanied me down, both of them also felt poorly so we were in the same boat. We found a rock and perched with the stunning sun setting on the serrated ridge of Ama Dablam. Bliss even when you’re ill.
The next day was photo shoot day followed by a talk about the medical expectations for the race. Everyone had their best clothes and hats on, so there was no change there then! I felt rough as hell and the walk up to Lobuche was terrible, I felt like a snail and probably looked like one except for the See You Jimmy hat. After lunch we ventured on and a mile from Lobuche I met Mike and the kayak team having just come down from Kala Pattar. They all looked quite weather beaten but were all beaming with their success. Onward to the top and a wee race to contend with, butt first how to deal with Lobuche, with its reputation for catching nasty bugs…Lobuche was truly a hole, with a wee stream running directly past the camp site, with all the toilet waste in it – great! Fortunately I had more of a problem with yaks shagging next to the tent, noise etc.
An acclimatisation day much needed as my cough was horrendous…medical tomorrow. I took it easy as a good number headed up Kala Pattar and Everest base camp. I went with Aussie Bill and Hugh up to the Italian research station where we met Barry and Bruce and had a good dose of tea. We were soon joined by Tony and Dan, then Helen and Robin…and what a cracking view up to the hanging glacier to the west and Pumori to the north. The day passed quickly as we fell asleep next to a rock in the afternoon. Another freezing cold night and the yaks new it too…The medical was at about 9.00 and people seemed to appear from everywhere…but most got through it although trying to do the 7 times table backwards at 4,900m was quite taxing. I scraped through the medical, others were not so lucky with Hueng a last minute casualty and Aussie Colin, Brian, several Ghurkhas and Malcolm already casualties. We left in small groups up to Gorak Shep, with Helen, Neil and Derek all in god form as I struggled on. We made it by lunchtime but the last section over the scree fields was demanding and rough as hell in places. Finally made the lodges and it was hot in the sun but cold in the shade. The tents went up late so after lunch we pottered a while and then I helped putting the tents up with several of the porters. I laughed at the porters putting up the toilet tent on the ice lake, digging a hole with an ice axe to achieve what - frozen sausages… A few massages later and the sun disappeared and it grew very cold as most retired to the lodges for tea and then dinner…an early night before the day of reckoning.
I had a very restless night as my cold went to my nose; I consumed two loo rolls in the process and emerged from the tent in the morning like Rudolph. Everyone finally emerged at about 6.30 after porridge and tea as Wish threatened everyone to get to the start line. It was too cold to hang about and I wished everyone luck. The start was surreal, everyone breathing heavily in the cold, at 5200m and then a sprint…. to a walk some 150m up the scree slope. From here on everything was a blur with a few Nepali runners for the next few miles but finally I worked out where I was…after coughing and catching my breath near Lobuche. I soon saw Martin and caught him on the descent to Diboche and ran down to Pheriche with him close behind. However from here on after almost 1hour 30 mins of running I seemed to seize up, I just couldn’t breathe. I went backwards from here on and had to walk some downhill bits but I was stuffed. It was really odd because I expected people to come flying past but no one for miles… Gemma helped a little at the next aid station as I had a wee rest for ten minutes before setting off again at a jog then a walk, then a jog but I still couldn’t breathe properly even though I was going downhill and losing altitude. I finally made it to Tengboche where I was greeted by Kevin.
I had by now decided that after another 10 minute break and some rice pudding tae boot, that I would be quite satisfied just finishing. The hilly descent from tengboche was my only good bit of the whole race as I relaxed and flew down.
The climb up Sarnasa hill was another thing altogether at the hottest time of the day. It was a walk and no more and half way up I noticed someone sitting down on a rock. It was Pete, looking rather knackered and he was coughing almost as much as I was.
I ventured over as if out for a stroll and persuaded him to join me for a drink at the next aid station at the top of Sarnassa hill. We climbed slowly and made it to the two fantastic American doctors who poured coke down our necks and massaged my neck. After another 15 mins we decided to carry on and finish but enjoy it as if a training run…and that’s the way it was. We reached Allan to realise we only had a 6 miles to go on our training run and it was soon over but hey we almost got caught by a lot of people on our walk. Both Pete and I were so knackered as we crossed the line together we saluted the finish line with a full throated cough. We retired to copious tea noodle soup as we watched everyone come in. I could hardly move after an hour and neither could Pete so we just stayed put seeing Robin and then Helen finish. Bedtime didn’t come soon enough.
Another day and recovery was the name of the game today…everyone seemed really chilled out and I spent some time with Helen just pottering about. After breakfast we walked up to the school to give our last pencils and paper away. The kids were delighted to see us and they were gorgeous in their brightly coloured school uniforms. They sang for us in a lovely harmony and the older kids in the primary even spoke some English. Even here they learn languages early. After a while Aussie Bill arrived and he brought about 20 Aussie footballs with him and organised a big practice session over lunchtime. Everyone joined in, it was one of the highlights of the trip to see there faces light up and their broad smiles could not hide their excitement. We had an hour playing lots of silly games until everyone was exhausted including me. I’ll never forget the younger children’s faces, round rosy smiles with their colourful scarves and jackets made such a picture against the towering snow capped mountains behind us.
Another day passed with almost luxury staying in the lodge. But it was soon time to go home and we made plans for the last days trek to Lukla. Pete and I decided we needed a blast to get the bad feeling of the race out of our system and it proved a wonderful tonic to crash down the steep slopes of the hill from Namche toward Pahkding. Such a wonderful run with no pressure, just what we came for and all was son well again apart from the locals stoning a troop of monkeys who were very none plussed by it all. Still this is where crops and food are valuable and worth protecting but it’s a delicate balance between human and wildlife survival. A consequence of our times.