Last updated: 04-Mar-16
By Ian Corless
1953, Imagine it? It was the dawn of an era, when men were men and fear was something that was hidden away in a closet never to be shown, never to be acknowledged and never to be accepted.
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 the 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.
“While on top of Everest, I looked across the valley towards the great peak Makalu and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed. It showed me that even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.”
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.
Arguably the route has become one of the most popular treks in the world. Passing through alpine forests, glacial rivers, stunning climbs, and quad busting descents. The people, oh the people of Nepal are a glowing jewel within a stunning setting. Nepal and the Himalayas may well be the gold but the people are the diamonds set within.
“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.
Running for me has always been about the journey. An opportunity to see something new! To embrace a new culture, to be tested like never before and ultimately come away refreshed, exhausted and inspired. For the second year running I once again was able to tick all these boxes, following Hilary and Tenzing in the 4th edition of the Everest Trail Race.
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. I love it. No, I adore it! Walking the streets of Tamil, photographing faces, visiting the Monkey Temple – it doesn’t get any better.
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. On occasion they require a reward. For children it is a balloon or a lollipop, for the adults it’s a 100-rupees.
Departing Kathmandu the road to Jiri is a twisting and gut wrenching series of bends and kilometers. My journey was spent head down looking inside several white bags as I managed to experience my early morning breakfast time-and-time again. I am pleased to say in 2013 my journey was trouble free…
Jiri (1905m) and the glow of yellow tents and base camp was a wonderful site after 8-hours of travel. As the sun lowered behind the surrounding mountains, anticipation of the journey ahead was high. Sherpa’s and porters prepared dinner and a first night under canvas made the journey and our trip suddenly feel very real.
Adventure! My journey would be so different from the runners. I would move along the trail in search of stories, images and words to convey the beauty, the hardship and the drama of the ‘ETR.’ Around me runners had one primary goal, to reach the finish line in Lukla as quickly, as trouble free and as healthy as possible.
Would I swap places?
No chance. I honestly believe my job affords me the best of both worlds.
The Everest Trail Race follows the steps of Hilary and Tenzing all the way to Tengboche and then turns around and heads back to Lukla and thus facilitate 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 ones 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. Placing one-foot in front of the other, 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 and 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 surrounds us: porters, mules or yaks. Porters transport goods and services up and down the motorway daily, an important lifeline to the whole community. For £10 a day they will carry 30kg’s on their backs covering high altitudes 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. To impose our western thoughts of right and wrong would be crazy.
Low mist but a relatively mild night afforded everyone a comfortable nights rest before the action started. The sound of horns and a local group of musicians enticed the runners on to the trails.
Phudorje Lama Sherpa set the early pace but was soon joined by fellow Nepal teammate, Samir Temang. The two seemed to work together throughout the stage and slowly but surely they stretched the elastic over experienced Spanish ultra runner, Zigor Iturrieta. Temang in the latter stages opened up a small lead and finished just ahead of Phudorje by 38-seconds. Zigor however was 26-minutes back after the challenging first day of just 21.5km and 3700m+/- of elevation.
Anna Comet started the ladies race from the front and looked impressive throughout. She continued to open up a convincing lead on British entrant, Kerry Sutton who finished just over 20-minutes back. 2013 ETR second place, Yangdi Lama Sherpa finished 3rd a further 20-minutes behind Kerry.
Bhandar to Jase Bhanjyang is a beast of a stage. No, it’s a brute! A brute of epic proportions, it would leave every runner questioning the journey ahead and the possibility of completion. Deviating from Hilaryary and Tenzing’s route, the ETR would not circumnavigate Pikey Peak at just over 4000m but would go over it… 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 could anticipate 2-hours plus of relentless climbing, the remainder of the field would spend 4, 5, 6 and maybe longer negotiating the steep slopes of these Himalayan foothills. Form the summit; each step of pain was rewarded with a wonderful vista of the Himalayan range. In the distance Everest, Lohtse and Ama Dablam made our 4000m-peak dwarf with there 7000m plus splendor. Days like this are to be embraced, hugged and held close.
At the front of each day our duo of Nepalese runners battled head-to-head and Zigor Iturrieta along with James Eacott from the UK would try to keep them in check. Anna Comet would continue to dominate the ladies and Kelly Sutton would battle to gain time while Yangdi Lama Sherpa would look to consolidate 3rd place. Ultimately though, a race existed within each and every person. It was about battling inner demons, inner pain and surviving whilst being surrounded by the most impressive venue one could ever wish to run in. Kharikola provided the awe-inspiring 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 you one to question ones sanity. Kharikola may well have provided such stimulus. ‘Is that real?’ one may ask and as the final steps arrive and the ETR finish banner awaits, one suddenly realizes that the mirage is real and the journey is truly over, at least for today!
The trail changes and suddenly more trekkers, more porters, more mules and yaks populate the highway 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 realize how completely insignificant you are. It’s a wonderful journey of technical trail and as I drop down to Surke and cross the river I realize that I am in a place that is beyond my dreams. It’s a combination of elements that make me stop, take stock and assess who I am, where I am and how I got here.
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. I walked away smiling. If I didn’t take one more photograph on this trip, I had the one I would be most proud of.
Tengboche, the finish line of day-5 offered a panorama to make one cry. Everest, Lohtse and Ama Dablam are close and the finish line of the ETR framed them beautifully like a classic painting. It was a little like the final day of school, get this far and you know you are going to graduate. Relief, emotions and the outpouring of tears as each and every participant crossed the line make the journey worthwhile. So tough the journey had been that many a runner needed to be reminded to turn around, look, and see what was behind them. The reaction was always the same, a huge intake of air, a hand to the eye and then a lowering of the head to wipe the tears away.
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, the top of the world 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.”
In the final kilometers of the 2014 ETR, I am sure each and every runner, each member of staff and all those on the trails had similar thoughts. Passing through Sagarmatha National Park, crossing Hilary Bridge, navigating through Namche Bazaar the final calling of Lukla confirmed the end of the 2014 ETR. Anna Comet was crowned ladies champion and Samir Temang male champion. Two victors but to coin a cliché, each runner was a victor.
Nepal and the Everest Trail Race provided more than a race experience. Combined 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.
“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 harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”