June | 160 km | Mountain | 28 Hour Cap | △△△△ | USA
After a few days in Kathmandu before the Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon, I headed to the airport along with my fellow racers. We were flying to Lukla on Yeti Airways, which felt as rugged as it sounds. The pilot was in jeans and the check-in “process” was just crossing us off a printed list of passengers. Some people in my group were nervous, but I was trying to keep perspective. While Lukla is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world, it’s still extremely rare for there to be an accident, and lack of uniforms didn’t indicate lack of piloting skills.
I thought I’d held irrational fears at bay until the plane started bouncing up and down, jolting all over the place. It was like we were bobbing around in a tin can! I’m normally a relaxed flyer, but I gripped the edges of my seat, which felt as sturdy as a lawn chair. I tried to focus on the view instead of the fear. All around us, white Himalayan peaks pierced through the clouds. I could only imagine standing at the top of one of them. Arriving in Lukla, I said a little prayer of thanks for the safe journey and went off to explore.
Lukla is basically one long shopping lane, complete with a Starbucks and multiple trekking outfitters. I took a stroll around, which didn’t take long, and then decided to join the other racers in the Buddha Lounge. This would be our home base for the next two days as we acclimatized, before starting the trek to Base Camp. A few fellow marathoners were sleeping on benches surrounding the room, atop thick oriental carpets that were used for padding. Not wanting to rest yet, I played a game of Scrabble with a few others.
As we were finishing up our game, I looked out the window and noticed a marathon team from the Indian Army training on the airport runway. Feeling the urge to run, I rushed to my tent as soon as the game was over, threw on my running shoes, and headed out there. There were security guards standing by the planes, but they didn’t seemed concerned about me joining the others. Planes came in so infrequently to Lukla that it would probably be hours before they needed the runway clear.
The landing strip was steeply sloped, so I ran swiftly down it, feeling my nerves from the morning rush out of me. But when I turned to climb back up the hill, I realized running at 10,000 feet was much different than at lower altitudes. I had to walk halfway through my return to the holding area. Knowing I’d have to run much more than this, at a much higher altitude, in just 16 days, I did a few sprints and returned for another go at the landing strip. This time I took it easy on the way down and did not walk on the way up. While the training run shook my confidence a bit, I was left feeling like the race would still be within reach.
The next morning, the first day of our trek, we ascended 1,200 feet in around five hours. The agenda was simple: walk, drink a lot of tea, eat dinner, and rest up for the next day. We passed over cascading rivers of snowmelt on impossibly long suspension bridges that rippled with every step. We encountered prayer wheels and Hindu temples, rice paddy fields, and views of mighty Himalayan peaks. The most rewarding part of the second day was glimpsing Everest for the first time. The mountain that had inspired us all to travel around the world for a grand adventure was finally within sight.
We continued upward to Namche Bazaar, a small, horseshoe-shaped town just above 13,000 feet on Everest, where we were to sleep for the next three nights. I took a stroll to the small stupa in the village center, passing some Nepali men pounding on granite, breaking boulders into stones that would form walls and pathways. Their work seemed relentless and monotonous, and I’m sure it paid little. This is why so many families send their kids off to work abroad, I thought. There aren’t many viable financial alternatives.
At dinner, I struggled to eat, since altitude suppresses appetites. But fortunately I was still feeling energized enough to visit a local bar with some of the other racers. We drank tea, since alcohol hinders acclimatization, and danced for hours to Elvis, the only music the bar had. A group of Nepali men were standing by the wall, watching us and laughing, probably because we were goofing around like idiots without actually being drunk. Around 10 p.m., we walked back to camp and climbed into our tents. Our 6 a.m. wake up the next morning would be rough.
Luckily, we had only a five-hour acclimatization trek the next day. We climbed up for three hours and then hiked back down to where we had started for two. It was a clear day, so it seemed I could see every crevasse and icefall on the mountains, even far in the distance. But we paid for the beauty: it was hot! The atmosphere was too thin to protect us from the sun’s rays and there were no clouds to offer shade.
When we arrived back at camp, just in time for lunch, I ate sparingly, as my appetite hadn’t returned. Then I curled up on a tapestry-covered bench. I later woke up shivering, my body tightly clenching to fend off the cold. I couldn’t summon the will to fetch warmer clothing from my tent, so I lay there cold and miserable. Eventually, it was time for tea and I had to wake up. At that point I realized how miserable I truly was. I struggled to even sit upright and my breathing was shallow and rapid. I walked up to my tent and collapsed onto my sleeping bag.
Between the dancing, the altitude, and the intense heat that morning, I figured I must have become dehydrated. I searched in my bag for my oral rehydration salts, added them to my water bottle, and choked the gross liquid down. Then I collapsed again, exhausted. I was worried my marathon dreams might be jeopardized, so I determined to recover if at all possible.
I went down to the dining area, drank more of the awful rehydration salt solution, and rested. When I informed the doctor of my situation, he found I had a fever of 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. I had a terrible, sleepless night and wondered how I’d ever make it almost two more weeks. The next day, I was again in pain and exhausted, unable to find even an ounce of comfort. I succumbed to nausea and finally started feeling better and better. I was lucky we had those three nights in Namche. Many fell ill and had to power through it on hiking days, since we were so often on the move.
After another week and a half of trekking, my fellow racers and I reached Gorakshep, a campsite at 16,942 feet, only a couple of days from Everest Base Camp. As we neared the camp, it started snowing unexpectedly. As the snow continued, rumors that we might not be able to run the race circulated. We awoke to find our tents buried in deep powder. It was surreal to see only the tops of our yellow tents floating in a pool of white. Fortunately, Sherpas had cleared paths, so I could walk up to the teahouse with three feet of snow on either side of me. An angry yak greeted me in the teahouse courtyard. I carefully scooted around him, eager to hear news on the race.
It was still uncertain whether we would be able to make it to Base Camp. We would spend an extra day at Gorakshep waiting out the storm, which meant we could rest that day and attempt Kala Patthar, an 18,192-foot side peak, the next day. I was worried about the race, but happy to spend the day parked on the tapestries, cozily reading, playing Scrabble, talking, resting, and sitting by the fireside drinking ginger tea for hours.
The trek to Kala Patthar’s summit is usually easy, but the path was buried in snow. Even worse, the mix of warm days and cold nights had created a crust of ice over the snow that we had to break through with every step. There were around 35 of us climbing, so one person would lead the pack and the rest of us would step in his footprints. This made the conditions a bit easier to manage, but most of the men were much taller than me. Often I couldn’t match their gait and had to make my own path. Each step required lifting my foot high above the snow and setting it down on terrain I couldn’t see. This would have been easier had we not been upwards of 18,000 feet. After a few hours of trekking, we reached the summit. All I could see around me was bright white. It was almost dizzying. I felt a sense of accomplishment at having reached a Himalayan peak, albeit likely the easiest summit in the range.
I started back down and quickly realized the return would be much tougher than the way up. The rocks underfoot were incredibly slippery and I frequently lost my balance. I must have fallen at least ten times before reaching Gorakshep. When I arrived, a group of British runners were playing cricket, of all things. The players were sliding all over the place. One of them twisted his ankle and his race ended right there. The rest of us were still waiting to see if our race would even start. Later that day, we got our answer: the race was on. The next morning, we would begin our trek to Base Camp.
We rose early the next day, all itching to get started. The trek wasn’t too long, but the deep snow made it challenging. Setting foot in Everest Base Camp made it all worth it, though. The ground and the surrounding mountains were so uniformly white that geographic features were impossible to make out. The sky merged into the mountains, which merged into the ice and snow. It was as if we were floating in a cloud or a bright, white room. I was thankful for my glacier glasses, as they were the only thing that allowed me to see.
I could hear the clanging of yak bells as we walked up to our camp. When we crested a hill, I saw a yak train headed towards us. I stepped out of the way as the train passed carrying heaps of equipment from a summit attempt. We saw a few haggard, sunburnt climbers walking behind the train. It was a father and son team, and they reported having made it to the top. I couldn’t even imagine it. Feeling as tired as I did at Base Camp, I couldn’t fathom spending another two months at this altitude and up to eight thousand feet higher.
After sunset, the night air rapidly dropped below freezing. Overnight it fell below zero Fahrenheit. The air was so thin that it didn’t trap any heat. Cold and anxious for the race the next day, I tried to sleep, but it was hopeless. My sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough for the weather, so I had to keep rubbing my arms and legs together, trying to generate heat. I just kept telling myself: “The race is tomorrow. Tomorrow, this will all be worth it. Tomorrow you’ll get to run down Mount Everest!”
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