Surviving 165km in 1 Week with Eric’s Knife and Duct Tape
Our Big Adventure
This year’s big ultra event for Ramzi and me is the Royal Penguin Ultramarathon, a 64km ultramarathon starting in Namche (3400m – meaning at 3400 metres above sea level) in the Himalayas in Nepal, following a trail up the Cho Oyu valley to Gokyo with a turnaround at Renjo Pass (5300m) and back to Namche. In addition to the obvious need for fitness, we faced two challenges: simply getting to Namche and altitude acclimatization. We devised a plan to address both issues, by running and ‘power-trekking’ that week over 165km and taking a helicopter up to high altitude to summit a 5550m peak.
Saturday: Lukla (2800m) – Namche (3400m). 20km in 5 hours
We arrived in Kathmandu midnight on Friday and less than five hours later, we left for the domestic airport to catch a flight to Lukla. Lukla prides itself as being the ‘most dangerous airport in the world’, where the problem is the weather constantly shutting down the cliff side airstrip that leaves zero room for pilot error. Our flight flew with only a two hour delay, but our buddy Hamad got stuck in Kathmandu for two days before taking a helicopter. When we got to Lukla, we met our guide, Birman from Trekking Team Group. Our tour operator knows us and selected Birman, because of his fitness and positive attitude. The trek from Lukla to Namche is usually two days, but we ran it in five hours as a warm-up exercise. It takes time to get accustomed to running on the rocks, but we ran with only a quick stop for popcorn at Phakding – so we go from sea level in Dubai to Namche at 3400m in less than 24 hours.
Gorek Shep and Nuptse
Sunday: Namche (3400m) – Khumjung & Khunde (3800m) loop. 10km in 4 hours
We spend a day acclimatizing by trekking to Khumjung and Khunde villages above Namche, which are easy treks up to 3800m. The following morning after waiting for three hours in Namche for the incoming helicopter, our pilot pulls us aside and screams at us, “This is a Freaking Bad Idea.” He was ranting because we weren’t acclimated. I exaggerated and said that we had been over 4000m for a week. After he cussed us out, he gave us the telephone number of a medevac.
Monday: Gorek Shep (5180m) – Kala Patthar (5550m) & EBC (5300m). 10km in 5 hours
We jumped off the helicopter and trekked straight up Kala Patthar Summit, which is famous as the location where most iconic Everest photos are taken. It’s a great rocky peak with huge cliffs on three sides. After enjoying the views, we run the rocks down to Gorek Shep. Running at 5500m is a fun concept, but the altitude is clouding our judgment. After a bowl of dubious soup at the lodge, we head up to Everest Base Camp (“EBC”) following the route of the first 5km of the Everest Marathon. Ramzi is starting to lag behind and to noticeably stumble. When we are on the glacier just above EBC, it starts snowing and we head back to Gorek Shep for the night.
Kala Patthar Summit
Tuesday: Gorek Shep (5180m) – Namche (3400m). 37km in 10 hours
Spending the night at Gorek Shep is a blur. Ramzi has some altitude issues which are somewhat relieved with Diamoxx and the dinner makes me colourfully nauseous, so we are well prepared for the 37km run down to complete the Everest Marathon route. We struggled somewhat for the first couple hours over boulders until we got below 5000m at Lobuche. Lobuche is a beautiful simple village of ten buildings with no utilities, but a majestic view of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. We are running wherever possible when Birman asks about doing the ultra in two days with us. He loved our Brilliant Idea and decided he would also participate despite not really knowing what an ultramarathon is. After ten hours of running and trekking on rocks, we are back in civilized Namche.
Yak and Ramzi
Thursday: Namche (3400m) – Renjo Pass (5400m). 68km in 18 hours
With a much-needed rest day, we have our traditional pre-race strategy meeting when some guys chat us up. It turns out they’re ultra runners on holiday and are so amused by our antics, that they promise to show up for the 03:00 start of the ultramarathon. The camaraderie of the trails is amazing, because these three guys meet us at 01:30 to cheer before the start.
Royal Penguin Ultra Marathon
The ultra is tough. Imagine running, walking, trekking and climbing rocks for hours and hours, but since you’re at altitude, there’s not much oxygen. There are rivers, cliffs, and more rocks. The vertical ascent is over 3000m of elevation. You run the first three hours before sunrise in darkness and the last four hours after sunset. The views during the day are spectacular with snow covered mountains in all directions. Birman takes off ahead of us, so we soon find ourselves hanging with Eric, an experienced Dutch ultrarunner. When Ramzi’s knee gives out, Eric pulls out of his pack a knife and some duct tape – which is creepy and scares the crap out of Ramzi –to quickly tape up Ramzi’s knee as good as new. Near Machermo (4500m), we come across a Nepali porter – who couldn’t have weighed more than 50 kg – carrying a 4-metre steel beam that weighs 85 kg. We decided that carrying a steel beam that weighs almost twice your body weight should be in next CrossFit or Tough Mudder competition held at 4500 metres above sea level. Together we enjoyed doing 600m of vertical ascent in darkness after 15 hours, which is truly a bonding experience of pleasure and pain as we finished in just under 18 hours.
Saturday: Namche (3400m) – Lukla (2800m). 20km in 4 hours
Here’s what happened on the last day – it’s gonna be hard to explain. We ran fairly hard from Namche to Lukla – 20km, carrying our running packs with spare jackets. I ran in sandals, shorts, polo shirt and calf compression. We got there so quickly we could catch a flight to Kathmandu instead of staying in Lukla (think: armpit, Nepali-style). The problem was the porter had our bags with passports, money, everything. I ran back to get our bags while Ramzi negotiated with the airline. I was about 1km away, when Ramzi calls me and says to run as fast as I can back to the airport. I sprint – despite the high mileage in the morning – and make it to the terminal in five minutes. We run through the airport and straight onto the tarmac without security or documents and the plane’s engines are already started, so we hop up the three steps and in. Except for a tarp in the middle of the plane, it’s empty with all the seats folded away except two for us. At this point, I was only wearing a down jacket without a shirt – I had taken it off earlier because it was dripping wet – camouflage shorts, calf compression and sandals. My feet were as filthy as you could imagine after running five hours through rural Nepal. We arrived in Kathmandu with nothing but the dirty clothes on our back until the bags with our money and passports arrived the next morning!
That flight exemplifies the flexibility and patience you endure to enjoy a fun Nepal adventure, and the adventure itself becomes the main event. In a week, we ran / power-trekked over 100 miles at elevation in sun and in snow. We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, and we took a helicopter from Namche to Gorek Shep. We climbed to the Kala Patthar summit. We ran the last 37km of the Everest Marathon, and we completed the Royal Penguin ultramarathon. Nepal is an amazing place – with snow-covered mountains, superfit porters, crazy yaks, too many rocks and the kindest hospitality in harsh conditions. ■
Editor’s Safety Note: The basic rule of thumb for Acclimatization is to: Take things easy for the first few days as you ascend, drink more fluid than you would normally (at least an additional 1 litre per 1000 metres’ height gain) and to make plenty of stops to take a few deep breaths (while you enjoy the view) to replenish those oxygen levels (which decrease the higher you go). We recommend that if you are going to train at altitude or compete in a high level race and if you are coming from sea level then you take a few extra days to acclimatize slowly and properly. The Author of this Article is a very experienced athlete and knows how far he can push himself and Ramzi but for the average novice to Altitude racing, we recommend a slower approach to acclimatization! Dan
Words + Photos by: David O’Hara