Four 16-seater mini buses departed Kathmandu for the 8-hour drive to Jiri and camp one of the 2017 Everest Trail Race. The distance is only 200km but the roads are slow, it is rollercoaster ride of twisting left-to-right, bouncing up and down and all with a constant soundtrack of car horns. There is a lack of road rules, which actually makes the journey very safe as drivers are constantly expecting the unexpected.
Arriving in camp, water and tents were allocated to the runners. These tents are home for the next 6-days as we all make our way towards Everest. Runners settled in and made final preparations as the reality hit home that tomorrow, the 2017 Everest Trail Race would start. The heat of Kathmandu soon disappeared with the arrival of darkness and t-shirts were replaced with down jackets.
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 1 Jiri Bazaar to Bhandar
As the sun disappeared last night, so did the temperature. Morning came with a welcoming hot tea delivered to every tent by the Sherpa’s who are an integral hub of the organisation team managed by race RD, Jordi Abad.
Villagers from Jiri came to observe the ETR roadshow and they played music to announce the start as they have done for the past several years. On the stoke of 0900 the runners departed and the 2017 edition was finally underway.
Starting at 1890m the runners had a short descent and then immediately the first climb of the day to Mali at 2200m. Deurali Pass via Khasrubas (2173m) was the toughest climb of the day and the highest point 2715m.
Luis Alberto Hernando set the early pace but was soon joined by fellow Nepalese, Suman Kulung. The two seemed to work together throughout the stage but Sondre Amdahl, as expected but up a battle. Luis Alberto stretched the elastic through and pulled away from the Nepalese runner finishing in an incredible 2:17:41 – a course record for day 1. Suman held a good pace despite the chase from the Norwegian and they crossed 2:19:56 and 2:21:20 respectively.
Brit Rebecca Ferry was leading the ladies race but unfortunately took a wrong turn and lost all the time she had gained, it was a real frustration for her as she was running so strong – she eventually finished out of the top-3. Pre-race favourite, Ester Alves from Portugal took over the front of the race and took a convincing win in 3:22:22 ahead of Nepali runner Chhechee Sherpa in 3:33:05. Elisabet Barnes, also took a wrong turn but re-traced and got back on route to finish 3rd in 3:36:25
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 2 Bhandar to Jase Bhanjyang
On the trail, the freezing early morning temperatures started to rise and with it the sun. Suddenly, the first glimpse of the snowcapped Himalayas and Everest in the distance. It was another tough hike to Pikey Peak, once passed 3600m everyone could feel the altitude hit!
It was a split start today, slow runners leaving at 0700 and faster runners at 0800.
Starting with a short and technical descent for a couple of km’s, runners crossed a river via a suspended bridge and then it was pretty much all ‘up’ for 16/17km. The gradients were not brutal (however, poles were essential) and terrain underfoot, on the whole, was very good, but the combination of these elements and altitude made the whole experience extremely harsh.
Luis Alberto Hernando dare I say, made it look it easy! He smashed the old course record and in the process set a new time of 3:35. It’s difficult to comprehend how the Spaniard climbed to Pikey Peak in the time that he did. He arrived at the summit in 3:10 and then flew down the final technical descent and climbed to the finish line in 25-minutes – incredible!
It wasn’t all Luis’s day though, in the early stages he was pushed by Sondre Amdahl. The duo traded the lead over the early climbing and Nepali Suman Kulung tried to hold the pace but the other two were too strong.
Eventually, Luis made his move and Sondre new that he could not match the pace, but he arrived 2nd at the summit less than 10-minutes behind. Suman arrived 3rd and then used his incredible downhill ability to not only catch Sondre but pass him, finished 2nd and Sondre was 3rd. Jordi Gamito once again placed 4th, he is running a strong race but just doesn’t have the pace or the form of the top-3.
In the ladies’ race. Ester Alves used her mountain experience and climbing to forge ahead but the Portuguese lady didn’t open up the possible huge gap many had expected. At the Pikey Peak summit, she had only a handful of minutes over Elisabet Barnes. Elisabet the two time MDS champ is not known for her mountain ability but in 2017 she has honed her skills and in particular, she has trained a great deal at altitude.
On the technical descent, Ester extended her lead, her technical running ability is still better than Elisabet’s but the gap is closing. Post-race, Elisabet said, ‘I am really happy with my race, I climbed really well, handled the altitude and after 3400m I was really strong, the training paid off!’
Chhechee Sherpa was the 3rd lady and I guess somewhat surprisingly couldn’t match Ester and Elisabet on the climb – unusual for a Nepal native. However, she ran a strong race for 3rd with the UK’s Becks Ferry placing 4th.
One-by-one runners made the Pikey Peak summit, some in better shape than others. Unfortunately, the stunning early morning views of the Himalayas disappeared as the day passed and in the latter stages the race was blocked out with cold wind and dense mist.
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 3 Jase Bhanjyang to Kharikola
The mist and light wind persisted into the night and it was seriously cold! Jase Bhanjyang sitting just below 4000m is renowned for being a cold place and last night it lived up to expectations but not as bad as previous years. Needless to say, kit was tested and those who compromised on weight were left with a really cold and uncomfortable night. Pretty much everyone slept in base layers and down jackets with hoods up and gloves on.
Once again, it would be a split start, 0700 and 0800. Today’s stage had considerably less climbing than stage two, however, it had lots of descending, it may not hurt the lungs as much but it would certainly hurt the legs. Many thought it would be an easier day… A short climb out of camp the runners would then descend to Jumbesi (CP1) at 2696m. This initial trail would see them running through a dense forest section. Kharikhola, the end of today’s stage, is on a main trekking route and in addition, it is a main route for supplies. It is amazing me to watch children carry baskets literally as big as they are and for sure, probably twice the weight. Mules go up and down the trail all day carrying all sorts of supplies, from bottles of gas, water, corn, maize, beer, Coke, cigarettes and so on. You suddenly realize how life moves around in these mountains.
Suman Kulung and Luis Alberto Hernando led from the front once again and the stage looked all set for an epic battle. Suman a super-fast descender, has Luis Alberto worried before the start. He knew it was going to be tough. Over the early miles they ran together but eventually the Nepali runner broke the elastic and the Spaniard was left pursuing. Although a gap opened, Luis Alberto did an incredible job of holding Suman and then with a tough and relentless final climb, he closed to reduce his losses and still retain the lead. Suman crossed in 3:47:27 and Luis Alberto 3:55:58.
In third place, Sondre Amdahl and Jordi Gamito run together, Sondre using Jordi’s descending ability as a guide to help him down the trails. On the final climb, they stayed together and crossed the line 1-second apart, Sondre remaining 3rd overall.
Chhechee Sherpa, like her male counterpart has an incredible reputation for running downhill. She put this to great use on day 2 basically opening a gap from the moment the race day started all the way to the line. Despite Ester Alves’ incredible mountain experience, she couldn’t match the Nepali runner, Ester crossed the line in 6:03:36, an incredible 36-minutes slower than Chhechee who crossed in 5:27:27.
Elisabet Barnes is not known for her downhill ability and today it tested her to the max, so much so, it opened the doorway for Rebecca Ferry to take 3rd on the stage in 6:28:19 and Elisabet crossing in 6:40:35. Elisabet still retained her 3rd overall position and now Chhechee has the overall lead just ahead of Ester by 4-minutes 45-seconds
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 4 Kharikhola – Phakding
It was a wonderful calm night and warm, certainly in contrast to the previous night. Kharikhola to Phakding is a very busy trail with Sherpa’s and Porters making journeys up and down the trail, there are continual mule trains ferrying all sorts of supplies to shops, lodges and other facilities. This is the only way to move things around. This the motorway of this region! The further down the trail one goes, the busier it becomes. One sees more and more groups of trekkers with porters and of course the continual ferrying of all sorts of items escalated as the demand for supplies increased. From CP3 at Cheplung, passing Nurning the towns became a little more organised, formal and touristy. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but our early days on the trail had been remote, almost isolated. We were now entering in to the hub of Nepal’s trekking arena and our proximity to Lukla was obvious. Lukla is a main hub for the doorway to Everest. Weaving in and out of the trails, passing on the right of mules, squeezing past trekkers on the left and jumping around porters, the finish of stage 4 would soon be in sight. Dropping down the trail and crossing the Kamsyawa Khola (river) the day would be done. An exhilarating and eye-opening day on the trails of Nepal.
It may come as no surprise that Suman Kulung and Luis Alberto Hernando dictated the pace from the start and arrived at Cp1 in less than 1-hour, Suman with a slender lead over the Spaniard. It was a ridiculous time considering the technicality and elevation of the course. Sondre Amdahl was holding his ground but the writing was already on the wall. The Nepali runner was pushing hard and making Luis Alberto chase hard to retain his overall lead. It was a brave effort by both runners. At the line, Suman took the victory in 3:15:23 a 3+ min margin making the final 2-days of the Everest Trail Race 2017 very exciting with it all to fight for between the Nepali and the Spaniard. Luis Alberto finished in 3:18:52 and still holds the number 1 slot on GC but it is close, really close! Sondre finished 3rd in 3:42:34 and Jordi Gamito 4th in 3:51:14
Chhechee Sherpa is one seriously impressive lady! She has a look of focus and determination that is softened by a smile. After a slow start in the Everest Trail Race0 2017, this Nepali lady has been a force to reckon with. Once again, she was first to CP1 with a strong lead over Ester Alves who was chasing hard and then Elisabet Barnes who was further back. As the day unfolded though, Chhechee slowed. Firstly, Elisabet caught Ester and then the duo closed on Chhechee. For once, the first 3 ladies were separated by minutes and it remained that way all the way to the line. The Nepali crossed the line first in 4:45:04 and just 34-seconds later Ester crossed with Elisabet just 22-seconds later – that is a close and hard-fought race! The overall GC remains with Chhechee 1st, Ester 2nd and Elisabet 3rd – this is unlikely to change over the following 2-days.
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 5 Tengboche to Lukla
Many say that the 16km route from Phakding to Tengboche is one of the most beautiful trails in the world. The view of the Himalayan peaks is beyond mind-blowing. Especially when you arrive at the monastery and Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam await. It’s quite the picture postcard and the perfect finish line for the ETR.
However, to take in this spectacle a journey of 20km and 2124m of positive incline waits. It doesn’t sound too much, does it? However, many runners crossed the line saying, ‘that was a seriously tough day!’
Departing Phakding (2700m), Namche Bazar (3600m) is the first port of call then Khumjung and Cp2 and Phungi Tenga (3300m) before the tough and steep ascent to Tengboche at 3900m.
Today was all about Luis Alberto Hernando and Suman Kulung. On past days, it was expected that Luis Alberto would have an advantage with the uphill tough finish. This proved to be true!
Luis Alberto won days 1 and 2, Suman days 3 and 4 and now the Spaniard takes day 5 and an invaluable 1-minute 57-seconds to extend his overall lead by 6-minutes 23-seconds. He is going to need all that time on the last day which will suit the Nepali runner as much of it is downhill! It is going to be an epic battle to the finish line.
As in previous days, Sondre Amdahl and Jordi Gamito were once again consistent placing 3rd and 4th.
For the ladies, it was expected that maybe Ester Alves would steal some time back today on Nepali, Chhechee Sherpa. It was not to be. As the days have progressed, Chhechee has got stronger and despite not climbing to expectation on day 2, today she pushed on the final climb to finish ahead of Ester by 6-minutes 53-seconds. The Nepali runner now has an overall lead of 12-minutes 22-seconds and it will take a disastrous last day for her not to be the 2017 ETR champion.
Ester had a solid day but had no extra energy to fight Chhechee and Elisabet Barnes safe in 3rd took a more relaxed approach to the penultimate day safe in the knowledge that 2nd was unattainable this late in the race and secure that the 4th lady could not catch her.
The finish line at Tengboche is arguably one of THE most amazing finishing lines of any race and this was reflected in some of the emotions shown as runners crossed the line today.
Tomorrow is the final day of the Everest Trail Race ETR 2017 and the runners run back to Lukla via Namche Bazaar.
Everest Trail Race – Race Day 6 Tengboche to Lukla
At 3086m, the temperatures were just a little cool outside, a night in a lodge offered just that ‘little’ extra protection but many commented that they thought it was warmer in a tent. The route drops immediately from 3800m to 3300m before climbing back up to Khumjung at just over 3800m. It’s a beautiful trail, technical in sections but the views offered are inspiring. It’s a difficult place to run… you need to watch where you put your feet but around you the vistas are just incredible. Khumjung would offer all the most spectacular back drop of Everest, Lohtse and the stunning Ama Dablam, everyone just needed to remember to turn around and look!
The long descent from Khumjung lasts around 6km. The trail twists from left to right with conditions changing from dry sand, rocks, clay and large stones. Passing through Namche Bazaar is quite an experience; one would almost call this a ‘metropolis’ of the region. It has many building, an obvious presence of tourists and with this demand, shops, restaurants and bars. Runners have no time to stop, pushing on through the trail they are now on one of the main trekking route back to Lukla. Yaks made the journey difficult in places, they occupy the single-track with horns outstretched, needless to say, and you need to be careful. At Phakding everyone crossed the Dudh Koshi river and were in the final stretch home. Cheplung, the final the final CP confirming just 3.5km to go uphill to the finish in Lukla.
Suman Kulung had it all to fight for today, he lay 2nd behind Luis Alberto Hernando 6-minutes and 53-seconds back. It was tough ask to take this amount of time out of one of the best trail runners in the world, Luis Alberto Hernando. But as we had seen on previous day’s, the Nepali runner can fly when going down-hill! After CP1 he had gained a lead of 4-minutes and Luis Alberto was chasing hard. At Namche Bazaar, the Spaniard lost some time after a wrong turn and tried to chase hard but the writing was on the wall and Luis Alberto knew it. He eventually eased off knowing that Suman had earned a well fought 2017 ETR victory, he placed 4th on the stage. Jordi Gamito moved up from his usual 4th on stage and placed 2nd and as per usual, Sondre Amdahl placed 3rd.
Chhechee Sherpa in reality already had the 2017 ETR sewn up on the start of the final stage, her lead of 12-minutes and 22-seconds was almost impossible to claw back on a stage with so much downhill running, something the Nepali loves! It went like clockwork, she forged away at the front and not only took the stage victory but extended her overall winning time. Ester Alves chased hard all day in the hope of a miracle and once again she placed 2nd ahead of Elisabet Barnes who placed 3rd.
Suman Kulung and Chhechee Sherpa are crowned the 2017 ETR champions but all credit goes to each and every finisher. It is a beautiful moment to see the pain, the passions and emotions from six grueling days on the most incredible trails released as each and every runner passed under the ETR banner. Tears, joy and relief; it was a bond shared with each and every runner and one that each member of the ETR staff could appreciate. You see, the race is not only about the participants, it is also about the incredible organisation and planning task that is undertaken by Jordi Abad and his team.
This is no ordinary race! You can’t just drive a car to a place as and when it is needed. Meticulous planning makes this race happen and I have to say, it was executed to precision and perfection.
Nepal is a contrast. It is a cacophony that penetrates the eyes, skin, and mind. It is possibly the most exhilarating, awe-inspiring and incredible experience you could ever witness.
The ETR doesn’t come to an end, it provides a beginning, a beginning of a love affair with Nepal, the people the trail and the Himalayas.