No Luxuries in the Himalayas
An extraordinary footrace around the world's eighth-highest mountain
Lizzy Hawker in the trail up to Larkya La, the high pass preceding the final stage. Photo by Richard Bull.
Our race began on the banks of the Budi Gandaki river in Nepal. The inaugural 132-mile Manaslu Mountain Trail stage race—a partial circumnavigation of the 26,000-foot peak of Manaslu—would take 40 runners on a seven-stage (nine-day) jatra, or tough journey, deep into remote regions in the Himalayas.
It was warm at our starting altitude of around 2000 feet. Villages peppered our rocky route along the steep-sided river gorge, where rice paddies were gradually replaced by fields of millet, barley and maize. In the pine forests of the higher valleys, descending trains of pack mules sometimes slowed us runners. Laughing children greeted us in the villages.
Because everything in the high valleys of Nepal is carried in by foot, luxuries disappeared as we went deeper into the mountains. Washing was limited to the cold water of the village tap and electricity was scarce. “Doing without” gave us appreciation for the small things: a soothing mug of hot lemon tea at a checkpoint, a warm stove on a cold night, a fluttering prayer flag to lift our spirits.
After a relatively gentle first day of racing (16 miles, 900 feet elevation gain), village children showed us the way to a natural hot springs in which to soak our tired feet. The next day, we broke away from the main trail to visit Serang Gompa, a secluded Buddhist monastery at 10,500 feet. Home to 80 monks and nuns, it is tucked away from the outside world, surrounded by icy walls stretching up to 23,000-foot summits.
That night, we shared dinner around a fire under the stars. The squat toilets, relentless bugs and lack of contact with home pushed many runners out of their comfort zones—and the accumulating exhaustion was as much mental as it was physical. Said Chris Ord of Australia, “The Himalayan mountains are my latest love—one that lured me in, then smashed my spirit into oblivion, to the point where a simple step forward seemed impossible.”
We woke up for a blessing from the Rinpoche before heading back out through a forested hillside and descending through isolated villages to the lower valley. We emerged around 10,000 feet, where the narrow forested gorge gave way to wide-open terraces from which mountains rose to lofty heights.