Everest 135 - A Unique Ultra Marathon


I was recently lucky enough to take part in the Everest 135, a unique ultra marathon in Nepal that follows the historic route from Jiri to Everest Base Camp. By far the biggest challenge I’ve undertaken in my ultra running career, to be honest it left me a little shell shocked and confused.

Much like the blurred memories after a music festival, early in the event time moved along at a normal pace, then I started wondering if that had happened today or yesterday? Before I knew it I was having breakfast in Lukla, the day after the race, wondering what had happened over the previous four days.

Pre-Race

The race also covers the popular Three Passes Trek, which takes place in three high mountain passes above 5000m. In fact a good portion of the race takes place above 4000m, and this is what makes the event such a challenge. Living in Australia, it’s fair to say I’m unaccustomed to high altitude mountains.

I’ve spent some time in the moderate altitudes of the European Alps, but this was a whole new level for me. As such, I knew the only way I was going to be able to tackle this challenge was to get there early and at least get a tiny dose of thin air before I got to the start line.

My time was limited, so after chatting to some people far more knowledgeable than me, I settled on the Langtang Valley for an acclimatization week. An eight hour jeep ride, a night in a plywood shack, then one full day hiking brought me to the small village of Kyanjin Gumpa.

Sitting just below 4000m, with nearby accessible peaks just above 5000, and a backdrop of snow-capped 6000m+ mountains, this provided a great base for the week. The weather gods were kind, and I was able to give my body a glimpse at the enormity of the task I was about to ask of it.

Jiri to Kharikhola

This event has quite a sizable mandatory gear list. And deservedly so, we are traversing through some pretty extreme environments. Mostly it is gear to help protect us from the cold, but the lower altitudes of Nepal are in fact quite hot and humid, as is the case in the small mountain town of Jiri. Despite it being thankfully overcast on race morning, I spent most of the first day sweating while carrying a big bag full of cold weather gear.

The race had a very small field but there was another Australian racing, Tom Dade, and we had chatted beforehand and decided to tackle the challenge together. Our plan was to get to Kharikhola on Day 1. And long story short, that is what we managed. Originally I was anticipating getting there around dinner time, having a good rest before heading into Day 2.

In reality we stumbled in at 2am, absolutely exhausted and perhaps now more apprehensive about what lay ahead. In the interest of preventing this write up from turning into a multi-volume saga, I will largely skim over Day 1.

Matt Crehan

 

Although there are a few highlights that deserve a mention. First of all, and perhaps the most incredible part of the journey, is the story of a stray dog that Tom and I named Momo. He came up to us at the start line before the race. Not overly excited, just came up to say hello.

After the first few kilometres we noticed he was following us. After the first checkpoint, he was still there. And the second. I was reluctant to feed or encourage him at first, worried that he was straying too far from home. But after 50km, I thought he deserved some of my pasta.

He continued along by our side, growling at other unfriendly dogs if they barked at us. He was too scared to cross the first large suspension bridge we got to, instead opting to brave the raging waters below. After this Tom and I used both of our headtorches/headlamps to light the way and slowly coax him across each bridge crossing.

He followed us all day and into the night, delivering us safely to Kharikhola at 2am, after 75km of running and hiking up and down mountains. He stayed outside when we got to the checkpoint, and when we left early the next morning, I was sad to see that he was no longer there. Maybe he had decided to follow some other hikers along the trail, or head back towards Jiri. But either way I don’t think he could have come all the way to Base Camp, so it was probably for the best. 

Other Day 1 highlights included climbing through a beautiful Rhododendron forest that felt like it a fairytale enchanted forest. We winded our way through beautiful little villages and landscapes, had several navigational errors and re-routes due to crumbling slopes plus reaching Checkpoint 3 at Lamajura Pass (3500m) as it appeared out of the mist, freezing cold compared to the valley below.

As we sat by the fire with some hot mushroom soup, we both reflected on how much we were feeling the altitude at this first high point of the race. A little worrying considering what lay ahead, but we both just hoped that we would get at least some adaptations as the days ticked on.

Kharikhola to Thame 

Day 2 saw us transition from the warmer valleys and forested landscapes to the higher altitudes of the Khumbu Region. There is a fair chunk of this day that I don’t have clear recollections of. I know Tom and I spent the whole day chatting, and I’m pretty sure we solved all the world’s problems, but I guess we’ll never know.

We made our way to Checkpoint 7 where we met Tom’s partner Miah, who was helping out with the race organisers and planning to run a small part of the trail with us. We almost made it to the checkpoint before it started to rain, then once we were there the heavens really opened up. We stopped to refuel and gather our thoughts for a while, before deciding that it wasn’t going to pass and we just needed to get back out there.

With our jackets on we continued along the course, but before long the trail turned white as the rain turned to hail, and actually became quite painful to be out in. We briefly huddled under some inadequate shelter, laughing at the ridiculousness of it, then continued on.

By late afternoon we made it to Namche Bazaar, the largest Sherpa village in the region. It is quite a sizable town really, and I wish we had a bit more time to explore it. This is where we swapped to our larger backpacks with our high altitude gear, and it certainly felt like a transition point.

We arrived in daylight wearing shorts and t-shirts. Then we left in the dark with jackets, gloves and beanies. We had a race photographer following us as we left, making our way through the narrow streets. It was actually quite exciting and made it feel like a race again.

The trail from Namche to Thame would make for some fantastic running and no doubt beautiful views during the day. Unfortunately for us it was dark, and we were happy to just cruise along as we adjusted to our heavier loads. After a couple of navigational errors we made it to Thame where we would rest for a few hours.


Thame to Thangnak

An early start saw us out on the trail before 5am. Trevor, a fellow competitor from the US, had arrived as we were having our coffee, so he joined us for the morning. We were out the door without too much fuss, figuring we would stop for a proper breakfast at the next checkpoint in Lungden.

This section was fantastic, as we traversed through the valley and felt like we were finally in big mountains. We passed monasteries and small agricultural holdings, in what felt like a very inhospitable landscape. Arriving in Lungden inspired and in good spirits, we were excited for the day ahead.

Our breakfast took quite a long time to arrive, as we watched all the other hikers wake up and get served before us, quite frustrating as it negated our early start.

It was situations like this that made it hard to feel like we were actually racing. But on the plus side we added Canadian runner Austin to our group, after he woke from his nap at the checkpoint. Finally we were ready to leave and made our way towards our first high pass of the course, Renjo La (5365m).

Not long after leaving the checkpoint it began to snow. I remember saying that we’d be disappointed if it didn’t snow at least a little bit during this race. I would certainly be eating those words by the time the race was done.

As we slowly climbed higher and higher, the effects of the altitude really became apparent. Our group was split, with Tom and I moving ahead of Trevor and Austin, then a bit of a gap opened up between Tom and myself. I kept scanning the mountain ridgeline ahead of us, wondering where exactly the pass was.

It seemed impossibly high for the amount of climbing my watch told me was left. A quick cup of hot water from a marshal point set up near the pass, then it was just a matter of putting our heads down and moving up.


By now the snow had gotten a little thicker, but it was still manageable on the well-made steps that led up to the pass. I made it to the top with an incredible view of… white. I chatted to some Austrian hikers as I waited for Tom at the top, then we descended the other side before the wind sapped too much of our body heat. We were headed for Gokyo, a small village at 4750m, and the location of our next checkpoint.

I was excited to get there, having admired some photos of it before I left. However it was tough going with the snow picking up, and the wind directly in our faces. Visibility was low, and we made a few navigational errors. We eventually saw Gokyo Lake through the clouds, and made our way around to the checkpoint. 

Our original plan had been to cover the first two passes on this day, but now it was getting into the afternoon, and this proposition seemed a little more daunting than we anticipated. After some hot soup and our medical checks, we decided we’d at least get to the next checkpoint and reassess from there.

As we were preparing to leave, Trevor and Austin came in – looking a little worse for wear. They had not had as much sleep as us so far, and were considering staying in Gokyo for the night. I could definitely think of worse places to spend an evening, and as we stepped out onto the cold and snowy trail I wondered if we were making the right choice.

We trudged along and made it to Thangnak a little after dark. We decided we would rest here for a while, then get up at 12:30am to try and make it up to Cho La Pass (5420m) for sunrise. Before collapsing into my sleeping bag I thought a shower was in order. While the trickle of water coming out of the wall was warm, getting wet in an unheated room up above 4500m wasn’t too much fun, and I think this was the coldest I got throughout the whole race.


Thangnak to Dingboche

12:30am is not a comfortable time to wake up to an alarm. Let’s face it, it’s not the morning – it’s the middle of the night. We had been in bed for nearly four hours, but I think I would have been lucky to have slept for two. I think Tom got even less. Thangnak sits at around 4700m, which does not make for good recovery. Tom was really starting to struggle with the altitude and had developed a bit of a cough.

We had a coffee and some biscuits, then headed out into the dark. Navigation was again tricky and we kept losing the trail, our world reduced to the headtorch beam in front of us. At one point I saw a little rodent-like creature dart across the trail in front of me. It seemed quite high for a small warm blooded animal, and remarkably I followed its set of small paw prints all the way up to the pass. This was somehow comforting, like it was guiding me all the way up. 

The climb up to Cho La Pass was surprisingly steep, although fixed chains and cables gave me something to help pull myself up. This was particularly helpful considering I had broken my poles the previous day. I actually quite enjoyed the climb. Tom had dropped back a bit but had our Sherpa with him, so I felt like I was in my own world, slowly climbing up into the sky.

When I finally made it to the top, it was still dark and snowing, but luckily no wind. I turned my headtorch off and sat in the quiet mountain air, watching the two headtorches make their way up.

I thought Tom might want to sit for a moment up there too, but he seemed pretty keen to get down asap, so after a quick photo of us both looking totally stunned, we headed back down the other side and across the Cho La Glacier. The sun was not yet up but it was just starting to get light as we made our way across the ice.

Matt Crehan


Visibility was pretty low but it made for an other-worldly experience. Such a cool landscape! A little sketchy finding a safe path at times, and navigation was a bit of an issue, but this was definitely a highlight of the race for me. 

A lot of the morning was then spent traversing through white. It wasn’t blizzard conditions by any means, but visibility was low so there was a lot of head down and just following the trail. Or trying to at least, when it wasn’t hidden with the snow. When we got to Lobuche, I began to get frustrated with the waiting around that continued to happen at each checkpoint.

By this stage we were above 5000m, so it’s understandable not to rush things and make sure everyone is feeling ok. But I was aware of how far we still needed to go that day, so I was keen to get going.

We hit the out and back section to Everest Base Camp in the middle of the day, and the trail was incredibly busy, despite the average weather. I had once again pulled in front of Tom and our Sherpa, so I thought I’d go on ahead to Gorakshep and wait for them there.

By the time they arrived Tom was clearly struggling, and during the medical check it was decided that he was not allowed to leave until his blood oxygen levels improved. We had a discussion and made the call that I would continue on without him, a tough decision after we had spent the previous three days together.

Another slight delay as I waited for my mandatory Sherpa to finish his Dal Baht, then we left with gusto as we traversed alongside the glacier. I had somehow clicked over into race mode. The trail runs along the ridge of a lateral moraine, and I enjoyed moving through here a bit faster.

Jumping up over rocks to get around people, with some getting out of the way and cheering as they realised what was going on, I burst into Everest Base Camp where the race doctor there commented that I was the only competitor that had arrived with a smile on my face.

A quick medical check, a few photos (although unfortunately the weather prevented actually seeing Everest), then back down the moraine to check on Tom. Thankfully he had improved a little, although was still not allowed to leave the checkpoint. After a quick bite to eat I wished him all the best, really hoping he would be able to at least get to Everest Base Camp as he was so close!

Back at Lobuche I had a Sherpa changeover then went off to tackle the last pass, Kongma La (5550m). It was getting late in the day, and the accumulated fatigue as well as the altitude was really catching up to me. The climb was very steep, with a bit of scrambling involved that was made more difficult with the snow.

We made it to the top at dusk, and I was hopeful that I’d be down in Dingboche before long for dinner and a quick nap. Maybe I’d even make it further along to Tengboche, and be able to nap at a lower altitude. But unfortunately as it got dark, navigation became quite tricky and we continually lost the trail. Finally at around 9pm we rolled into the checkpoint. I was so exhausted that I went straight to sleep.

Dingboche to Lukla

I woke up bleary eyed at 11pm to a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Not pasta sauce, actual tomato sauce. Certainly not an ideal midnight snack, or is this considered breakfast? Either way, I wolfed it down and was keen to get moving. Another quick medical check and I was out the door.

Doing some maths in my head, I was pretty confident I could make it to Lukla by 7am, ducking under the 4 day mark. I was accompanied by a Sherpa again and we set out at a fast hike, breaking into a jog on the flats and downhills.

It became apparent that my Sherpa companion was not too pleased about these jog intervals, and when we arrived at the next checkpoint he expressed his displeasure at the fact that we had moved “too quick”. It had apparently been decided that I would need a Sherpa escort all the way through to Lukla. I found this a little frustrating, as I felt obligated to settle into their pace. This also included stopping for food at a checkpoint when I really would have rathered to keep moving.

Matt Crehan


All in all the Sherpa support throughout the race was invaluable, and I am grateful for it. We were originally told that it would be just for the high passes, particularly at night. But due to the weather we got hit with, and the fact that our GPS trackers were not very reliable, it became a bit more extensive, and in my opinion, unnecessary. At times it felt more like a guided tour than a race. But the safety of the runners was the first priority of the race organisers, and I appreciate the lengths they went to.  

So in the end I missed my 7am target, with my arbitrary goal of 96 hours, rolling into Lukla at around 8:30am in the morning. The main street was quite busy and there was a good buzz as I jogged through the town. To finally run down the finishing chute and under the arch felt quite surreal after such a long time out there.

I felt exhausted, elated, confused, and satisfied. It had taken me just over 4 days to cover 253 km, with 15,600m of climbing – mostly at high altitude. I was proud of that. I felt honoured to be part of such a special event.

Tom’s condition had continued to improve and it was great to be there when he crossed the finish line the next morning. In fact everyone in the small field of runners managed to complete the challenge, which really is a testament to the amount of support we had out there. I have to say a huge thank you to Guibin International Sports, as well as Rapid Ascent, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this unique event.

It was an unforgettable experience, and one that I have learnt a lot from. And of course a big thank you to Bogong Equipment, La Sportiva Australia and Julbo Australia for kitting me out with everything I needed to make it through those mountains. What a remarkable adventure!

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