Running on "The Peak of Heaven"

The Sanskrit name for the world's highest mountain is Sagarmatha, which literally means "Peak of Heaven."  Mt. Everest will soon  provide the race course for two members of our fitness family as part of their 3 week journey of climbing, trekking and racing in her shadow.  Natasha Jarvis Burch and Ben Ratliff of North Platte, members of our Platte River Fitness Series family, are currently in Nepal preparing to summit the 20,305 foot Island Peak (Imja-tse) and to compete in the world's highest marathon and half-marathon, the Mt. Everest Marathon for Ben and the Mt. Everest Half-Marathon for Natasha.  The love, support and good will of our entire fitness family has traveled the 7,000 plus miles with them.  This blog will continue to follow their journey as a means to include our fitness family in these extraordinary events.  You will be able to view photographs of their journey on the Platte River Fitness Series Facebook page, and receive updates on these incredible athletes and their adventures on the blog page of our website.


The Platte River Fitness Series has always been about more than exercise, more than fitness and more than races.  The PRFS has also been about the expansive landscape that is the human potential. We are not just about "strong bodies", but "bold spirits" that actively seek challenge and an opportunity to discover a better self.  As the saying goes, "People do not decide to become extraordinary.  They decide to accomplish extraordinary things."  Both Natasha and Ben prepared for their journey months before they left by building strong bodies.  Natasha prepared by relentless climbing-specific training, combining hours of strength training, running, incline work on a treadmill with her backpack, and real-world experience by summiting as many as eleven 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado.  Ben, a seasoned triathlete, trained for and completed an Ironman-style Triathlon with hours and hours of swimming, cycling and running.  To gain experience at altitude, he climbed the highest peak in Colorado, Mt. Elbert, along with his new partner, Natasha.  Both will test the very limits of their physical strength. 

Over the course of the next few weeks, you will not only hear about their adventures; you will also learn about their stories.  Both of these athletes/mountaineers have something to share from their journey through Nepal and their journey through life, and as those who love them already are, you will be inspired by the depth of their character, their strength of their will, their passion and their resiliency.  What they are doing is adventurous, epic and courageous.  The road they are traveling, however, is but the finale of a long and arduous journey for both.  There is a synchronicity in their stories, and they are both incredible examples to all of us of turning difficulty into triumph and of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Natasha and Ben's Himalayan adventure began a week ago, May 12th, as they left their families, children and workplaces to catch a plane from Denver to Boston.  Flight delays seemed to be inevitable, but eventually they left U.S. airspace, traveling from Boston to Dubai on the shores of the Persian Gulf coast of the United Arab Emirates.  After a lengthy lay-over there, they arrived in Nepal's largest city, Kathmandu on May 14th.  Greeted by their guide, their protector and their teacher, Migmar, they were able to relax and explore this city so foreign to what they know.  As a member of the United States Marine Corp, Ben has served in under-developed nations, but this is Natasha's first experience of life in a third-world country.  Nepal is reported as one of the poorest countries in the world.  On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake devastated Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and destroying over 824,000 homes.  This crisis made life more difficult for the generous and warm Nepalise people.  Natasha commented that "I feel like I'm on an entirely different planet."

Weather delayed their departure from Kathmandu to Lukla, moving their itinerary back one day, which they then made up for later in the week.  They landed safely in Lukla on Tuesday, May 16th, and started their trek to Phakding, hiking along the Dudh Koshi (Milk River) inside two cliffs.  The sweet smell of evergreen, oak and rhododendron forest cloaked them on both sides of the trail. While dining in Kathmandu, Natasha picked up an intestinal illness, making her quite sick.  The hard uphill climb of this first trek to around 8,000 feet was the first obstacle to be overcome.  Like a true mountaineer, she showed persistence and perseverance, struggling, but conquering her illness and the first leg of their Himalayan journey.   

The next leg on Wednesday, the 17th brought them to 11,290 feet at Namche Bazaar. Natasha was fierce in her trek, still quite sick, struggling, but conquering the 7-mile hike.  Ben was supportive and strong.  We believe that we will all learn from their journey.  In Natasha's early struggle with sickness, and in her tenacity in the face of it, she exemplified what Ovid once wrote, "I attempt an arduous task, as their is no worth in that which is not a difficult achievement."   This leg of their trek started with an early wake-up.  A somewhat easy morning section was followed by their first walk-across of a suspension bridge at Dudh Koshi, giving them their first glimpse of the high snow mountains and a hint of Chomo-lungma, the Sherpa name for Mt. Everest.  There is a spiritual nature to all mountains, perhaps because we see them as bringing us closer to God.  This spirituality permeates the Himalayas, with the indigenous people holding a true reverence for these stairways to the sky.  Chomo-lungma, means"Goddess Mother of the World."  Standing in her shadow, with her sister peaks near-by, our travelers were overwhelmed by a sense of reverence, wonder and mystery.  As mountaineers and the Sherpa people have known for decades, you do not conquer her, she grants you safe passage. 

Natasha and Ben's trek took them close to 13,000 feet as they continued to acclimatize.  They spent a second night below in Namche where Natasha's  health had improved, and both she and Ben looked strong, healthy and prepared during an extended video chat.  Their leg took them to Tengboche Monastery.  Their new friend and guide, Mingmar, describes the journey this way, "The way to Tengboche gives view of some Himalayan wildlife like pheasant and deer, and also more and more beautiful views of Ana Dablam and other big snow peaks.  Trail joins the old (and still used) Everest expedition trail.  Afternoon trek goes up, up, up through thick evergreen forest to the famous Tengboche Monastery.  This monastery is run by a famous Sherpa lama.  Tengboche is a major center of Sherpa culture revival.  From Tengboche Monastery courtyard, we can see sunset and sunrise over Everest."  The points of interest abounded along the way, as Natasha and Ben saw a "yeti" skull, the Sir Edmund Hillary School at Khumjung (Sir Edmund Hillary along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953) and good views of Mt.  Everest and her sister mountain, the 25,790 foot Nuptse.

Ben and Natasha made good time to Tengboche, so pushed on to Pangboche after a 9 mile trek to 13,000 feet.  Mingmar wanted to get to Dingboche early the next day so they could get an acclimatization day in to help prepare for the ascent of Island Peak.  Pangboche is the original Sherpa settlement in Khumbu, home to the Sherpa people for over 400 years.  As of Saturday morning here in Nebraska, Natasha and Ben, now in Dingboche, became part of an elite group of climbers, surpassing the highly prized 14,000 foot threshold to reach 15,600 feet on the acclimatization hike.  They are now beginning to learn to function at reduced blood oxygen saturation levels, with today's report of O2 saturation holding in the 80's in terms of percentage.   As they climb nearer the sky, their ability to make contact will be very limited.  We will continue to tell their story, however, day to day based on itinerary and brief contact.

Those who would go to the mountains must do so with the utmost respect and reverence.  The Himalayan Mountains cradle the holiest of mountains, Chomolungma, and as they continue their journey, we are confident that Mt. Everest will find them worthy to walk in her shadow, and race to her feet.  They are serving as ambassadors of the Platte River Fitness Series.  Sir Edmund Hillary once said, "It is not the mountain you conquer, but yourself."  Natasha and Ben, we are grateful for what you are doing to remind us of this truth.  Whether our mountain is to get off the couch and back into life, to walk a block or a 5K, to run a marathon or even a half-marathon, you are giving others the courage to lift their feet and climb.  Whether our mountain is trouble at home, at work or any of the many tribulations life can bring, we are inspired to know, like you, we can conquer anything.   Keep climbing...

Trudy MerrittComment