Snowman Race in Bhutan – Himalayan race against climate change

Holly Zimmermann at the Karchung La
Holly Zimmermann at the Karchung La

“It was purely a head decision, not one of the heart,” ultra runner Holly Zimmermann tells me. The U.S. resident of Germany dropped out on the second day of the “Snowman Race” in Bhutan.

“I would have loved to see more mountains of the Himalayas, the beautiful valleys and the hospitable people who live there. But I was already late on the first day and walked for several hours in the dark. And that’s borderline in the Himalayas.” When she reached the roughly 5,200-meter-high Karchung La on the second leg, Holly pulled the ripcord: “I was too slow. It was going to be another very long day. I have four children at home, ranging in age from 14 to 21. I told myself, ‘Safety first’ and turned around.”

Mandatory equipment in backpack

Gangkhar Puensum
Gangkhar Puensum

At 52, Zimmermann was the oldest in the field of participants – and the only one who lives in Germany: in a village near Regensburg. Only 29 ultra runners took part in the “Snowman Race”: nine locals and 20 from all over the world, who had been personally invited by the organizers. The race followed the tracks of the “Snowman Trek”. The legendary, challenging three-week trek in the eastern Himalayas also passes the 7,570-meter-high Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Bhutan’s peaks are forbidden for climbers because they are considered the seat of the gods, whom one does not want to anger.

In five daily stages, the runners of the “Snowman Race” covered a total of 203 kilometers, the highest point being at Gophula Pass at above 5,400 meters. The route was marked with flags. “But they were impossible to see in the evening. In the dark, we had to navigate with GPS,” says Zimmermann. Overnight was spent in tents, and everyone carried backpacks. “We had mandatory equipment. Sleeping bag, food for the time of running, water, rain gear, a warmer jacket, hat, gloves, first aid material. The sleeping bag was the heaviest. I had one for temperatures down to minus 30 degrees Celsius. And it was still cold.”

Holly is not so easily impressed. After all, she already mastered the “Marathon des Sables” in the Moroccan Sahara, a stage race through the desert over 230 kilometers – or the “Everest Marathon”, which is started in the base camp at the foot of the highest mountain on earth at above 5,300 meters. “There were a lot of people and it was mostly downhill,” the ultra runner recalls. “The race in Bhutan was much harder.”

Dangerous glacial lakes

With the spectacle, Bhutan wanted to draw the world’s attention to the consequences of climate change for the Himalayan nation. “The people who live at threshold of melting glaciers contribute the least to climate change, but are the first to see its devastating impact,” Bhutan’s Queen Jetsun Pema – married to the regent, King Jigme, for 11 years – said in an address after the race ended.

Bhutan has some 700 glaciers that are melting at an accelerating pace. Researchers counted 567 glacial lakes in the mountains of the small state last year, 17 of which were classified as dangerous. If one of the natural dams were to break, a disaster like the one on 7 October 1994 could happen again: At that time, 17 million cubic meters of water shot downhill from the glacial lake Lugge Tsho, flooding villages and fields, killing 21 people.

“We are suffering the brunt of climate change with no fault of ours,” says Karma Toeb, a glaciologist from the National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology (NCHM) who has been studying glacier melt in his home country for more than 20 years. What Karma points to is the fact that Bhutan – along with Panama and Suriname – is one of only three countries in the world with a negative carbon footprint: More greenhouse gases are absorbed there than are produced. However, this does not protect against the consequences of climate change.

Appeal to the upcoming world climate conference

“We saw first-hand these changes,” said U.S. runner Luke Nelson after the race. “I clearly saw footprint of glaciers that had receded with large moraines, not filled with ice. And what I saw most impactfully were the people and the threat that they live with every day.” A threat that is very real. In late September, for example, after three days of continuous rain, a landslide destroyed several houses in a mountain village in Bhutan, killing five people.

Holly Zimmermann admits that at first she was only focused on the race. “But then I quickly realized that it was about much more. We learned something here about the climate crisis and what they’re doing about it.” After Bhutan shut itself off from the outside world for more than two years because of the corona pandemic, tourists have been allowed back into the country since September. They have to dig deeper into their pockets to do so. The government has raised the Sustainable Development Fee from $65 to $200 per person per night. The money is used for climate protection programs, among other things.

The message that things cannot go on as they are has also reached the runners of the “Snowman Race”. ” Is that the world we want to give as heritage to our children? Is this the world we want to bequeath to our children?,” asked Simon Mtuy after the race. The runner and mountaineer from Tanzania made an appeal to the next United Nations Climate Change Conference in November in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt: “We have to move in a very fast pace to act and repair what we have damaged.”

17 of 29 arrived

Holly Zimmermann surrounded by seven Bhutanese with Germany flags in hand
Holly was the only starter from Germany

Mtuy was one of 17 finishers of the Snowman Race after just over 200 kilometers. Twelve had given up earlier. “Several runners had to be evacuated by helicopter due to high altitude sickness,” reports Holly Zimmerman.

The women’s race was won by Karma Yangden, and the men’s race by Gawa Zangpo, both from Bhutan. In the end, locals landed on all the podium places without exception. “We all expected that,” Holly says. “It was like the Everest Marathon. The runners from there rarely finish after us.” 

She returns to Germany with many impressions – from the only country in the world where the happiness of its inhabitants is written into the constitution. “I hope I take with me the calmness, humility and hospitality of the people,” the ultra-runner said. “They are known as the happiest people in the world. And from what I’ve experienced, I can confirm that.” If it weren’t for climate change and its consequences.

2 Replies to “Snowman Race in Bhutan – Himalayan race against climate change”

  1. Thank you international athletes , Bhutan needed that. This historic race were watched all over by Bhutanese with joy, sadness, sympathy and roaring determinations all of which came from you all runners. You guys were simply amazing. Love you all.

  2. The world should know what you briefly witnessed at Lunana, the fast retreating glaciers. Please spread the word. Save the Earth! Thank you for being a part of the Snowman race.

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