887On Top Of The World

On Top Of The World

MR7-26The 1,250-mile Great Himalayan Trail takes trekkers around five months to complete. Sean Burch set out to run it in a fraction of that time, but he wasn't counting on the leeches or drunken locals.

words: Danny Coyle

The Himalayas represent the zenith of adventure in the eyes of many endurance athletes. For some, reaching the base camp of Mount Everest, a mere 17,500ft above sea level, after a trek of several days is enough. Others attempt to scale some of the world’s highest peaks and many risk - and lose - life and limb in a bid to stand at the roof of the world. The question is, what do you do when you’ve ticked these achievements off your list?Sean Burch was thinking the same thing. He’d broken a myriad records and now needed something extraordinary to test himself against. The answer - an assault on the world record for running the full length of Nepal’s Great Himalayan Trail (GHT).Burch is no weekend warrior who’d recklessly stuck a pin in a map of the world looking for adventure. The fitness consultant from Virginia, USA has more world records to his name than most of us have pairs of socks.He has conquered Mount Everest, holds the winter record for reaching the summit of Mount Fuji, scuttled up Mount Kilimanjaro in record time and took first place in the 2004 North Pole Marathon to name just a few of the feats that have seen him inked into the record books.Despite having overcome some of the toughest challenges known to man, when Burch described his mission to run the length of the GHT quicker than it had ever been completed before as “raising the bar on anything I’ve ever done,” it gives you some idea of the scale of the challenge. The sheer distance and altitude presented difficulty levels off the scale for most mere mortals, but throw in the perils of snow leopards, flesh-sucking annelids, inebriated locals, freezing rivers, blinding snowstorms, one of the worst monsoons in Nepal’s history, landslides and gut-wrenching bouts of sickness, you quickly realise that the wear and tear of enduring the distance was just one element of a project that would push Burch to the edge and leave him with some long-lasting side-effects.In total the trail stretches some 1,250 miles, beginning near Kanchenjunga on Nepal’s eastern border and winding its way through eight of the world’s 8,000m peaks, from Makalu to the famous Everest. Burch began his journey in October 2010 and was greeted with rain for the first 30 days, during each of which he covered the distance of a marathon at an average height of 12,000ft above sea level, ascended and descended a total of 95 vertical miles and burned his way through 7,000 calories a day.The rain, wildlife and terrain quickly took their toll. “Every day was so jammed pack with life-changing experiences, like 49 individual expeditions,” says Burch. “Dealing with the worst monsoon in Nepal’s history, falling into ice-freezing rivers, harassed by drunk guys in various villages, blinded by snowstorms, hypothermia, dealing with the high altitude, crossing through and over 200 landslides. You name it, I probably experienced it.“The first day alone was close to 15 hours of continuous rain, slides, and mountainous terrain. I knew that night in my sleeping bag - soaking wet, hungry, smelling like a mudhouse, I was in for the toughest expedition of my life,” he says.“About day 10 was when over 30 leeches attacked my feet. I had them on my hands, stomach, everywhere. My feet felt as if they’d gone through a meat grinder, then been spat out and mashed back together again.”MR7-26-1He knew it would be tough, but Burch never expected his feet to become leech foodWith the trip rapidly becoming the most gruelling he had ever attempted, Burch was fortunate to receive hospitality in villages so remote he was the first westerner the locals had ever set eyes on. The down side to accepting beds from the villagers was that their customs didn’t include the same levels of hygiene Burch was used to. Washing hands and food were alien to his hosts, and contributed to six rounds of vomiting, adding to the already extreme daily physical and mental exhaustion.By day 46, with the end in sight, Burch approached the road that would lead him to the remote Himalayan town of Simikot; he was at his lowest ebb and close to falling apart. It was, he admits, the longest day of his incredible journey. “My goal has pushed me to extend boundaries of what I think I’m capable of,” he wrote at the time. “Tonight there was dizziness, flashbacks; I was tripping over myself. This is where you truly learn who you are inside, what you’re made of in the core. My hands are completely scarred, my body has been pulverized; my mind is fried.”Despite it all, the 40-year-old reached his destination in Humla three days later. He’d completed the trail in 49 days, six hours and eight minutes, a new world record. The route he had just covered can take any trekkers brave enough to tackle it around five months.Aside from adding to his impressive tally of records (see box right), Burch’s adventure was conceived to raise awareness of the trail and that the Himalayas have more to offer than just climbing mountains. “What I wanted to do was to reach those that are in the hidden Himalayas, who are living the way they’ve done for over 1,000 years,” Burch said. “These people, they have nothing. They don’t have regular health care. They don’t have sanitation. They know nothing about it. Tourism in Nepal, that’s a way to bring money to these remote areas.”Burch became one of the first Americans to earn a Goodwill Ambassadorship from Nepal but his mission came at a price. Some three months after completing the expedition he was still suffering from nerve damage in his feet and was unable to feel his toes. “I had faced so many obstacles, by the end I was just so relieved to be there in the moment,” Burch reflects. “I’d lost over 25 lbs and the night I arrived at the Tibetan border, my stomach began its fifth rinse cycle (diarrhoea every hour on the hour for two days) of the expedition.“But now, mentally, I’m in better shape,” he says. “To me, that’s everything - the mental aspect of it - how to put yourself through this to get done with it.”

Record Breaker: Burch’s roll of honour

  • World Record: Fastest winter ascent of Mt. Fuji, Japan (4hrs 5mins 42secs)
  • World Record: 63 summits of unclimbed peaks in 23 days (solo), Tibet
  • Guinness World Record: Fastest ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro: 5hrs 28mins 48secs
  • Guinness World Record: Fastest time for northern-most marathon (first marathon wearing snowshoes)
  • First Place: North Pole Marathon
  • Mt. Everest (29,035ft): Reached the summit, solo, and almost completely without the aid of bottled oxygen
  • Guinness World Record: Jump rope at altitude - 26,181ft
  • USA Record Speed Ascent, Aconcagua (22,841ft.): Solo, Argentina, highest peak in southern and western hemisphere
  • World First: 14 first ascents, two solo first ascents – previously unmapped and unexplored mountain areas within Arctic Circle in East Greenland
  • Shishapangma (26,552ft.): Summit, 13th highest mountain in the world, in Tibet, no bottled oxygen
  • World First: Three first ascents, St. Elias Range, Alaska

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