It was very remote, a real expedition, really wild and difficult,” ultra-runner Holly Zimmermann, an American who lives in Germany, told DW about her experience at the first-ever Snowman Race in Bhutan.

That says something coming from an athlete who had already mastered the Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan Sahara, a stage race through the desert over 230 kilometers— or the Everest Marathon, for which the starting line is located at the base camp at the foot of the highest mountain on Earth, around 5,300 meters above sea level. 

“There were a lot of people on Everest and it was mostly downhill,” Zimmermann said. “The race in Bhutan was much harder.” At 52, she was the oldest participant in the event. 

Backpack filled with compulsory gear

Just 29 ultra-runners competed in the Snowman Race: nine locals and 20 from around the world who had been personally invited by the organizers. The race follows the route of the Snowman Trek, a legendary, demanding three-week trekking tour in the eastern Himalayas. The competitors covered 203 kilometers over five daily stages, with the highest point coming at 5,470 meters.

The route was marked with flags, but that didn’t always make navigation easier. “They were impossible to see in the evening. In the dark, we had to navigate using GPS,” Zimmermann said. The competitors slept in tents and they all had to carry backpacks during the entire race.

“We had mandatory equipment. Sleeping bag, food for the road, water, rain gear, a warmer jacket, hat, gloves, first aid kits. The sleeping bag was the heaviest. I had one for temperatures down to -30℃. And it was still cold,” she said. 

Threat posed by glacial lakes

The organizers billed the race as “one of the world’s toughest and high-altitude ultramarathons.” However, this was not only about the sporting challenge, but also about a political message. Bhutan’s aim was to use the event to draw the world’s attention to the consequences of climate change for the Himalayan state. 

“The people who live at threshold of melting glaciers contribute the least to climate change but are the first to see its devastating impact,” said Bhutan’s Queen Jetsun Pema, wife of King Jigme, after the race had been completed.

Bhutan has about 700 glaciers that are melting at an accelerating rate. 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 October 7, 1994, could happen again. At that time, 17 million cubic meters of water shot down the valley from the glacial lake Lugge Tsho. Villages and fields were flooded, and 21 people lost their lives.  

“We are suffering the brunt of climate change with no fault of ours,” said Karma Toeb, a glaciologist with the National Center for Hydrology and Meteorology who has been studying glacier melt in his homeland for more than 20 years. Toeb points to the fact that Bhutan — along with Panama and Suriname — is one of only three countries in the world with a negative carbon footprint. However, this does nothing to shield them from the consequences of climate change. 

A message for UN Climate Conference delegates

“We saw first-hand these changes,” said American runner Luke Nelson. “I did occasionally raise my eyes and was able to see around and clearly saw footprints 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.”

The threat is very real. After three days of rain in late September, a landslide destroyed several houses in a mountain village in Bhutan, killing five people.  

 “At first, I was completely focused on the competition,” said Holly Zimmermann. “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.” 

It’s only been since September that tourists have been allowed back into Bhutan after it had shut itself off from the outside world for more than two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they now need 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. These funds are used for climate protection programs, among other things. 

The message that things can’t go on as they have been has also reached the runners of the Snowman Race. 

“Is that the world we want to heritage to our children?” asked Simon Mtuy. The Tanzanian trail runner also had a message for delegates to next month’s UN Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “We have to move in a very fast pace to act and repair what we have damaged,” he said.

Just 17 crossed the finish line

Mtuy was one of just 17 starters who made it to the finish line of the Snowman Race — the 12 others threw in the towel before the finish.  

“Several runners had to be evacuated by helicopter due to altitude sickness,” Zimmerman said. 

She also abandoned her attempt to complete the race, but for a much different reason: she was traveling very slowly at a pass at just over 5,200 meters altitude, after running into the evening hours the day before. 

“I have four children at home, aged between 14 and 21,” she said. “I told myself ‘Safety first’ and turned around.”  

In the end, only locals finished on the podium. 

“We all expected that,” said Zimmermann, who has lived with her family in southern Germany for more than 20 years. 

While she didn’t finish the race, her trip to the only country in the world in which the goal of being happy is written into the constitution was a rewarding one.

“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 only it weren’t for climate change and its effects.  

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