The Gear It Takes to Run a 126-Mile Race Through the Himalayas
Competitor Ashly Winchester packed an ultralight sleeping bag, multiple lights, and KT tape to keep herself going.
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In October of 2022, the Kingdom of Bhutan organized what many athletes would later call “the most challenging race in the world.” Dubbed the Snowman Race, the 126-mile route crossed through the Eastern Himalayas, racking up more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain along the way. In honor of the King’s 40th birthday (Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy), the government organized the Snowman to showcase the effects of climate change in the carbon-negative country. Record-setting hiker and trail runner Ashly Winchester was one of 29 athletes invited to compete.
Winchester has 57 FKTs, guides backpacking trips, and is one of the top athletes in the self-supported adventure space. A diverse skillset of backpacking, mountaineering, and trail running has helped her set records on the John Muir Trail, Lost Coast Trail, Mount St. Helens, and Mt. Shasta. The California-raised athlete started backpacking in 2016 and has continued to push the limits in both the FKTs and unsupported adventures. Her impressive resume earned her a special invite to be part of what would end up being one of her toughest adventures yet. So tough, in fact, that Winchester was unable to finish the race. While she was forced to bail early, her specialized high-altitude kit proved more than up to the task.
The Snowman Race was more than a competition. Athletes spent time meeting with Bhutan’s foreign minister, the King, and touring the landscape, which has been heavily impacted by global warming. It was a way for the small country, which sits between China and India, to spread the word about the devastating effects of climate change in their corner of the world.
The route followed the Snowman Trail, which has connected small mountain villages in the region for generations. Locals first used the trail for trading goods and livestock between their secluded communities, and outfitters now offer guided backpacking trips along its length. The trail is steep, rugged, and only maintained by use. The full Snowman Trek route, which runs for 216 miles with over 50,000 feet of elevation, tops out at over 17,900 feet; fewer people have completed it than have summited Mt. Everest. Many guiding companies take 26 days to hike its length. Winchester and the other athletes had five days at an average elevation of 14,000 feet to complete a 126-mile section.
The race would take nearly as long as Winchester’s John Muir Trail FKT, but with one major difference: The Snowman Race provided tents and sleeping pads set up for each night of the five-day endeavor. (Winchester packed a SOL Escape Bivy just in case). Runners had to bring a zero-degree sleeping bag, clothing, and a pack to carry it all. The runners were allowed drop bags that they could access each night, too. That eliminated the need to carry more than a day’s worth of food at a time.
With the extreme altitude and temps that wavered from 50 to 19 F, warmth was the top priority. The race had a required gear list that would aid participants in preparing for the possibility of the temperature dropping into the single digits, and Winchester carried a kit similar to what she might take on a mountaineering trip. The quickly-changing weather made layering paramount, too. Having a full baselayer setup from Swedish endurance sport apparel company, Craft, and supplementing it with dependable rain gear and a down jacket made it easy to adjust to the temperature and the sporadic storms on-the-go.
Winchester’s Murre Feathered Friends 0-degree sleeping bag proved to be her most valuable piece of gear, especially for sleeping at 16,000 feet of elevation on night one, and took up minimal space in her Six Moon Designs Minimalist pack. The combination of the running vest-style harness with the full backpack-style compartment made it ideal for carrying all the required gear while also being able to run the flats and downhills.
Black Diamond StormLine rain gear earned its place on day one as graupel rained down. The rain gear was light, extremely packable, but also durable enough to stand up to even the most unexpected weather. Pockets, venting, and a hood that stays in place made it a solid choice for the exposed alpine terrain of the race. And at less than eight ounces, it was not a burden to carry.
Competitors had 16 hours to cover the mileage each day, and some of those hours were in the dark. Winchester opted for two Black Diamond Sprinter 500 headlamps and a Kogalla RA. The Kogalla waist light shone directly on the ground to offer a different angle of illumination than a headlamp. The two different headlamps made it possible to change them out when one died, and to charge the backup on-the-go. The lighting system worked well on the rough terrain, especially in the quickly-changing weather of night one.
Winchester always tries to bring a first aid kit tailored for the expected conditions. For the Snowman Race, she packed medications in case of high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema. “The guide in me can’t help but want to be prepared for everything,” says Winchester.
The other first aid necessity for this kind of race was KT Tape: “I’ve used KT tape to patch tears in clothing and tents, cover wounds, hold shoes together, and of course, to help support muscle and ligaments.”
On day one, multiple athletes had to drop out because of the due to altitude sickness. Winchester pushed through 28 miles of rugged trail to make it to the first camp after 10,000 feet of climbing on the first day. With stout cutoffs for the race and the added difficulty of carrying the required gear over high-altitude passes, it lived up to the promise of being one of the most difficult races in the world. On day two, Winchester got up at 4 a.m. and set out again. But already having been close to the cutoffs on day one, she turned back at the first pass. Only 17 participants made it to the finish line.
Winchester’s kit was as dialed as she had hoped. Additional training is where she saw room for improvement: Winchester received the invite to Bhutan five weeks before the start, which left only the smallest window to train specifically for the race. In that time, she slept in a Hypoxico tent to acclimate to the high altitude and embraced similar FKT-style training, but it wasn’t quite enough to get her across the finish line.
It seems as though the Bhutan Snowman Race will continue in future years, although the organizers haven’t released any specific dates. In her post-race report, Winchester wrote: “Even though I didn’t finish the race, the thought still crossed my mind that I’m meant to be here, high up in the mountains.”
This is the gear that Ashly Winchester took for the inaugural Bhutan Snowman Race.
|Backpack||Six Moon Designs Minimalist V2||2 lbs 3 oz|
|Footwear||Altra Olympus 5||1 lb 5 oz|
|Emergency Shelter||SOL Escape Bivy||8.5 oz|
|Filter||Sawyer Mini Water Filter||2 oz|
|Sleeping Bag||Murre Feathered Friends 0-degree||2 lbs 10 oz|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Sprinter 500||3.7 oz|
|Waist Light||Kogalla RA||9 oz|
|Trekking Poles||Leki FX One Superlight||1 lb|
|Watch||Coros Vertix 2||2 oz|
|Shorts||Craft Pro Hypervent||10 oz|
|Tights||ADV Subz Wind Tights||18 oz|
|Shirt||CTM Distance T-shirt||7 oz|
|Sweatshirt||NW Alpine Black Spider Hoodie||10 oz|
|Rain Jacket||Black Diamond StormLine Stretch Rain Shell||7.9 oz|
|Rain Pants||Black Diamond StormLine Stretch Rain Pants||7.6 oz|
|Sun Hoodie||Outdoor Research Echo Hoodie||4 oz|
|Down Jacket||The North Face ThermoBall Eco Insulated Jacket||1 lb 2 oz|
|Total Weight||13 lbs 11 oz|
|Baseweight||8 lbs 9 oz|