ON top of the world, battling blinding snow one minute, the ferocious rays of the sun the next, shoes sodden and breathing air so thin that standing was hard enough, Dougie Paton drew on every ounce of reserves he had. Running a marathon up there surely would be sheer madness.
His fellow Everest marathon runners were falling like flies all around, victims to everything from altitude sickness to agonising sunburn that was turning septic. Each with their own reason for trekking for days in order to then run 26.2 debilitating miles, however few were driven by quite the same powerful forces that compelled Dougie to succeed.
Mile after agonising mile, he pushed himself forward, his wife Jane, dead at just 32, stopped in her tracks as she swam a length of her gym pool by a heart condition that neither realised could suddenly strike with such finality, never far from his mind.
And as he watched others fall by the wayside, the demands of the challenge simply too great and the harshness of the surroundings too overwhelming, he pressed on, determined to do all he could in her memory. Later, physically and emotionally wrecked, Dougie plucked some rocks that lay scattered on the ground around Everest base camp and slipped them into his rucksack. They bumped heavily against his back as he made the long trek back down to the small town of Lukla, where he carefully wrapped them up alongside two colourful cloth Tibetan prayer flags.
Soon they will complete their journey from one of the highest spots on earth, to the peaceful spot where Jane lies buried.
“I wanted to build a little cairn for her at Everest Base Camp,” explains Dougie, who is still struggling with an irritating “Khumbu cough”, the result of the cold, dry mountain air on his throat.
“But there was too much snow. So I brought rocks from base camp and a pair of prayer flags which in Tibet are said to carry your prayers off to wherever you want to go. I will take them to Jane’s grave and lay them there.”
Dougie was among a handful of hardy souls to take part in the world’s highest trail running event, the 2014 Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, staged annually to commemorate the first successful ascent of the mountain by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29th 1953.
It began at Everest Base Camp close to the notorious Khumbu Icefall – where just days earlier a powerful avalanche claimed the lives of at least 16 climbers in one of the deadliest incidents ever on the mountain – and took runners 18,200ft above sea level.
The race, says Dougie, is demanding on many levels, from the exertion required to trek to Base Camp to the ever-changing weather conditions, the high altitude, risk of injury and sheer remoteness of the location. And, of course, for him, there was an emotional toll, as thoughts of Jane’s tragic and sudden loss were never far from his thoughts.
She was halfway through a length at the pool in her local gym in Queen Street when her heart suddenly stopped.
“I was at home, just doing stuff, making dinner,” recalls Dougie, who works as an executive director for financial services giant Morgan Stanley. “I got a phone call from the gym saying ‘your wife has been taken ill and gone to the Royal Infirmary, get up there’.
“But I had no inkling of what had really happened.”
A bout of illness in her twenties had led to tests which initially revealed an irregular heartbeat and later confirmed that Jane was affected by the heart muscle condition dilated cardiomyopathy. Usually inherited, it is incurable but can be successfully treated – however in rare cases it can also lead to sudden death.
That had never crossed the couple’s minds as they settled into their Northumberland Street home and prepared to start a family. “Jane was really well, she took drugs to control it, she was active, she would swim, run and had a large social circle. However just having cardiomyopathy – minor or severe - meant she was at risk of her heart just stopping. We didn’t know.”
Dougie rushed to hospital, unaware of the seriousness of the situation. “I had no idea what was coming. Two doctors came into the room, I was expected to hear ‘your wife has been taken ill and we’ve done some tests, you can see her now’. But they came in and said, ‘We’re sorry to say your wife has passed away’.
“It was a complete shock.”
Jane’s sudden death in 2010 left Dougie bereft. Eventually he turned his efforts to raising awareness of Jane’s condition and fundraising for the small charity which works with patients and families, the Cardiomyopathy Association.
Since then a tribute fund in Jane’s name has raised more than £27,000. And Dougie is more than halfway towards raising the £20,000 he hoped to make for the charity from his Mount Everest adventure.
Simply getting to the starting point of last month’s race was a marathon in itself, involving a physically demanding trek carrying a heavy backpack of supplies.
He’d barely arrived at Base Camp before terrible conditions meant he had to leave again. “We had three feet of snow overnight. It became too dangerous and we had to get out. We hadn’t slept, we could hear avalanches in the distance – a phenomenal roaring sound. So the day before the toughest of marathons, we had to trek five hours back down the mountain with all our kit. It wasn’t the best preparation but it didn’t put us off.”
Later Dougie and his fellow runners set off again, trudging through three-feet deep drifts of snow that covered paths and steps, raising the risk of injury with every step.
The dazzling white of the snow left some runners snowblind, while others fell so ill with altitude sickness that they had to be airlifted to hospital.
“One lady ended up in intensive care she became so ill, others had stomach upsets, I had headaches. The effect of the sun’s rays reflected on the snow left one woman’s face so badly burned, it went sceptic.”
The sound of a rescue helicopter became a familiar feature to runners, even before the gruelling marathon across a network of mountain trails finally got underway.
While Dougie, a veteran of nine previous marathons, typically runs a 26.2 miles route in around 3hrs 30 mins, the challenges of running on Everest pushed his and the other runners finishing times back. He completed it in 8hrs 9mins.
“The important thing wasn’t the race itself, it was the whole journey up to the start line, where you bond with other runners, make friends, find out about different cultures and share experiences,” says Dougie, who remarried two years ago and now has a young son, Callum.
“Jane was my entire world,” he adds. “I cannot describe the devastation that her death brought to my life and to the lives of all those who knew her.
“Losing her changed my outlook. I now know everything can change in a millisecond. I don’t take as much for granted as I used to. I know we are not indestructible.
“It teaches you the real value of people. And you stop getting stressed about things that shouldn’t stress you.”
Family and friends of Jane, who worked in marketing for north Edinburgh firm Limpet Technology, have told Dougie they believe she would have been proud of his achievements. “I set up the fund to enable all our friends, family and work colleagues to see how their donations in Jane’s name can mount up over time.
“If through her tribute fund I can help to ensure just one person does not have to go through what we went through, I’ll be very pleased.”
• Contribute to Dougie’s fund by visiting his Just Giving page at http://www.justgiving.com/Dougie-Paton-Everest or texting EVMA99 and an amount in sterling to 70070. For information about cardiomyopathy see the Cardiomyopathy Association’s website www.cardiomyopathy.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the charity on freephone 0800 0181 024.