When Ben Clark was in his twenties, he was one of the most ambitious mountaineers in the world. He didn’t just climb mountains. He climbed the world’s highest—including Everest, which he summited unguided at age 23, becoming the second-youngest American to reach the top. He didn’t stop there. Over the course of a decade, Clark says he pioneered new routes across the Himalayas and made some of the world’s most daring ski descents.
But in 2012, Clark’s life and career changed when his son, Charlie, was born in Telluride. “I gave up pioneering big routes in the Himalayas,” Clark says. “First ascents and first ski descents, that was my gig. But when Charlie was born I knew that the higher risk adventure aspect of my life had to come to a halt.” Before his son was born, Clark had made 35 international expeditions. After Charlie, Clark didn’t leave the country again until 2016.
When he finally did leave the U.S., it was for an expedition he’d had his sights on since his earliest days as a mountaineer: The Snowman Trek, a 188.5-mile journey through some of Bhutan’s highest mountain passes and villages. Most people who had attempted the trek in the past had failed. Those who did finish typically took about a month to do so. Clark’s plan was ambitious: Assemble a team and complete the Snowman Trek in a record 14 days.
One of the first problems he encountered was finding a team who wanted to run over Himalayan passes and not summit any of the mountains. While he knew plenty of peak-baggers, he says he “had no partners who wanted to go do mega runs in the mountains.” Then he met ultramarathoner and Boulder resident Timothy Olson. The duo did a climb together over Mount Princeton on a cold, wet, nasty night in 2015. To Clark’s surprise, Olson actually enjoyed the experience. When Clark floated the idea of the Snowman Trek, Olson was quick to jump onboard.
The rest of the crew was comprised of Anna Frost, an accomplished ultrarunner from New Zealand who Clark describes as a natural leader, and Chris Ord, an Australian trail runner who helped Clark film the expedition. Upon arriving in Bhutan, the team was joined by a local guide, Wang Chuk, and a cook named Narayan, who Clark says was one of the first people to believe setting the record was possible. The crew was also supported by a team of horses carrying food and supplies.
While a “trek” through Bhutan might not sound as intense as climbing 8,000-meter peaks, consider this: The route features 11 mountain passes over 16,000 feet, four of which are over 17,000 feet. The team routinely slept at or above 15,000 feet and averaged 15 miles per day. “To an ultrarunner, that may not sound too long distance-wise,” Clark says. “But when you think about doing this [at elevation], you’re talking about a long, long, way.”
It didn’t take long for that reality to set in. On day four of the expedition, Ord came down with altitude sickness and suffered from pulmonary edema (a collection of fluid in the lungs). He had to be flown out via helicopter. Still, with Frost and Olson in the lead, the team ultimately completed the Snowman Trek—though they saw brutal weather and were pushed beyond their limits at times—in just 15 days and 9 hours. The crew had achieved their goal: to complete the trek faster than any other known group or individual.
While the feat is impressive, Clark is more thankful for the cultural connections that he and the team made along the way. When he was summiting peaks as a young mountaineer, he rarely traveled through villages. On the Snowman Trek, the team was meeting villagers at almost every step. “This was the shared accomplishment of two cultures coming together,” Clark says. “Now, every chapter in my life that involves the Himalayas will be more about experiencing the culture and the people than it would be about accomplishment.”
If you’d like a more intimate look at the expedition, Clark’s feature film The Snowman Trek will screen on Thursday, May 17 in a one-day release at 500 theaters across the country. The ultrarunners and their Bhutanese guide will attend a red carpet event in Boulder on Thursday night. Tickets are available online, but you’ll have to move quick. They’re selling so fast that another Boulder theater was added to the lineup to meet the demand.
If You Go: Screenings of the film are on Thursday evening at 7 p.m. at locations in Denver, Lakewood, Boulder, Broomfield, Highlands Ranch, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs. You can see the film’s trailer here.