Himalaya Mountain: Life at the Extreme


Himalaya

A look at the highest mountain range on earth, home to extraordinary animals and remarkable ancient cultures. Breathtaking photography reveals a lost world of surprises.


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Transcript


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High above the clouds...

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..there are lost worlds.

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Unexplored.

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Unforgiving.

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Wildly unpredictable.

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But here, on the great mountains of our planet,

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life does exist.

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Against all odds,

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a few extraordinary animals and remarkable people

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make their home on the highest places on Earth.

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Time for school in the highest village in the Himalaya.

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But these pupils have no ordinary school run.

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For those who live in the Himalaya,

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every day is extraordinary.

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This is the mountain range of the greatest extremes.

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And the weather harsher,

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mountains higher...

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..gorges deeper than anywhere else in the world.

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To survive here, the only option

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is to face these daily extremes head-on.

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Only then can you carve out a life...

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..on the roof of the world.

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The Himalayas stretch from Pakistan in the west

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through northern India, into Nepal.

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They climb to the highest point on Earth, Mount Everest...

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..before pushing on through Bhutan and ending in China.

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Here, in the province of Yunnan, at 2,500 metres above sea level,

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is a frozen forest.

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Hidden here is a remarkable animal.

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Rarely seen.

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The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.

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The highest-living monkey in the world.

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They have no nose to get frostbitten.

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Pink lips help them stand out to other monkeys.

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Six-inch-long fur to protect from the cold.

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And they need it.

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Temperatures can drop to minus 28.

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They endure this hardship to have access to their food - lichen.

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In winter, the only thing that grows in this frozen world.

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To prevent freezing to death, they must huddle together for warmth.

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For that, they need family.

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This young three-year-old male is alone.

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He has no family.

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He was recently thrown out when his mother had a newborn.

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Come nightfall, the temperature will plummet.

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If he doesn't find others to huddle with he won't survive long.

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He has only one option.

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To be accepted into a gang of exiles.

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MONKEYS CHATTER AND CRY OUT

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Like him, they have all been thrown out of their family troupes.

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They fight to decide their rank.

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Huge canines, not for eating...

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..but weapons.

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And they're ruled over by a ferocious leader.

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If he's rejected, he'll have little chance of survival.

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His first attempt at being accepted has not started well.

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To the lower-ranking members

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he's seen as a threat to their position in the gang.

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MONKEYS CHITTER

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He's quickly seen off.

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He faces 12 hours on his own in a freezer.

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WIND HOWLS

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It's a very long, cold night.

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But clouds come in, insulating the land.

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They keep temperatures from dropping too low.

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It gives the young male a lifeline.

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At least for another day.

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If he's allowed to groom the dominant male

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he could secure a place for himself in the group.

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He spots his chance.

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The boss is on his own.

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He lets the young male clean his fur.

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It's a sign of acceptance in the group.

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The youngster's gamble has paid off and saved his life.

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He can now huddle with his surrogate family.

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A safeguard against the extreme cold of his Himalaya home.

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As harsh as the conditions at this altitude seem,

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this is just the beginning.

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The higher you climb in the Himalaya, the tougher it gets.

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They contain some of the harshest weather ever recorded.

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175mph winds.

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And minus 40 degrees.

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They are the highest peaks on the planet...

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..stretching almost nine kilometres high.

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Between these giants lie some of the most inaccessible

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valleys in the world.

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Completely isolated, it can take weeks of trekking to reach them.

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Astonishingly, people live here.

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The village of Kibber, in northern India.

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One of the most isolated villages in the Himalaya.

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In winter, snow and ice block the roads.

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It cuts the village off from the rest of the world.

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They must be completely self-sufficient.

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All they have to keep them alive are their livestock.

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But a mysterious beast is taking their animals.

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The villagers call it

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the Ghost of the Himalaya.

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MAN SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE

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Everyone has their own tale to tell.

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Come evening, the villagers are forced to lock their livestock up

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in their own homes.

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SHEEP BLEAT

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Everyone is on edge.

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When night falls...

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..the creature may come into the village looking for food.

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COW LOWS

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HORSE WHINNIES

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Dawn, and villagers can breathe a sigh of relief.

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Their defences have held.

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But the mysterious creature is never far away,

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keeping an eye on its prey.

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Snow leopard.

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Mountain specialists.

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Thick fur to tackle the cold.

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Enlarged lungs for the thin air,

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and huge paws to spread their weight as they navigate the cliffs.

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They've no desire to be close to people.

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But in winter, the weather's so bad it pushes them down to the village.

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It's hard to turn down an easy meal.

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SHEEP BLEAT

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For this isolated community,

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each animal lost is the equivalent of two months' salary.

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Yet remarkably, they don't want the snow leopards gone.

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Here, the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance

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stretches beyond the village walls.

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HE SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE

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SHE SPEAKS IN HER OWN LANGUAGE

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With the help of local conservation groups,

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they've come up with a simple but ingenious plan.

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They have made their own local wildlife sanctuary.

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They've set aside areas where they won't graze their livestock.

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This provides food for wild blue sheep...

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..the natural prey of the snow leopards.

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This enterprising community

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has reduced the number of livestock lost...

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..whilst increasing the number of critically endangered snow leopards.

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Normally an elusive animal,

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Kibber is now a safe haven for one of the rarest big cats in the world.

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The mountain peaks surrounding Kibber stretch up for 6,000 metres.

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Clouds, heavy with rain, arriving on the southern slopes,

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cannot climb over this barrier.

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They are forced to dump their rain.

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THUNDER CLAPS

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The Indian monsoon.

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In just four months, 3,000 billion tonnes of rain falls.

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High in the mountains, the rivers swell, gouging deep valleys.

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In the River Ganges alone, 40,000 tonnes of water can rush past...

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..every second.

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With devastating consequences.

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In the foothills of Mount Machapuchare in Nepal,

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the water is so powerful

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it bores a hole into the mountain.

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Here, the rock is mainly limestone.

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It's easily eroded by the water.

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It creates a labyrinth of caves and tunnels under the mountain.

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Giant stalactites build up over tens of thousands of years.

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This water has created the only place in the Himalaya

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where nothing ever changes.

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Winter to summer, the temperature is a constant five degrees Celsius.

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Ideal for the most unexpected of Himalayan creatures.

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Greater horseshoe bats can only flourish in the mountains

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because of these caves.

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Down here, it never freezes.

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It never snows.

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There is no wind.

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These bats are perhaps the one Himalayan animal

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that deals with extremes by avoiding them.

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A perfect sanctuary...

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..created by the water...

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from the monsoon.

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But 3,000 metres up on the northern slopes, there is no water at all.

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This is the driest place in the Himalaya.

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The Indian province of Ladakh.

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The rain clouds struggle to reach here,

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kept out by the towering peaks.

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The result, a high-altitude desert.

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For centuries, the famous trading path, the Silk Route,

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ran through this hostile desert as traders went from Persia to China.

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To transport goods, they depended on a mountain specialist.

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The Bactrian camel.

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Coming from Mongolia, it's toughened,

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splayed feet can tackle both sand dunes and rocky passes.

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Thick hair can grow a foot long for winters in the deep freeze.

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And Bactrians have not just one but two humps...

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..each holding up to 45kg of fat for food storage.

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They're so well adapted they became the ultimate mode of transport

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over these Himalayan paths...

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..and are even sometimes used today.

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There are some travellers in the Himalaya...

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..who wish to go even deeper into the mountains.

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Down ancient routes even more remote.

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3,500 metre up.

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Lama Dorje is a Tibetan monk.

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He travelled high into the Himalaya in search of solitude.

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He was guided here by ancient scriptures.

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CHANTING

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HE SPEAKS HIS OWN LANGUAGE

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Behind this door is a cave in the side of the mountain.

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For eight months, this was Dorje's home...

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..with only candles for heat.

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Totally alone, he spent every waking hour meditating.

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Every month, food was left at a drop-off down the mountain.

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He saw no-one.

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Dorje used the solitude of this extreme land

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on his quest for enlightenment.

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Tibetan Buddhism was born in the Himalaya.

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In the Phyang Monastery in India,

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rituals rooted in the mountains go back thousands of years.

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At the centre of one ritual is the very rock of the Himalaya.

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This is calcite...

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..forged deep under the mountain millions of years ago.

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Tibetan monks collect it from the mountain slopes.

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It is crushed into a fine sand...

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CHANTING AND RINGING OF BELLS

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..and mixed with coloured dyes.

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Grain by grain, the ground up mountain rock is precisely placed.

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The monks go into a state of meditation.

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It has taken over 60 hours of work, and a lifetime, to master the craft.

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The humble calcite has been transformed into a masterpiece,

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called a sand mandala.

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For Buddhists, it is a symbolic representation

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of the entire universe.

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The centre running right through the Himalaya.

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Climb higher...

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..and at 4,000 metres, on the slopes of this mountain, is a burrow.

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Inside is a tiny animal...

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..who's about to take his first-ever glimpse

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of the outside world.

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A baby Himalayan marmot.

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HE SNIFFS

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He has one big task ahead.

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He has to triple his weight in the next 12 weeks.

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When winter arrives, he will hibernate for eight months,

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and for that he needs to build big fat reserves.

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He has a lot of grass to eat.

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But there's competition.

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There are 50 other marmots living here,

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all facing the same challenge.

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On this, his first day outside...

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..he must stake his claim.

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THEY SQUEAK

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The fight starts with a ritual pose.

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Then the rule book gets thrown out.

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Securing a patch of grass is just the first challenge.

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Up here, marmots are on everyone's menu.

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Tibetan fox...

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..Himalayan brown bear...

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..and golden eagles...

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..all feed on marmots.

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It's hard to concentrate on eating...

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..when you might get eaten yourself.

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DISTANT GRUNTING MARMOT SQUEAKS

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When the alarm is sounded, there's only one course of action.

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This time, it's a herd of Himalayan yak.

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They may be intimidating in size...

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..but they're not here for the marmots.

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The meadow has become the staging ground for the yaks' annual rut.

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Males compete for the right to mate.

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One-tonne bulls fighting near you...

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..is not good for the digestion.

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Luckily, the yaks quickly exhaust themselves.

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And, in fact, their visit actually helps the marmots.

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They provide plenty of fertiliser for the grass.

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But also, their grazing creates lots of new grass shoots,

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rich in energy and protein.

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Far more nutritious for a growing marmot.

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He can now start to pile on those precious calories.

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It's given him a fighting chance to be ready for winter

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and his eight-month hibernation.

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4,200 metres up, to the west of the marmot meadows,

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is the most barren and unforgiving lands shaped by the Himalaya.

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The Tibetan Plateau.

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It runs for 1,800 miles along the north of the Himalaya.

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Incredibly vast, larger than Western Europe.

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Frost for six months of the year.

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Dry as a desert.

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But creatures do make their home here.

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The chiru.

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With the finest and warmest wool in the animal kingdom...

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..it copes with minus 40 degree winters.

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The kiang, an ancient relative of the horse...

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..it can survive without drinking for weeks.

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But the strangest creature of them all...

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..is the Tibetan hot-spring snake.

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The highest living snake in the world.

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Here, on the Tibetan plateau, there are thermal pools

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heated by magma deep under the Earth.

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Snakes are cold-blooded.

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So what better way to warm up than to sit in a hot tub?

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Living and feeding in these pools sounds like paradise.

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But outside these springs, the snakes are surrounded

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by hundreds of miles of frozen wilderness.

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Bathing in these heated pools isn't a choice.

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It's the only way to stay alive.

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A haven, but also a prison they can never leave.

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On the very edge of the Tibetan Plateau,

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there is an enormous mountain, so high it towers over all others.

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It sits on the border between Nepal and China.

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The route to its summit is guarded by an ever-changing river of ice.

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The Tibetans know it as Chomolungma, meaning "mother of the universe".

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To most, it is known as Mount Everest.

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The tallest mountain on the planet.

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Today, an elite group of athletes are gathering on its slopes

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to take part in the highest race in the world.

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The Everest Marathon.

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For Mira Rai, a Nepalese runner, this is her first attempt.

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SHE SPEAKS HER OWN LANGUAGE

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The start of the race is at 5,200 metres, by Everest base camp.

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It takes ten days of trekking just to get here.

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But that's not the biggest problem in this extreme place.

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As altitude increases, the air pressure drops.

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Here, each breath contains only half the amount of oxygen

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than at sea level.

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Mira and the other athletes are about to starve themselves of oxygen

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whilst running down the side of the tallest mountain in the world.

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Here, even while resting, the body is suffering.

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There's headache and nausea, blood vessels start to burst,

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the pulse rate doubles.

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And that's before they even start running.

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The advice doctors give is not to push your body.

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START GUN FIRES

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CHEERING

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Immediately, the athletes feel the full force of this altitude.

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Normally, this level of oxygen starvation happens when someone

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is critically ill.

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The mountain's tough terrain force the pack to quickly thin out.

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HEAVY BREATHING

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Mira takes an early lead.

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Like all who live high in the Himalaya...

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..her body has transformed to tackle the conditions.

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She has up to 50% more haemoglobin in her blood...

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..allowing her to carry more oxygen.

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Boosting her ability to keep running.

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All those who live in these mountains know that

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one wrong step could end in disaster.

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In this race, the first seven runners are all Nepalese.

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Even though some are local farmers

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competing against highly trained Western athletes.

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Many Himalayan people have genetic adaptations allowing them

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to cope with critically low oxygen levels.

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Mira, too, was born in the mountains.

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She is a natural master of this world.

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The end is in sight.

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Namche Bazaar, the highest town in the region.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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She's not only made it, but won the women's race.

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Ascending past Everest base camp, the mountain becomes

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a desolate world.

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It seems like an impossible place for anything to live.

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But there is life.

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At 6,700 metres lives the highest animal in the world.

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The Himalayan jumping spider.

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At just four millimetres long, he may be tiny...

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..but he has gigantic superpowers.

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Eight eyes that give him 360-degree vision,

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his body can be super-cooled to minus 20.

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And tiny hooks on his feet help grip

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as he leaps from rock to rock.

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He can jump...

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..50 times his body length.

0:44:470:44:49

But his greatest asset is his size.

0:44:540:44:58

Being so small, he hugs close to the rocks.

0:45:010:45:04

They are charged with the sun's heat,

0:45:070:45:09

creating a one-inch layer of warm air.

0:45:090:45:12

The perfect microclimate

0:45:120:45:15

for a tiny hero.

0:45:150:45:17

But he's missing just one crucial thing.

0:45:250:45:28

Up here, there's nothing for him to eat.

0:45:300:45:33

He relies entirely on stray insects blown up on the wind.

0:45:380:45:43

Little to eat, and terrible weather.

0:45:510:45:54

It seems a strange place to make a home.

0:45:560:45:58

But there's a good reason.

0:46:010:46:03

As nothing else can live up here,

0:46:050:46:08

there is nothing to eat him.

0:46:080:46:10

He might be tiny,

0:46:140:46:16

but up here on Everest he's the top of the food chain.

0:46:160:46:21

Above the spider, at 8,000 metres,

0:46:340:46:37

there is a realm where nothing can live.

0:46:370:46:40

Climbers call it the Death Zone.

0:46:480:46:50

The only living things that can climb this high are humans,

0:46:550:47:00

aided by modern technology.

0:47:000:47:02

Past this point, the oxygen levels drop so low...

0:47:050:47:09

..the body starts to die.

0:47:110:47:12

Battling relentless exhaustion...

0:47:190:47:21

..the climbers summon their last piece of courage...

0:47:250:47:28

..and get their prize.

0:47:310:47:32

Woo!

0:47:400:47:42

To stand at 8,848 metres,

0:47:440:47:50

the highest point on the planet.

0:47:500:47:53

But bound by the mountain's extreme conditions,

0:47:570:48:00

they can only remain here for 15 minutes.

0:48:000:48:03

For many, the climbing of Everest is their greatest achievement.

0:48:210:48:27

But for those that live here,

0:48:300:48:32

there is perhaps an even greater achievement.

0:48:320:48:36

To live amongst these mountains and to face their extremes

0:48:380:48:41

every single day.

0:48:410:48:44

To do that is to face a world of constant challenge...

0:48:450:48:50

where every day you must find the resolve

0:48:500:48:54

to start all over again.

0:48:540:48:58

Sometimes, in making the Mountain series,

0:49:230:49:26

the film crew was most surprised by how mountains

0:49:260:49:30

affect the people they met.

0:49:300:49:31

Filming Mira Rai, the marathon runner...

0:49:340:49:37

..showed more than anything the impact mountain life can have.

0:49:380:49:42

It quickly becomes clear how well-adapted Mira is to

0:49:460:49:50

the extreme altitude during the walk in to the start

0:49:500:49:53

of the marathon race.

0:49:530:49:55

It's a ten-day trek to Everest base camp.

0:49:570:49:59

As they climb higher, in every breath there is less oxygen.

0:50:030:50:07

By 4,000 metres, there's already a third less than at sea level.

0:50:080:50:14

OK, this altitude...

0:50:140:50:16

You take two steps and you're like, "Whoa!"

0:50:160:50:19

I'm very tired. Very out of breath.

0:50:190:50:22

I've kind of lost track of how many days it's taken us to get this far.

0:50:240:50:28

And I notice that Mira is not out of breath.

0:50:280:50:31

SHE LAUGHS

0:50:310:50:32

Oh, my God.

0:50:350:50:37

Mira has 50% more haemoglobin in her blood, so she feels fine.

0:50:370:50:43

She's even got the energy to make her own film.

0:50:430:50:46

-Me?

-Yeah.

-I feel very tired.

0:50:530:50:55

-Really?

-Yeah.

0:50:550:50:57

-Yeah?

-Yes.

-Do you like going uphill?

0:51:020:51:05

Why?!

0:51:090:51:10

Without any roads in these mountains,

0:51:130:51:15

everything has to be moved by either pack animal

0:51:150:51:19

or by hand.

0:51:190:51:20

The 300 kilos of BBC equipment is carried up by six yaks.

0:51:220:51:27

Here's the rest of our camera kit.

0:51:310:51:33

Luckily, we don't have to carry this stuff.

0:51:330:51:35

Do you think it's OK to hold some people once this lot comes through?

0:51:360:51:40

Just hold them there, that would be great. This is getting heavy.

0:51:400:51:43

Good.

0:51:510:51:53

But keeping up with Mira on her daily training is tough.

0:51:550:51:59

HEAVY BREATHING

0:51:590:52:02

Each day, the crew's bodies make more and more red blood cells,

0:52:060:52:10

slowly enabling them to acclimatise.

0:52:100:52:12

Mira is always a step ahead.

0:52:130:52:16

Oh...!

0:52:170:52:18

The secret to Mira's sporting success lies in her upbringing.

0:52:220:52:27

She was born and bred in the mountains

0:52:270:52:30

and her ancestors have lived at high altitude for at least 3,000 years.

0:52:300:52:35

Her family home is a village in eastern Nepal.

0:52:370:52:40

There's no electricity or running water

0:52:470:52:50

and it's a day's trek to the nearest shop.

0:52:500:52:53

It's a life of hard, physical labour.

0:52:540:52:57

To collect water, the community must climb down to a spring...

0:53:000:53:03

..400 metres down the mountain.

0:53:050:53:07

Mira's been doing it since she was just five years old.

0:53:090:53:12

Living at altitude fine-tunes the body, making wider arteries,

0:53:320:53:37

more capillaries and bigger lungs.

0:53:370:53:40

But mountain life was also her biggest obstacle.

0:53:440:53:47

Like many women in rural Nepal, she was destined to a life of housework.

0:53:520:53:57

But her mother dreamed of a better future for her daughter.

0:54:200:54:23

Aged 14, Mira left home looking for adventure.

0:54:380:54:42

She ended up in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu.

0:54:470:54:50

It was here, in a forest on the edge of the city,

0:55:060:55:10

that she entered her first-ever race.

0:55:100:55:12

50km long.

0:55:140:55:16

She'd never run such a distance before in her life.

0:55:160:55:19

But she didn't just complete the race, she won it.

0:55:390:55:42

From that day on, Mira went on to win race after race across Nepal.

0:55:440:55:49

There is just one race she has yet to attempt...

0:55:500:55:53

..the Everest Marathon.

0:55:550:55:56

And the exhausted film crew has finally

0:55:580:56:00

reached the start to film it.

0:56:000:56:02

-And you ready, Mira?

-Yes, I'm ready.

0:56:120:56:15

-Good luck, Mira.

-Oh, yes, thank you.

0:56:260:56:28

START GUN FIRES

0:56:360:56:38

CHEERING

0:56:380:56:40

In just a few years,

0:56:410:56:43

Mira has gone from a tough life in her remote mountain home

0:56:430:56:47

to the biggest sports star in Nepal.

0:56:470:56:50

Winning every race there is in the country.

0:56:540:56:56

CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

0:56:560:56:58

Now she also trains children from other mountain villages...

0:57:080:57:12

..helping them to become athletes.

0:57:140:57:16

Since Mira started,

0:57:390:57:40

the number of girls signing up to racing equals that of boys,

0:57:400:57:45

for the first time.

0:57:450:57:47

For those born in these mountains...

0:57:490:57:51

..there are many obstacles in life.

0:57:530:57:55

But they are also the perfect training grounds for success.

0:57:570:58:02

Next time, the longest mountain range on the planet

0:58:070:58:12

is full of extraordinary hidden worlds

0:58:120:58:16

and even more extraordinary animals, with the most surprising lives.

0:58:160:58:22

The Andes.

0:58:230:58:24

The highest mountain range on earth is home to extraordinary animals and remarkable ancient cultures. In the depths of winter, snow leopards creep into isolated mountain villages in search of food. In hidden valleys, bizarre-looking monkeys huddle for warmth in a frozen forest. Ancient Buddhist monasteries have age-old rituals creating beautiful works of art made from mountain sand and athletes compete in the gruelling Everest marathon. Strange and exotic creatures live in the Himalaya - the chiru, with the warmest wool in the world, snakes bathing in hot springs and wild yak competing in their annual rut. Breathtaking photography reveals a lost world of surprises in the latest landmark wildlife series from the BBC.