Monday, January 28, 2013

Mountain Men

For anyone who has ever traveled to rural Nepal, specifically the mountains of the Khumbu Valley, there is little to say about the local Khumbu people except – remarkable. The harsh environment and isolated folds of earth have created an idyllic kingdom of sturdy, devout Buddhists - and tough shaggy animals.

The Sherpa people are the indigenous inhabitants of the Solu Khumbu valley and are descendants of nomadic Tibetans from the north.  For 600 years they have lived in this high-altitude realm, becoming stronger and leaner than their first-world Cheeto-fed vacationer/employers. They are a happy, patient people, filled with the potential for sudden impromptu comedy. They have very little western wealth or possessions; no 403’s, health insurance, workman’s comp, welfare, life insurance, second cars (or even first cars), or storage units filled with boating gear and Christmas paraphernalia. They wear flip-flops over any terrain, sport one-dollar gas station quality sunglasses, wear cast-off Hawaiian shirts donated from more fortunate countries, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, carry more than their bodyweight of luggage, wood, rock, or alcohol each day -and do it all in the rarified air of the Himalayas.

I am never so humbled as when I return to the mountains of Nepal. On arrival to Lukla, a postage-stamp of an airport licked and pasted to the side of a 21,000-foot peak, you are instantly aware of who is fit – and who is not. You walk slowly and gulp in the thin air, while barefooted children run past carrying your gear - and laugh.  You try to convince yourself that in a week’s time you will be acclimatized to the elevation. Do not deceive yourself – the people of this valley will always be able to kick your ass.

Technically, the Sherpa people tend to be guides or lodge owners, and the porters are often times from the lowlands (a consideration when hiring men to haul your gear, as the lowland porters are not accustomed to the elevations like the local Khumbu people). If you are trekking in the Everest region, and are a responsible client, then you are following the rules of the IPPG (International Porter Protection Group) who have outlined load limits for porters in Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, and Kilimanjaro. The Nepali porter load is to be limited to 30kg, and their wages should be between 500-700 rupees a day (USD 6-8/day, actually about half of what they should be paid). Receiving such low wages for staggeringly hard work is only half of the porter equation. Each night, as you snuggle inside your $700 down bag within the stone and wood confines of a sturdy teahouse, your porters are outside – perhaps in a tent, in a local friends kitchen, or a mile or two away in a family members house.

Through foreign donations and planning, there are now an increasing number of porter shelters that have been built to protect the lowest paid members of your trekking party from the harsh nighttime elements. There are recognized porter shelters at Tengboche, Gorak Shep, Gokyo, and Machermo. These rudimentary structures are free bunkhouses for the porters and Sherpas, getting them out of the wind and cold, and saving them from hiking extra miles. Also, Porters Progress UK has a donation store in Lukla that helps outfit underdressed porters with donated boots, jackets, and sunglasses from western trekkers.  As a trekker, you are responsible for your porters.  If a porter falls ill, it is the responsibility of you and your group to ensure he is not just paid off and sent away, but that he is accompanied to a clinic.

I have seen porters carrying hundreds of pounds, suspended from their heads by crude fabric “tumplines”: gigantic green-cut wooden beams, sixteen foot lengths of corrugated tin roofing, eight cases of bottled beer, a small refrigerator, 150 gallon water tanks, great slabs of granite – almost everything you see in the villages of the Khumbu were carried on the backs of men. Most of these extremes are not linked to trekking, but are feats of strength in the simple delivery of goods – human UPS trucks in jelly sandals. If you need it, and are willing to pay to get it there, then there is a guy somewhere willing to carry it – that’s exactly how the slate-topped pool table got to Namche, and the huge panes of glass to Pheriche.

In 2005 a team of Belgian physiologists performed field-testing related to the energetics of hauling loads with tumplines. They studied porters who routinely hiked 100km - from the Kathmandu valley to the village of Lukla – delivering goods. They executed this journey in about 9 days, gaining around 26,000 feet in elevation and loosing 22,000 feet during the round trip. They were aged from 11 to 68 years of age with the men hauling an average 93% of their body weight. One particularly robust porter was measured carrying 183% of his body weight! Their study concluded that the Nepali porters were, "far more economical, energetically, than the controls at all loads, and more economical than African women at all except the lightest loads."1 Perhaps we have this backpack thing all wrong.

In the spring of 2012 a Sherpa lodge owner fell off of his tin roof while shoveling snow in Pheriche, sustaining a fracture / dislocation of his elbow. This was too complex for the physician at the Pheriche aid post, so it was decided that he should go to Kathmandu for a higher level of care. On the evening before, a wealthy solo female trekker, who had been led up the valley on the back of a pony, suddenly decided she had seen enough and was “done”. With VISA card in hand, she ordered the Pheriche clinic to arrange a helicopter transfer back to Kathmandu. This was fortunate for the Sherpa, as most often their only form of evacuation was by porter, pony, and truck, and took several days. In this case, the physician arranged to have him fly back with the wealthy trekker. Good karma was at hand.

I watched as the helicopter danced around the ring of stones like a dragonfly adjusting to a flower. Just as it touched down, local men wearing puffy jackets waded through the snow and began taking out jugs of kerosene and boxes of supplies (no helicopter flight in the Khumbu goes up or down the valley without a payload).   Then I saw the woman’s wheeled luggage carried out to the waiting craft, blades whirling and engine roaring, followed by two Sherpa assistants with the “fancy lady” as one porter called her. They held her hands to guide her balance as she carefully tiptoed through the snowy rocks to her taxi. People gathered, both locals and trekkers alike, as the medical clinic staff brought the injured Sherpa out of the medical building on a stretcher. There was conversation inside the helicopter between the woman and the pilot. The doors were closed. The engines roared louder – and the helicopter rose up into the air in a swirling cloud of sparkling ice crystals.  The physician and the litter attendants rushed the injured man out onto the landing zone, waving and yelling into the glittering vortex – and watched in vain as the small craft swiftly vanished down the valley and out of sight.

They carried the man back into the clinic. Such was the fate of just a Sherpa.

I like to think that karma found that woman; found the deep recesses of her intestines while she was sitting in the Kathmandu airport waiting for her international flight; found her thriving with a demonic spawn of bacteria that would give rise to torrential diarrhea, making her flight the most memorable of all time.

The Sherpas and porters of the Khumbu valley risk everything they have to make a living - to send their children to school, to afford food and clean water. They carry their bodyweight in tourists’ luggage, cut river stones into bricks with a hammer and chisel, create wooden beams with hand planes and sweat, and run down treacherous trails for ten miles to relay a message for a trekker. Their unprotected eyes become milky and dim after years of crossing snowfields, they climb to great dangerous heights, carry cylinders of oxygen through crevasses - and give up their chairs to foreigners. And if asked why, each one of them will tell you the same thing – so my children won’t have to.

When in Nepal, treat these hardy people with the respect deserved of such effort. Ensure they are paid fairly, that they will receive medical treatment, and that their loads are not too great. Donate to funds that create porter shelters, or to teachers at the schools of Lukla and Khumjung. Leave your old trekking poles, boots and sunglasses in Lukla. Join the Himalayan Rescue Association and donate to Stop Girl Trafficking. Limit the number of plastic bottles you buy and showers you take. Give the right-of-way to any porter. Engage them whenever you can.

We are just fortunate transients in their mountains. It is our duty to be worthy ambassadors for our respective countries, to promote kindness and fairness, and pay forward even the smallest acts from the heart.

~ our porters in 2012 

1 Bastiene, G.J., B. Schepens, P.A. Willems, N.C. Heglund (2005). Energetics of load carrying in Nepalese porters. Science, 308:1755.


  1. Rob - I love this! Thanks for all the good information and for reminding everyone about the porters and Sherpas - they are amazing. I would give up my chair for them. I'm glad to hear about a fund to build shelters - we need to donate to this. Also, loved seeing the pictures of our old friends!

  2. Absolutely amazing and heart wrenching. I wish that I could have seen a quarter of what you have seen and done. But, with your gifted photography and excellent descriptions, I feel like I have been there, at least a little bit. Thanks for telling this story.