Khumbu Climbing Center
January, 2015A grey elephant with curving tusks stands rooted to the jungle’s verdant floor. A lithe, golden monkey, atop the elephant, balances a snow-white rabbit between his head and the palm of his hand. A pheasant with fantastical curling feathers stretches, from the bunny’s back, for a tree bough above and its sweet, ripe fruit that’s just in reach.
It’s an odd grouping, but one that appears on the walls of tea houses and homes throughout Nepal’s Mount Everest region.
Sipping steaming milk laced with black tea, we listen as Lakpa Norbu Sherpa explains the sundry crew’s significance. Like all teachings transferred orally over centuries, there are many versions. Lakpa’s iteration involves young, greedy monks failing to respect elders until their teacher, the Buddha, intervenes. A soap opera of a story follows involving an elephant, monkey, rabbit, and pheasant all trying to claim ownership of the same tree heavy with fruit, yet none can access the bounty on their own. But when each creature contributes its unique talent to the table and they work together, as a community, they are able to succeed.
The parallel is not lost on my husband, Andy, or on me. We are in Nepal volunteering with the Khumbu Climbing Center [KCC], an initiative of the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation [ALCF]. In 1999, Lowe, along with David Bridges, perished in an avalanche on the Himalayan peak Shishapangma (elevation 8,013 meters, or 26,289 feet). Often quoted as saying, “The best climber is the one having the most fun,” Lowe somehow managed to have a damn good time while rising through the ranks of elite alpinism to a pinnacle as one of the world’s best alpine climbers. Nepali mountain workers are the femurs, skull, and pelvis of in-country expeditions. To simply say “backbone” is not enough. Whether working as cook, porter, “climbing Sherpa,” or “icefall doctor” setting ropes and ladders through the infamous Khumbu Icefall or the formidable Lhotse Face, their role is integral to the success of any commercial expedition in Nepal, and most private expeditions as well. Yet, these men—women are expected to work in their family’s tea house during the climbing and trekking season—rarely receive the accolades, wages, training, equipment, or support of their Western counterparts. The discrepancy can, and often does, manifest in a significantly higher rate of accidents, injuries, and death than that seen among Western colleagues and climbers. The ALCF is working to change that paradigm through the annual KCC program by teaching Nepali workers mountain skills, ranging from basic climbing knowledge to advanced rescue techniques.
Pete Athans unhinges his lanky frame, nearly rising above the cloud of incense and juniper smoke filling the small temple. For the last hour a few of the KCC instructors who spent their childhoods in the local gompa (monastery) have rocked alongside the gompa’s abbot, chanting prayers for a safe climbing season as the abbot flicks chang (a local alcohol of fermented barley) with the tip of a peacock feather, sprinkling rice and ground barley while other KCC instructors ensure our tin mugs are never empty. It is time to light the small yak butter candles cradled in brass cups on the alter. The honor of a blessing has fallen to Athans, KCC’s co-director (with Dr. Steve Mock) and a regular on the slopes of the region since the early eighties. Sixteen butter lamps wait to be lit, one for each of the Nepali workers killed in the massive avalanche that roared down Mount Everest’s slopes in 2014. Thirteen were KCC graduates, one of them an assistant instructor with the program. I won’t forget hearing the news—around midnight disjointed reports of a massive avalanche began cropping up on my news feed at home in Idaho. It was nightmarish. But for many of the men sitting beside me, including Andy, the avalanche wasn’t a distant tragedy shelved in the realm of nightmares. These butter lamps represented men whose bodies Andy, and so many of the others in the room, worked for hours to unearth from the debris.
Athans speaks to one of Buddhism’s fundamental tenants, that all is impermanent. He emphasizes that the best we can do is exactly that—our best with the short and unknown amount of time we each have left. Each instructor is then handed a candle and we, in turn, light the lamps. An impish little boy has wandered in and dances among us, making silly faces and tugging on the abbot’s ears, as we try focusing on our sober task. No one seems to mind—here, the sacred constantly mingles with the quotidian, like light existing with dark and solemnity holding hands with levity. I can’t help but wonder, or fear, that some day a candle will be lit on the alter for this little boy when he comes of age and starts working in the mountains.
The sixty-five students who have made their way to Phortse, a multi-day walk from the Lukla airstrip, gateway to the Khumbu, are divided into two groups. “Basic” students will learn knots, ice and rock climbing technique, anchor building, belaying, and rappelling, from a crew of talented Nepali instructors, many of whom grew up in the Khumbu region and are Sherpa. (Sherpa is an ethnic group, but the term is often mistakenly used to denote those hired to carry loads. “Porters,” those who carry loads, and local guides represent many of the region’s ethnicities.) The smaller group of “Advanced” students are split into two groups—one for Andy and one for me. Danuru Sherpa, one of my “assistant instructors,” would never tell you that he has summited Everest sixteen times. Mingma Tenzing Sherpa, my other “assistant,” has summited “only” nine times, but has led the rope-fixing team up the dangerous Lhotse Face for several years running. Mingma’s father worked on Sir Edmond Hilary’s 1953 expedition, the first summit of Everest.
That these men are my “assistants” feels a farce. Danuru explains that the students always listen better to the Western instructors; “they think the foreigners know more than us.”
With anywhere from a half-hour to a two-hour walk to the practice crags, the days are packed as we work our way through the ambitious rescue curriculum that distinguishes the Basic students from the Advanced. Unlike in prominent mountain ranges in more developed countries, there is no professional search-and-rescue team on Mount Everest, despite the high number of commercial expeditions. It’s a de facto system of relying on whomever is closest to the incident, with no formal skill standard.
This is where programs like KCC work to fill in the gaps. Danuru says that before KCC it could take anywhere from two to three days to lower an injured or ill climber down the Lhotse Face, a 3,690-foot wall of glacial ice with an average slope of approximately 45 degrees, with multiple steps nearing vertical, and all starting at an altitude of approximately 22,400 feet. Now, using the rope skills learned through KCC, an efficient lower can be executed in just two to three hours. This is significant not only for the patient being lowered, but also for rescuers, who are in a vulnerable and dangerous position exposed on the Lhotse Face. Knowing that many of my students will be heading to Everest in just a few months, class takes on added meaning. How to quickly ascend out of a crevasse or rappel multiple rope lengths with a patient takes on a different level of meaning—these aren’t just cool hat tricks. These are skills that could save someone’s life.
To be sure, there are days when I’m not certain how much instruction gets lost in translation. Class comprises a static buzz of Sherpa, English, and Nepali, often translated to Hindi translated to Balti (the latter spoken by two young men from Pakistan’s Karakorum region, who work with Khurpa Care, a nonprofit dedicated to training and helping Pakistani high-altitude workers). But with repetition and under the watchful eyes of Mingma and Danuru, the concepts work their way in.
The day’s biggest challenge becomes less about learning the Munter-Mule Overhand knot and more about which teahouse we should order lunch from and whether to get shakpa or momos. These leisurely breaks when young girls, often one of the boys’ sisters or cousins, arrive with a basket of fresh chapatis and mugs of tea, become a highlight; talk shifts from my nagging reminders about safety zones to jokes and stories. These are not simply pious, tranquil, and ever-smiling young men, as so often romanticized in tales of the Himalaya. They may be those things, but they are other things as well—more than less like the men I know at home in Teton Valley, with egos, fears, worries, and mischievous senses of humor.
One moment, Ang Pasang Sherpa, who looks more like an accountant than an accomplished Everest guide, with his cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, tells a story of a German client who promised to pay for Ang Pasang’s daughter’s education if he got to Everest’s summit. The client ignored his own promise back at Base Camp despite a successful climb. The rest of the guys shake their heads; they’ve either heard stories or have had similar things happen to them. The next moment, Ang Pasang is rolling with laughter, telling a poop joke that involves Sir Edmond Hilary, Tenzing Norgay’s first experience with a flush toilet, and a ceiling fan. It gets the guys howling. It’s comforting to know that mountaineers the world over relish jokes about bodily functions.
Each evening, the students gather for a presentation on a variety of subjects—helicopter safety, Leave No Trace ethics, avalanche awareness, and so on. Robert Thomas, a geology professor at The University of Montana Western, has worked for several years developing KCC’s sound natural history curriculum. One of his evening talks centers on identifying mountain hazards like landslide and avalanche paths.
“If the gods get mad, then will they take out Phortse?” a student in his late thirties asks, referring to the Khumbu Valley farming village.
There’s an awkward silence as Thomas and the rest of the Western instructors absorb the question’s delicacy. In spite of the Western appearance of so many of our Nepali friends, dressed in outdoor clothing like our own, fluent with Facebook, and accustomed to spending months at a time around Western clients, there are subtle differences easy to overlook. Many hold the fatalistic view that natural disasters, like landslides, floods, even the 2014 Everest avalanche, are the acts of angry gods and goddesses inhabiting the mountains. Thomas tries to make a distinction between cultural beliefs and science.
“Well, if it doesn’t have to do with the gods, then why did we have a puja (prayer ceremony) today?” the student asks, referring to the hours spent earlier that morning beside a stack of climbing helmets, ropes, axes, and crampons bathing in juniper smoke, listening to the abbot chant, requesting the goddess Khumbila’s permission to climb on the cliffs surrounding her. The student has a point, and it’s debatable who is the teacher and who is being taught. I think of the parable’s four animals and the disparate strengths corralled by the four stone walls we gather inside of.
When the time comes to say goodbye, I fret like a mother hen over our three youngest students. They will someday fill the role that men like Danuru and Mingma Tenzing fill today. If they make it. The dread over the Icefall’s future, with threats like climate change and increasing crowds, has been a nearly constant soundtrack to our course. Everest is dangerous and it is only getting more so. I fear that some day too soon the butter lamps will be lit for one or more of them.
On April 25, 2015, two and a half months after our time in the Khumbu, a severe earthquake triggered a massive avalanche on Everest. Eighteen people died. Structures throughout the Khumbu, including the gompa and the homes of Danuru, Mingma, and many of our students, were significantly damaged or destroyed. Come January, when KCC gathered again for the 2016 opening ceremony, thankfully there were no butter lamps for KCC victims of the earthquake or avalanche. Instead, in the same spot where Andy Tyson stood a year prior and lit a lamp for victims of the 2014 Khumbu Icefall avalanche, a lamp was lit for him. Another was lit for Justin Griffin, like Andy, a KCC volunteer recently deceased (and whose sister, brother-in-law, and nieces live in Teton Valley). And a third, for Alex Lowe.