After two and a half long, cold weeks in the Khumbu Valley, Matt and I have returned to Kathmandu. After the graduation ceremony, we rallied and hiked from Phortse back to Lukla, a two day trek, and hopped aboard a mosquito-sized plane for an unnerving flight back to Kathmandu. As traveling often does, my experiences in the Khumbu region have changed my perception and outlook on several things. Before I left for Nepal, I was anxious and nervous. I was afraid of falling behind, losing the strength I had worked so hard to gain over the winter months in preparation for Spring. My thoughts were clouded with my own personal goals, what I would miss back home, and all that I had to lose by leaving. It sounds ridiculous to think back on it now, but my feelings were genuine. Deep down, however, I knew that I would learn and grow a lot on this trip. I was indeed right about that.
Left to Right: Tawoche, Nuptse (flat ridge), Everest (the Pyramid shape behind Nuptse), Lhotse, and Ama Dablam (far right pointy one)
Icy Prayer flags at a Buddhist stupa during a cold hike.
The Khumbu region has a prominent presence in alpine climbing history, as it is home to the tallest mountains in the world. As a result, Sherpa culture is deeply rooted in alpine climbing. Children become porters in their early teens and aspire to become mountain guides when they reach their 20s. Being a high altitude worker is one of the most lucrative forms of employment in Nepal, and those who can guide the big mountains make a wage nearly twenty times what the average Nepali makes in an entire year, in just one season. Many jump into guiding with very little or no experience, putting themselves and others at great risk. There was one student at the school who showed up on the first day with eight Everest summits under his belt, but no idea how to tie a figure 8 retrace. I was astonished by this fact, and the realization of the importance of programs like the Khumbu Climbing Center sunk in abruptly.
The KCC was founded by Conrad Anker and Jennifer Lowe-Anker eight years ago to develop greater safety tactics and responsibility among high altitude workers in the Khumbu region. In the years since the start of the school, it has evolved rapidly. What once was an instructional program lead by 100% western guides has now developed into a program where former KCC students are the instructors and teach almost all of the courses. This year, 59 students traveled from all over the country traveled to participate in the first session, the “basic” course. Over ten days, they developed and honed their skills on rock and ice; learned basic first aid and avalanche awareness; and took English and Geology lessons. The goal for the coming years is to pass off complete control and leadership of the KCC to the Nepali instructors, so that they may carry on the program independently and share their knowledge with the next generation.
The primary responsibility that Matt, Cedar, and myself shared was to help with the rockclimbing aspect of the school, which is one of the least developed aspects of the KCC curriculum, and the goal was for it to become more a prominent component in this year’s session. Previously, the only cliff the students had to practice on was over an hour and half hike away, with technical slabs and limited terrain to learn on. We found a wall that is just 25 minutes from Phortse, south-facing, and relatively featured. Over four days, we bolted eight routes between 5.10 and 5.12. Each day for four days, we had up to 14 students and 5 instructors climbing at our newly developed cliff, and we also set up a free-hanging fixed line to practice jumaring and prusiking, as well as a rappel station. Learning how to rockclimb is not necessarily a prerequisite for becoming a mountain guide, but the technical skills and awareness can’t hurt, and spending all day basking on a sun-baked cliff was a welcome change and a treat for the students who spent most of their climbing days in the frigid shade of the ice falls.
Top left: Rappelling. Top right: Rappel station. Bottom left: C-Rad climbing “White Yak” 5.11d. Bottom Right: A sunny day at the cliff.
Matt made a pretty accurate observation the other day. He pointed out that most of the Nepali students and instructors view climbing as a job. They learn their skills in order to further themselves in the guiding industry, not to have fun or to challenge themselves personally. Rockclimbing was something they were learning for fun, and it was our job to teach them. I was pleased to see the students climbing and goofing off at the new cliff. They were genuinely enjoying themselves. They were amazed at how well we climbed on the rock, while we marveled at how many of them had already summited big mountains numerous times, most of them were only in their early 20s. “You guys are top climbers! Superheros!” they would tell us.
Left to Right: Dawa, KCC instructor. Wong Chu, KCC Student. Lakpa, KCC instructor.
This is Da Nuru: KCC instructor. Total 8,000 meter peak summits: 25. 12 of those were Mt. Everest, the first was at age 17.
Climbing is so often about what we do for ourselves; our next big goals, trips, dreams, etc. My trip to Nepal was the first climbing-related trip where I had no personal climbing goals. I was there to teach and to give something back to the community. I was worried about this at first, not wanting to sacrifice my own personal interests for something that wasn’t benefiting me directly, but as a result, I learned more on this trip and than I did on any other.
The Puja: a traditional blessing ceremony that takes place before expeditions in order to bring good fortune. Juniper leaves are burned, a monk chants Buddhist blessings, and at the very end, flour is smeared on our faces for good luck.
Top: the monk chanting and waving Juniper. Middle Left: we all placed our climbing gear before the monk to bless it. Middle Right: prayer booklet and grains of rice, which were thrown into the air at certain intervals. Bottom left: juniper burning. Bottom right: I received alot of good luck
Everyday, I watched small children, old women, and everyone in between hike enormous loads of wood, rocks, food, and every other living necessity up the valley and into their villages. There are no roads anywhere in the Himalaya; the only form of transportation is by foot. This may seem like an inconvenience at first, but I grew to appreciate it. Walking for hours on end forced me to do nothing but be in the moment. There were no distractions from what was right there, in front of me. No e-mails to check or phone calls to make. The people there do not possess anything unnecessary. They have very little, not in the sense that they are impoverished or suffering, just that they have what they need and nothing more. I think that sometimes the more we possess the less happy we become, the more likely we are to forget what’s important and genuine in life.
“Experiences are what’s important. Those will stay with you, you will remember them forever, not material things”. Conrad Anker said this one night in Phortse. I had been thinking about this idea for some time before he said it out loud. How often we desire things and accomplishments over the actual experiences and the journeys we took to get them. I am grateful I was given the opportunity to participate in the KCC this year, fortunate to have met the people and learned their stories, and will never forget my journey there. It will certainly not be the last time I visit the Khumbu region.
Left to Right: Cedar and Conrad drinking Tongba, a fermented millet. Me dressed in a Sherpa outfit for graduation. Pasang, the woman who owned the Phortse guest house made us a cake to celebrate on our last night.