“There is probably not a single Himalayan climber who has not lost at least one close friend—and usually many more—to a mountaineering accident, and who has not been on at least one expedition that suffered a fatal accident or other death…Much the same can be said for the Sherpas. Indeed for some climbing Sherpas, nearly every expedition they worked for had a fatal accident. And it is probably fair to say that there is no Sherpa at all—man, woman, or child, climber or nonclimber—who does not personally know a fellow Sherpa who was killed in mountaineering.”
This is how Sherry B. Ortner, author of Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering (©2001, Princeton University Press) describes the risk involved in Himalayan mountaineering, taking a particular focus on the sherpas who play such a key role in the hundreds of expeditions that embark on the high peaks every year. Rightly so, the reality is not lost on those Westerners that frequent the area and have created a life out of climbing and mountaineering. “After working many seasons in the Solu-Khumbu it’s good to offer something back to the people of the region,” says long-time Northwest mountaineer Dave Morton.
Mingma Sherpa (pictured opposite with his family) and Passang Sherpa
will take the leadership lessons from their
NOLS Wind River Mountaineering course back to the other porters at the Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal.
Dave, along with 15 other world-class mountaineers, works for the Khumbu Climbing School (KCS) in Phortse, Nepal along the trekking route to Mt. Everest. KCS is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and aims to increase the safety margin of high altitude porters by teaching responsible climbing and leadership skills.
“The school is designed to give Sherpas and Nepalis more technical skills and better judgment,” says Phil Henderson, KCS instructor, NOLS instructor and NOLS Utah River Base manager. “Many of our students have been climbing for years, but didn’t know how to tie a figure-8 or build anchors.” Others have the technical skills, but KCS now strives to give them the leadership skills to voice their opinions on an expedition and pass on skills to other porters.
After two years instructing for the school, Phil realized the huge potential of a relationship between KCS and NOLS, so he approached NOLS with a request for two scholarships for KCS sherpas. The most decisive criteria in choosing who to award those scholarships to was not only the strong desire to continue to work in the mountains of their region, but also the desire to bring back what they would learn at NOLS to teach to their fellow porters at KCS. That is one of the main goals of the climbing school, to transfer the role of instructing from the Westerners who started the program into the hands of the Nepalis and Sherpas who work in the region. “These students are motivated to take every opportunity to learn, and to see their own countrymen running that process, not just Westerners,” says Phil.
NOLS Rocky Mountain is excited to welcome Passang Sherpa and Mingma Sherpa to Lander this summer for a Wind River Mountaineering course. Each in his late-20s and friends since childhood as natives of Phortse, Passang and Mingma have been training with KCS for four years, quickly working their way from students to assistant instructors in that time. Out of a class of between 60-80 students over the past two years at KCS, these two Sherpas, who both have numerous Everest and other high altitude summits under their belts, were chosen for the scholarships based on their experience and commitment to the local climbing school.
“The Khumbu Climbing School gives mountaineering and medical training to the climbers of Nepal for their safety in the mountains,” says Mingma. “It’s beneficial to the sherpas because they learn how to be safe in the mountains with themselves and their friends.”
Of course, safety is never a small thing, but when you put into perspective the huge impact the international mountaineering scene has on the lives of the sherpas’ communities, the consequences get very personal. Both Mingma and Passang express the desire to learn more about team organization and risk management on their NOLS course so they can take those skills back to their fellow porters and climbers. With the help of Phil’s vision of adding these crucial pieces of NOLS curriculum to KCS, sherpas can be even more prudent on expeditions by honing the skills that sometimes prove to be more vital than concrete technical skills: leadership and expedition behavior.
For more information on the Khumbu Climbing School, visit www.alexlowe.org. For the recent all-Sherpa expedition that successfully summitted Everest this season, go to www.supersherpas.com
Did You Know?
Sherpa is an ethnic group of people living in the Khumbu region of the Himalyas. In Tibetan, shar means East; pa is a suffix meaning ‘people’: hence the word sharpa or Sherpa. The more generic term, sherpa (lowercase), has evolved to refer to local people employed as porters or guides for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. However, there are other regional castes other than Sherpa that are employed as porters and guides (www.wikipedia.org).