I recently watched an amazing film from the Kendal Mountain Film Festival about Nepal trekking. But it wasn’t about western trekkers.
Rob Fraser’s i Porter documents his experience on a two-week trek in Nepal’s Khumbu region, working as a porter.
That’s right, he carried a 35 kilogram load everyday and shared the trail with his fellow porters, learning about their lives. His interviews and portraits of the porters are illuminating and moving.
This film made me want to introduce you to someone. This is Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa and he walked with us on our Gokyo Valley trek in Nepal a few years ago.
I hold his smiling young face in my heart and hope he is realising his dreams of learning English in Kathmandu and becoming a mountain guide in Nepal.
We arranged our Nepal trekking experience independently, simply buying flights to Lukla from Kathmandu. It was part of a six-month Asia adventure and we had time and flexibility.
However, most visitors to Nepal will arrange their trip through a tour operator because they have limited time and perhaps limited confidence when it comes to travel in developing countries.
We had already done the 10-day Annapurna Sanctuary Base Camp trek and had hired a guide for a few days – for the cultural interaction rather than for having someone to carry our bags or show us the way.
Our next Nepal trekking challenge was bigger – the Gokyo Valley was our target – which involves over two weeks of hiking and more time at altitude so I wanted to reduce the weight I was carrying by hiring a porter.
Waiting at Kathmandu airport we heard an announcement that our flight to Lukla had been cancelled. Fortunately they managed to squeeze us on a freight flight. There were literally only a handful of seats in the plane, with the rest being filled with supplies for Everest Base Camp climbing expeditions. They thought it necessary to put a stewardess on the flight for us – I’m not sure why!
Our fellow passengers were a couple of guides and a cook, heading to work at EBC. The cook said his son was looking for porter work and would we be interested in hiring him? Lhakpa was there to meet us Lukla Airport and so our small trekking team was born.
Michael and I carried daypacks with water, snacks and clothing and Lhakpa carried our 17kg rucksack with our sleeping bags, first aid kit, down jackets and more warm clothing. We made sure he had a good place to stay every night in the guest houses and gave him every spare bit of clothing and equipment when we sadly said goodbye.
The truth about porters in Nepal
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and since the 2015 earthquake has been struggling to rebuild an already subsistence economy. Charities like Porters Progress and the Himalayan Trust UK, who had spent decades building schools and medical clinics to improve the lot of the Khumbu population, saw everything they had built flattened over night.
I think a lot of people think Nepali porters are some sort of super human, able to carry enormous loads easily and happy to work for paltry wages.
But the porters you see carrying heavy loads in the long Everest Base Camp luggage trains are often lowland poeple who have come here to work. They are just as susceptible to altitude sickness as you or I. They are often paid very poorly and often have to limit their intake of food to ensure they are able to take some of their wages home to support their families.
In Namche Bazaar we regularly saw porters carrying incredible loads – not just trekker and climber gear but equipment and even furniture for guest houses and hotels.
Why do they do it? In the hope of a better life for their children of course. They don’t want their children to have to suffer such grinding work.
Ethical trekking guidelines
So what can you do to make sure your once-in-a-lifetime Nepal trekking adventure does good and not harm to the country and its people?
Support charities like Porters Progress UK and the Himalayan Trust UK, who are doing vital work improving the lives of Nepali porters and their families, which at the moment of course involves a lot of work rebuilding schools and porter shelters following the destruction of the 2015 earthquake.
During your trek you might like to visit some of the schools and clinics built by the above charities, such as in Khumjung Village.
If you have clothing or other trekking gear that is unwanted at the end of your trek there is a place in Kathmandu where you can donate this to Nepal porters.
Most importantly, if you are booking your trekking trip through a tour operator make sure you ask the company about how they look after the porters they employ. Do they follow the International Porter Protection Group’s list of guidelines for ethical trekking in Nepal? These cover important issues like insurance, equipment, healthcare, shelter and loading.
Also ask whether they have a policy in place on equipment and health care for porters? How do they monitor porters’ welfare on the ground? An ethical tour operator may even include questions about the treatment of porters in their client feedback questionnaire at the end of the trek.
Finally, keep an eye out for porters on your trek. Get to know your porters and protest loudly if you see any mistreatment.
Follow in Sir Edmund Hillary’s footsteps
In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Mt Everest and Hillary was/is one of the most famous New Zealanders in the world. You might not ever follow in his footsteps up the tallest mountain in the world but you can emulate him in other ways, through your compassion and humanity.
Hillary wrote this about his tremendous achievement:
“Reaching the summit of a mountain gives great satisfaction, but nothing for me has been more rewarding in life than the result of our climb on Everest, when we have devoted ourselves to the welfare of our Sherpa friends.”
He spent the next 50 years working to improve the lives of the people of the Khumbu. So go to Nepal and have an amazing experience but think of Sir Ed and Lhakpa and make sure your Nepal trek builds the country up rather than tearing it down.
By Natasha von Geldern
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