The story of climbers at Everest wanting to give back to the people living in the Himalayan foothills of the world’s tallest peak is as old as the stories of climbers visiting the top of Everest itself. Since Sir Edmund Hillary’s insistence for decades that he had reached the summit simultaneously with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa companion — tying a native with a New Zealander for being the first on the roof of the world — and going on to campaign for schools and health clinics throughout Nepal, climbers who visit that region have tried to give back to the people who call it home.
It was in that spirit that 10 years ago Conrad Anker and Jenni Lowe-Anker created the Khumbu Climbing Center to educate Sherpas in mountaineering skills that could save their lives as they try to make a living guiding Westerners up the world’s boldest summits.
“Most of the fatalities that happen to Westerners are exhaustion and related to the participant not having the strength to pull that off, and they just sort of expire slowly. But the Sherpa deaths are more related to making mistakes,” Anker says. “These are accidents that shouldn’t happen because it’s not, it’s preventable, you can make sure that you have the right equipment and that you’re properly protected. So taking that risk out is probably one of the key things we want to do.”
Since their first class in 2004, they’ve taught more than 700 students the basic skills of mountain travel, including inspecting equipment, tying knots, belaying, rope management and wilderness first aid. Over the years, their curriculum has added material centered on customer experience like English lessons and knowledge of local flora and fauna to enrich the client’s experience when they hire a guide who has graduated from the KCC.
On April 20, they’re hosting a gathering at Movement Climbing to fundraise for the latest step in expanding the programs available to Sherpas in Nepal — building a community center that will house their class each January and be available as a gathering place and training ground over the rest of the year.
Each winter, during the off-season for climbing at Everest, professional athletes, including some of Anker’s teammates at North Face, volunteer their time and pay their own airfare to travel to Phortse, a town in a corner of Nepal selected for plentiful ice climbs in varied grades of difficulty, ripe territory for learning skills like rope management and glacial travel. Although Sherpas spend more time on the mountain than Westerners and push the route toward the summit, hanging fixed lines that will help Western clients to the top and hauling extra gear like cylinders of oxygen, they often don’t have basic training. They’ve started as porters at base camp and worked their way up, but didn’t necessarily get mountaineering courses along the way.
“When we started teaching our classes 10 years ago, we had a number of students who had summited Everest but they didn’t know how to tie a figure eight knot, which is the simplest knot in climbing terms,” Lowe-Anker says. “So we’ve come a really long ways from that.”
“Things have gotten safer on the mountain, certainly, and if you talk to the guides that work up there in the ’70s and ’80s, the climbers, it was just quite a bit different,” Anker says. “They never really had technical equipment, they didn’t really want to learn to be technical climbers. They were just sort of a hard living bunch of guys that just carried the load and did that and then they were done. Now, there’s this desire to become as current as a Western climber, so, wearing helmets in the ice fall, having proper crevasse rescue equipment and knowing how to use it, wearing the latest in boots and clothing — things like that that really make a difference for them.”
Just in the last few years, he says, helmets have gone from being geeky to a sign of legitimacy. And while it seems like things have gotten a little safer, Anker says, training and certification through the KCC or the UIGM also helped to make the business model for Sherpas more sustainable.
“Probably the greatest benefit to this is it gives the Sherpas a sense of self-confidence and ability to ask what they’re worth from their clients,” Anker says.
The classes are also geared to cultivate a sense of fun — encourage safe climbing in a community-based program, but also build the sense of passion for mountaineering that can fuel a care for the work that surpasses the level that might be given by someone who comes into climbing with an idea of punching a time clock, logging the hours to make a living.
“If you like climbing and you’re avocationally motivated to do it, you’re going to be a better climber,” Anker says. “Jenni and I both feel strongly that by having people that want to climb and want to be part of it, they will become better climbers because of it.”
The list of previous Khumbu Climbing Center volunteer instructors — bringing that sense of passion and play in the mountains to the classes along with their skills and experience — reads like a who’s who of mountaineering with names like Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, Barry Bishop, who was on the first American ascent team to Everest, and Peter Athans, a filmmaker and mountaineer who has summited Everest seven times.
But at this point, there are enough returning graduates of the school that the Nepali instructors take the lead.
“It’s becoming the way we envisioned — sustainable with regards to them taking the reins,” Lowe- Anker says. It’s that sustainable component that sets the program apart, says David Burger, a Boulder-based mountaineer, former Outward Bound instructor and president of The Burger Concinnity Group, which provides executive coaching and alpine guiding services. Burger had climbed with Athans and Alex Lowe — The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, created in the memory of a mountaineer who was a former partner to both Conrad and Burger, funds the Khumbu Climbing Center.
“There are so many organizations and foundations that go over places like Nepal and they give them stuff, and [the Sherpa are] still appreciative, and then the Westerners go away and they don’t know what to do with it,” says Burger, who has gone to teach with the KCC four times. “I think it was the Swiss who gave Himalayan Rescue Service a winter generator to power a little clinic up high in a 14,000-foot village, and it was great for three years and then it broke — no spare parts and no knowledge or training how to fix it, so it sits there like a statue. And you see that all over, not just Nepal, of course, any developing nation you see that. The Khumbu Climbing Center, they got in and they really focused on, what does this culture need and how would they learn that and how can they sustain that? So that’s kind of a comparative distinctiveness because there are a lot of foundations that are giving stuff away, and it’s very noble. It just doesn’t last.”
Anker has also organized donations of climbing gear that’s put ice climbing tools and crampons in the hands of Sherpas who couldn’t otherwise have afforded so much as a carabiner, he adds, but the school taps into the culture and learns from the mistakes and responds to the way the culture works.
“You spend that kind of time, not just there but all around the mountains of the world, and mountain people have a great place in one’s heart, and so especially the Sherpa because they’re so service-oriented,” Burger says. “And really, the crux of the school is twofold in my mind: a tribute to Alex, who loved it there and wanted to give back so it’s a very obvious thing to create something that’s sustainable that gives back, and also for the Sherpa people who are so generous and giving — to a fault and that fault specifically is they die.”
He had a student who had been to the top of Everest eight times but only knew how to tie one knot. But the students show up open, willing and appreciative of the chance to learn those skills.
“The Khumbu Climbing Center, they got in and they’re really focused on, what does this culture need and how would they learn that and how can they sustain that?” Burger says.
That’s carried through in the creation of the center, which became a community center in addition to a classroom in response to recognizing that a sense of community and gathering spaces are the important components of the Sherpa culture. That lesson came from an effort to replace a spring in the center of Phortse with water filters, saving villagers the trip to the spring. The villagers were reluctant to abandon use of the spring, though, because it served as a gathering point for the community.
“That was really a paradigm shift for us to say, ‘Oh, we can’t build the climbing school building, this has to be a community center because that’s what they’re doing,’” Burger says. So the water purification system will be moved into the community center. “Simple things like that make it much more sustainable — and part of that is enough consciousness to be calm and slow down and observe what these people really want or need. … It’s show up, observe, make mistakes, learn from them, change, get back in the game, learn some more. Sometimes I think for our staff it’s a little frustrating because we’re still in that get-it-fixed-quick [mode] and it’s an ongoing, organic process. It’s not going to just happen overnight.”
The center they’re building, which is being constructed on land donated by local families and was designed by Montana State University’s School of Architecture, will house their equipment room, an indoor climbing facility, gear storage and a library, even showers tourists can pay to use. The gathering space can house community events like weddings, a movie screening or a cultural night with music and performances, Lowe-Anker says.
“The status of the building right now is we need to raise some money to keep it going,” says Tim Harrington, a Boulder-based general contractor and owner of Harrington Stanko Construction. Harrington turned a longstanding interest in the region around Everest into the motivation to spend three weeks in Phortse working on the construction of the building last fall after his daughter, Emily Harrington, a professional athlete on the North Face team, climbed Everest with Anker and came back talking about how wonderful the people and the Khumbu Valley were.
Harrington and his team, Zach Roth, Ryan Arment and Mike Auldridge, have plans to return next fall to install the roof tresses and put up the windows — if the local masons can raise the walls to the roof level before they return, which will require raising funds to keep paying those masons to work, he says.
If there’s a delay, it wouldn’t be the first time.
In Phortse, everything is brought in by yaks or porters, and electrical power is “not great,” Harrington says. The trip was delayed a full year as they struggled to get all the materials together.
“We did a lot of problem solving, which is actually kind of fun,” he says. “You just can’t go down McGuckins or Home Depot and get something that you need. It has to be portered up there. So there’s a lot of challenges to that. … You wait. You wait for things to get up there.”
They’ve already looked into getting solar-powered battery packs for charging batteries on the next trip so that the power drills they take along can last as long as they do — which, on this last trip, was 8:30 in the morning until dark for 18 days in a row with one afternoon off to trek up to a monastery.
“Its just vast, rugged peaks everywhere you look, it’s just this beautiful world up there that’s still primitive, but yet comfortable,” Harrington says.
“Obviously in the U.S., we have a disproportionate amount of material wealth and this is one way of moving it from one continent to the other,” Anker says. “If anyone has trekked in Nepal or climbed in Nepal it’s a great way to give something back to the people that are over there.”
The Khumbu Climbing Center and Movement Party & Fundraiser starts with a tail gate party at 5 p.m. (weather permitting) on April 20 at Movement Climbing Fitness, 2845 Valmont Road, Boulder. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show, which will include presentations by Conrad Anker, Emily Harrington and the Khumbu Climbing Center construction crew, begins at 8 p.m. There will also be a silent auction and opportunities to meet with other North Face athletes.
Tickets are $10 and may be bought at the door or at Movement in advance of the event. More information on the project can be found at www.alexlowe.org.