Magazine article Geographical

Head Down on Top of the World

Magazine article Geographical

Head Down on Top of the World

Article excerpt

Porters are often the unsung heroes of a Himalayan expedition, hefting vital equipment and making a trekker's dream become reality. Rob Fraser decided to find out what life as a Sherpa really entails and whether a 51-year-old westerner could carry his share of the load

The baking heat made the steep trail all the tougher for carrying the 35 kilograms of other people's possessions which were pressed to my back. My knees were hurting, my shoulders were screaming and a sore spot was developing at the base of my spine. On top of all that, I was sick as a dog.

Dredging the bottom of my psychological barrel marked 'positives', all I could think of was that my situation could have been even worse. I could have been carrying my load using a namlo. Consisting of a broad strap that passes across the forehead, the ends of a namlo are tied to ropes which are lashed around a heavy bag, box or crate weighing at least as much as the maximum surcharged weight allowable by airlines for a single piece of baggage. This simple piece of kit is the traditional way that porters carry loads along Nepal's mountain trails. Even if you give a porter your gear in a modern rucksack, he or she will overtake you on the trail a few hours later carrying your equipment using a namlo.

Around 35,000 trekkers and climbers visit the Everest region each year, the majority of whom are only able to do so thanks to the porters they employ. Porters are literally and metaphorically the backbone of most treks and expeditions to the world's highest mountain and its neighbours. Yet porters' stories go largely untold. What do most visitors really know about them? To find out, I turned my crazy dream of becoming a porter into a reality. And here I was, two days into an initial four-day walk up to the village of Lukla, where I would be joining a two-week commercial trek from the settlement's precarious airstrip to the Base Camp of Everest.

No matter how I adjusted my load it always worked its way to the niggle-point at the base of my spine to rub away my skin like an eager pot washer scouring a pan. This injury became the focus of my frayed mind: all the enjoyment of what I was trying to do, if any could be found, was steadily sucked away. I wondered just how my dream had turned into a nightmare, and doubted my ability to cope with the situation I now found myself In.

At the outset of the trek, my porter colleagues didn't know what to make of me. One porter described me as 'a strange tourist who wanted to carry big bags'. But as the days rolled on, and I gradually adapted to my role and found my own rhythm, the porters began to warm to me. I walked alongside them, slept in the same lodges, and ate what they ate. Despite having walked the route to Everest 17 times as a trek leader, this was the first time I had seen the trail from the perspective of a porter. Bent double, I stared at the path a few paces ahead of me all day long. I wasn't trying to pretend I was a porter. Rather, I took on the role to cast a light on these apparently tough and durable people. I wanted to better understand their working conditions and what motivates them.

One young porter 1 spoke to, a former monk called Pasang Lama, was hoping to shine in his new role by climbing the guiding ladder to perhaps reach the stage of leading groups. 'I carry a load all day. We are Nepalese and that's how it is. But If we don't carry then we don't get up there,' Pasang said, pointing towards the snowcapped peaks that towered above the valley we were in. 'If I have time to speak with the companies then I may rise [through the ranks] and get a better job.'

When I met him, Pasang's daily wage (along with most of the other porters 1 spoke to) was 1,000 Nepalese rupees (about 6.30 [pounds sterling]). However, accommodation and food--consisting of dal bhat, a mound of rice with curried vegetables and lentil soup--costs Pasang up to 350 rupees (2.20 [pounds sterling]) each day, reducing the money he would take home at the end of this particular trek to under 10,000 rupees (less than 60 [pounds sterling]). …

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