Porters of Nepal

It’s a burden to carry a pack and gear while ski touring. My guide pack alone weighs about twenty-five pounds and along with my skis, skins and clothes, the weight adds up. But even though backcountry skiing requires some heavy lifting, the slow and quiet human-powered mountain travel has given me rewards beyond description.

Here in Alaska, I’ve seen how today’s increase in mechanized approaches gives a skier a rush without much effort. With today’s technology, a tank of gas will take you quickly to the valleys and mountains of your choice. Occasionally, I am tempted to abandon my commitment to human-powered ascents, but on a recent trip to Nepal I was reminded that my pack doesn’t really weigh that much and the climbs aren’t that far. My dedication was fortified by observing the strength and endurance of the Nepali porters who traverse the high altitude regions of the Himalaya.

Tabitha and I had chosen the 60th anniversary of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Mount Everest to visit this region and hike to Everest Base Camp. While most trekkers fly into the modern Lukla airport, built years after the Hillary/Norgay ascent, we would trek from Jiri as they did. I can’t tell you how many miles we trekked in total, but as the mountain people of Nepal impressed upon us, distance has little meaning—it’s purely about the time it takes to hike from one place to another.

Having never hired a porter to help carry my equipment into the mountains, my mind kept working on what gear to bring for this twenty-one day trek and the weight equation for that gear. Our guide, Hari, would travel light while our porter, Naren, would carry fifty pounds including our stuff, his stuff and ten days of fresh fruit. At home, we had layered our gear meticulously into a large green sea bag assuming the porter and guide would repack it into backpacks as they saw fit.

Not so. At our Kathmandu hotel, Hari and Naren eyed our bag, then they attached a head strap and recycled nylon string here and there to hold the bag on Naren’s back. The bag had shoulder straps and I expressed trepidation that they didn’t seem strong enough to hold (one of the straps broke on the last day of the trip). “Not to worry,” our guide, Hari, said, waving away my concern — they felt satisfied with the modified sea bag. “Okay,” I mumbled as they piled more of their gear in the bag to replace what Tabitha and I would carry in our daypacks. Eventually they created what became the “Tower of Power”, a somewhat lumpy army-green cylinder that towered above Naren’s head. It was a topic of humorous interchanges between guides and porters in nearly every village through which we passed.

Our sea bag notwithstanding, there is little humor in the story of a porter in Nepal. While many cater to trekkers, most of the porters we encountered carried loads to meet the basic needs of their families or villages. Namche Bazaar is a primary trading market along the Everest Base Camp trek. Hundreds of loads are hauled up the trails that interconnect the villages for Namche’s Saturday market. In this region, there is no easy or mechanized way to transport goods—everything is hoisted onto the back and carried by foot. It is a way of life in a country situated on the edge between paradise and survival.

The deeper we hiked into the Himalaya Mountains and the more we encountered porters, the more clearly I could see the intense physical labor needed to support the tourism industry and to survive. Very few people own cars. Vehicles can barely squeeze along the few narrow, poorly maintained roads that thread along the base oof the foothills. Everyone must carry his or her supplies from trailheads, between villages, and to and from market. Food, plumbing parts, tools and even kitchen sinks are carried on backs. One man who appeared to be about my age was carrying five cases of bottled beer. We saw many small children hustling along trails, their bare toes grabbing at sandals as they paced themselves with the experience many of us don’t achieve until long into adulthood. One small child strolled through Lukla, waist high to the people who filled the streets. She carried a forty-pound bag of rice on her back as she walked home from school.

The mountain trails between villages were as rugged as if a drunken donkey had kicked all the stones around just to make walking more difficult. Occasionally we met groups of school children, chatting together like any group of kids one might see at home. “Namaste students,” I would express in choppy Nepalese as they scurried past us, running up the trail to a home that could be hours away.

Tabitha and I chuckled when we saw a pint-sized uniformed school boy jogging down the trail with a western style backpack filled with books. The funny thing was that it wasn’t strapped over his shoulders. Instead, he had one shoulder strap placed around his forehead, just like a Nepalese porter. I imagined that he would prefer to be out portering than stuck in school. Perhaps he was practicing for a day in the not-so-distant future when he would follow in his dad’s footsteps.

Deep in the Khumbu Valley, small farms lay hidden. Here, the importance of the trails to commerce became even more obvious. Always, people of every age carried something. Near Khunde, an elderly woman carried a large bale of hay on her back. I followed, humbled by the size and weight of her load and her quick pace. Occasionally she stooped to toss a few bigger rocks off the trail—she was doing trail maintenance. Soon she slowed and rested on a bench. She smiled largely at us and gestured kindly as we continued along our way.

From my Western perspective, the porter’s life seemed over the top, but for Nepali citizens, it is the norm. Over the past hundreds of years, they have pioneered this mountain life and the addition of trekkers and climbers to the mix is a relatively recent development. The tea houses that lodge the throngs of trekkers are not only serviced by hundreds of porters but also by long caravans of donkeys and yaks, but pack animals are expensive, so the porter industry thrives.

We saw dozens of porters carrying a wide assortment of travel bags for their clients, including doubled-up backpacks (one on the back, one on the front), Patagonia duffel bags and even wheeled airline luggage. We met porters who didn’t appear to give walking a hundred kilometers to the Tibetan border and back much thought Hiking is as much a way of transportation for the Nepalese as driving a car from Valdez to Anchorage is for me.

The porters leave the tea houses before sunrise and walk until sunset. After their work is done and bags have been deposited in the trekkers’ rooms, porters gather around the dung stoves with little regard for clients who might want to share the heat. Heat is a premium. Later, they cluster together in a backroom of the lodge for the night.

One evening, in Lobuche as the sun set, I visited a table under a tarp surrounded by Nepalese porters cheering and hollering over a pile of cash as dice were tossed in the air.

Cell phones are the most recent technology to reach the porters and this has had profound changes in the speed of information passed along the trails. The porters chatted on their phones constantly and played music over MP3 players. The irony was that Tabitha and I had chosen to “disconnect” for our adventure and had turned our phones off.

I was amazed at the size and awkward nature of loads, but I never saw a porter slip or take a spill. The traditional inverted cone-shaped and hand woven basket was favored by many porters and could carry an astonishing amount of goods. The porter would walk slowly carrying a hand-crafted wooden t-shaped cane in one hand. When he needed a break, he would place the stick under the basket, lean back onto it, and rest his weary back and legs.

Along with the t-cane adaptation, the society has constructed a series of resting benches along every trail. The seats of these benches are all built at hip height so that a porter, without removing the pack, might recline back against the pack for a few minutes of relief. We were impressed with the benches, some that were hundreds of years old, made of slate rock and as common as school bus stops in rural America.

As we trekked above tree line at 12,000’, I began to see piles of stones along the trails near villages. Where did they come from, I wondered? Who hauled them to this pile? Some of the heaps were haphazardly stacked while others rivaled the largest perfect Alaskan woodpile. As I observed the comings and goings, I learned that all of this stone was culled from the ground, sorted and then broken to rough but uniform sizes. The rocks were typically extracted by hand as villagers turned over the ground to create farm land where potatoes and vegetables could be planted. Now, yaks graze the fields and in turn, their dung is harvested and is the primary source of fertilizer, heating and cooking fuel throughout the Khumbu Valley.

The stones might be carried from their points of origin to other locations to build a stone fence or they might be carried on the backs of porters to a construction site. At one teahouse I observed a team of stonemasons at work. It took one man an hour to chip a perfect brick. At another construction site, I watched a native carpenter hand saw an eight foot 4X4 lengthwise into two 2x4s for a window frame in new teahouse. This is the cycle of life in small villages.

Perhaps the most humbling encounter was the young porter I saw on the long hike up to Tengboche. I was feeling strong that morning and, hiking particularly fast, I soon found myself alone. Naren, Hari, and Tabitha were behind me. At the top of the hill, I passed through a gate and then stepped onto a plateau where Mount Everest and Lhotse presented themselves for the first time in days. I paused and sat for a few minutes on the grass as trekkers milled about the monastery steps. Gongs sounded for prayers as the Himalaya summits were whirled in sparse clouds.

Wondering where Tabitha, Hari, and Naren were, I walked back to look down the trail. A young boy, no more than fifteen, paced himself up the last steep incline. Strapped onto this forehead and resting on his back were four sheets of metal roofing. Slowly he approached me, not gasping, just breathing lightly. I could see wetness on his brow. He was in his zone and I thought that the steely determination I saw in him might serve him well in his future as a porter. I mused that perhaps one day he would serve as a porter on Everest, much like Tenzing Norgay who had risen from a nearby village to become one of the greatest mountaineers of our time. Or perhaps he was working hard so that one day he could attend school in Katmandu. “Namaste,” I said as I placed my hands together and bowed slightly. “Namaste,” he returned in a quiet tone and disappeared beneath the gates of Tengboche.

I returned to Valdez worn out from what was one of the most difficult treks of my life, my dedication to human power as solid as ever. In Nepal, I was reminded of what it takes to live in the mountains on nature’s terms. The people of the Himalaya work incredibly hard for goals that seem miniscule compared to the extreme, quick-fix pace of a modern world that we take for granted in America. I will never forget the young boy near Tengboche.

By Matt Kinney