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Head down on top of the world: Life as a Himalayan Sherpa

  • Written by  Rob Fraser
  • Published in Explorers
Rob carrying his porter load standing in front of Ama Dablam Rob carrying his porter load standing in front of Ama Dablam Rob Fraser
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.

poterA porter using the namlo headstrap (Image: Rob Fraser)

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.

A portrait of the porter

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 I 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 snow-capped 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.’

cardsPorters playing cards in a lodge at Dingboche (Image: Rob Fraser)

When I met him, Pasang’s daily wage (along with most of the other porters I spoke to) was 1,000 Nepalese rupees (about £6.30). 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) each day, reducing the money he would take home at the end of this particular trek to under 10,000 rupees (less than £60).

Some porters earn even less. With a characteristic smile, 44-year-old Pasang Noru Sherpa told me that he was only earning 750 rupees (around £4.75) a day. ‘I have to control my eating. If I buy morning and evening meals then 750 rupees might not be enough, so I buy cheap food in the morning.’

Pasang Noru’s thoughts were echoed by many porters who told me they only ate one meal a day so that they could take more money home to their families. I found that I could simply not survive on a single daily meal. In the end, I supplemented my evening meal with extra food. Even so, I lost eight kilograms in fewer than three weeks. It was obvious why many of the porters around me were stick-thin.

The Khumbu is one of only a few areas in Nepal where porters pay for their own food. (In many trekking regions, especially the more remote ones, porters are provided with food by the cook crew that accompanies each trek.) When trekking companies operating in the Khumbu raise the porters’ daily wage, the porter lodges increase their charges for food and accommodation.

porter3Every porter Rob met and photographed was given a Fuji Instax print by way of thanks (Image: Rob Fraser)

Portering Provisions

The average porter lodge is far more rudimentary than the typical trekker lodge. The latter often boasts heated dining rooms, individual bedrooms, and indoor toilets. The porter lodge normally consists of one large room that is used by the porters to socialise in during the daytime and sleep in at night, plus a second kitchen-cum–dining room. The majority of porter lodges have a mud-packed floor. The bed platform is constructed from piled rocks in the older buildings, and more comfortable (and warmer) plywood in the newer buildings.

As a professional photographer, I was keen to create a series of portraits of the porters with my large format camera. I wanted to produce images that were reminiscent of the photographs of porters – employed by the British expeditions to the Himalayas during the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s – that I had seen in the archives at the Royal Geographical Society. Then, as now, porters had carried strikingly large loads using namlos.

However, I knew that the namlo was not a good idea for me, so I had a venerable Karrimor Jaguar rucksack, with its generously padded waist belt and shoulder straps, adapted for the task by seamstress maestro Vera Caffie, who works for Millican (a Keswick-based producer of travel luggage). Vera removed the Jaguar’s front panel and added four compression straps to hold two client kit bags in place. The system worked brilliantly. I carried all my personal possessions – which amounted to five kilograms – in addition to my porter load using the Jaguar–Millican hybrid rucksack. Ironically, I had to hire a porter to carry my 22 kilograms of camera bodies, lenses, film, batteries and tripod.

nepaliportersAmit Kulung at Tengboche; Bim Badhur Tamang, Eka Badhu Rai and Kaji Sherpa at Gorak Shep; husband and wife porters, Pasang Foma Sherpa and Bim Tamang (Images: Rob Fraser)

PORTERING PARTNERS

There was only one female porter in my crew. Pasang Doma Sherpa had an infectious laugh that always helped to lighten my load. Pasang Doma told me that working alongside her husband, Bim, helps as he usually takes some of her load. ‘Now it is quite difficult to get the money to educate children. That’s why I work as a porter,’ she explained. ‘My working brings in some money but it is difficult to save. If it’s possible then I will help with their education. I want them to be better than me and my husband. I don’t want my four children to work as porters.’

Pasang and Bim undertake two treks during each of the main trekking seasons in the pre-monsoon (spring) and post-monsoon (autumn). These are the dry periods of the year when there is little work to do on their farm in the lowlands. Along with their peers, Pasang and Bim either work with trekking groups or carry the rice, beer, crisps, mattresses and even television sets ordered by the hotels, teahouses and lodges that line the route to Everest.

The huge porter workforce that services the Everest region includes some very young individuals. ‘I started working as a porter when I was ten,’ Danu Sherpa told me. Danu lives in the village of Khari Kola, which is a two-day walk below Lukla. Because his father died when he was young, Danu left school and stepped up to become the man of the house. Now 40 years of age, Danu thinks he will work for another 20 years. He wants his four girls to enjoy a good education.

After speaking to Danu, and experiencing what it is like to be a Nepalese porter in the foothills of Everest, any sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of the 18 days was dampened when I reminded myself that I only worked on one trek. And I had not done it to feed, clothe, house or educate my family.

Rob Fraser is a professional photographer who has led more than 60 treks to Nepal and other mountainous countries.  www.robfraser-photographer.co.uk. He will be giving a talk on his experiences as a Nepali porter at Kendal College of Media and Arts on Thursday 17 March

HELPING PORTERS TO HELP YOU

Not one of the porters I spoke to admitted to ever having a problem in the mountains. I mentioned this fact to Dr Edith Kortekaas, a volunteer doctor at the Himalayan Rescue Association health post in the hamlet of Pheriche, a two-day hike from Everest Base Camp.

‘We do see porters with altitude problems,’ Edith explained. ‘They are often pressed to go high and fast with big loads, which makes them more susceptible to altitude sickness. But they are often reluctant to admit that they are sick. Doing so might mean they lose their job. So when they come in sick they have usually been ill for a few days’. The clinic usually treats between 360 and 420 Nepalese nationals during each trekking season, many of whom are porters.

I asked Edith what advice she gives to visitors planning to trek with porters. ‘Make sure that the porters have good equipment. And ensure they get medical treatment if they need it, just like you would want to be treated yourself.’

Edith’s words drove the point home to me that trekkers do have a responsibility towards their porters, even if they are on a commercial trek. Many trekkers assume that the welfare of their porters is the concern of the western trek leader, or the Nepalese sirdar (head sherpa), or the owner of the trekking business. Not so: there are steps you can take to help ensure the wellbeing of your porters and the International Porter Protection Group (www.ippg.net) has laid down guidelines that trekkers can refer to before choosing a trekking company.

 

TEN OF THE BEST

Should you ever find yourself with a longing to lug heavy packs belonging to others up the sides of ridiculously tall mountains, be sure to go well prepared. Rob Fraser selects the vital bits of kit you can’t do without when portering (or just exploring), including protective clothing, bags that last a lifetime and the right kinds of trousers...

1. Hiking boots
Meindl Softline Light GTX
£165/590 grams
I’ve worn Meindl footwear for years. The Softline, with its leather and mesh upper, offers the perfect balance between sturdy and supportive, while also being lightweight. The Vibram Multigrip 2 sole did a great job of helping me carry my porter’s load on difficult terrain.

2. Mid-layer Icebreaker
Quantum Vest
£120/340grams
Perfect for when it starts getting chilly, the Quantum is 98 per cent merino wool with a touch of Lycra, and with its handy chest pocket, it’s stylish enough to wear when you arrive back in Kathmandu at the end of your trek.

3. Daysack
Millican Smith roll pack
£95/850 grams
These long-lasting sacks are the kind of bags that you pass on to your children after you’ve hung up your travel boots.

4. Microphone
Zoom H2n
£110/130 grams (without batteries)
I used this to record interviews and to keep an audio diary of my frequent lows and occasional highs. Simple to use, the H2n captured broadcast-quality sound that I subsequently used in a film I made of my experiences.

5. Film
Ilford FP4 sheet film
£38/175 grams (for 25 sheets)
Despite shooting most of my work in digital formats, I still love using film. I shot portraits of the porters using FP4 and my subjects remained happy and relaxed when standing in front of such a large camera.

6. Camera
Nikon D800E
£2900/1 kilogram (body only)
I bought the predecessor, the D800, a couple of years ago to upgrade an old Nikon D2X. My D800 has been on more than a dozen trips in some fairly harsh conditions. Its sensor captures an incredible 36.3 megapixels and it also shoots high definition video.

7. Trekking pole
Leki Softlite
£90/548 grams (pair)
I only threw a walking pole into my bag at the last minute as I don’t usually use one. It turned out to be a brilliant decision as it helped me up and down the steep trails. Without it, my knees would have suffered. It also acted as a metronome to help me keep a steady pace.

8. Sunglasses
Julbo Montebianco
£49/30 grams
As a photographer, I’m particularly mindful of my eyes. I always wear sunglasses in the mountains, even when it’s cloudy. The Montebiancos are so comfortable and lightweight, I hardly knew they were on my face. The lenses offer sufficient protection for use in the fierce glare of snow and sun.

9. Instant camera
Fuji Instax 210
£60/610 grams (without batteries/film)
I used this to make an instant image of every porter that I photographed on my large format film camera. All the porters were handed prints of themselves as a thank you for giving their time to me. (A pack of 20 prints costs about £15).

10. Face protection
Buff
£15/35 grams
A Buff is great for keeping the dust out of your mouth at lower altitudes, and helps ward off cold air at higher elevations. I also wore my Afgan Graphite Buff as a hat to fend off harsh sunlight when I lost not one but two baseball caps on the trek to Everest (being a porter addled my brain a bit).

This was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical.

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