CISM Team in Nepal: What Does it take to Build a Climbing Center?

by Mike Pajunas

The Khumbu region of Nepal is well known as the location of many beautiful Himalayan mountains: Ama Dablam, Mt. Everest and Lhotse to name a few. The Sherpa people, native to the Khumbu Region have been risking their lives for many years working for high altitude expeditions as guides and porters. Death in the Himalayas and especially Mt. Everest is a too common occurrence, particularly for the Sherpa men who do the dangerous icefall routing up the Khumbu Icefall.

 Mike with Lhakpa Dorji, Lodge Owner.
Photo: Marina Wynton
The idea for the Khumbu Climbing Center was conceived in 2003 by Jennie Lowe Anker and her husband Conrad Anker, a well known mountain climber. The Ankers, founders of The Alex Lowe Charitable Fund (ALCF), wanted to create the climbing school in the village of Phortse as more Sherpa wanted to work on Mt.Everest, but needed mountaineering training to do it safely. A two week course was set up using Western climbers to teach climbing skills, mountain safety, rescue and English language. The school has been very successful, more than 1000 students, men and women, have attended the course.

In 2007 the KCC Board began work on design of a building for the climbing school so it could operate year round. The building would have indoor and outdoor climbing walls, meeting space for the school and community, office, library, kitchen, and showers.

Two families who own lodges in Phortse donated the land for the building. Over three years a group of graduate architecture students at Montana State University under the instruction of Professor Mike Everts went through a design process considering siting, design aspects and cultural considerations. Priorities were to create the first earthquake resistant structure in the Khumbu and to use a passive solar system. Gabion wire cages would be used to strengthen dry stack stone walls. Local building materials would be quarried stone from the village hillside. In 2009 the first team of MSU graduate students went to Phortse to begin construction. The team was lead by architect, Dean Soderberg, who also worked on the design as a grad student. Dean has gone back each fall season since to oversee construction. Dean has given a year and a half of his time to building the KCC over the last 6 years. Tim Harrington, a building contractor from Boulder, CO, is the spring season construction leader.

Phortse. Photo: Marina Wynton
The Mazamas became involved in 2013 when Conrad Anker visited Portland and spoke at the annual Porltand Alpine Fest. Mazamas held a fundraising event for the KCC and successfully raised money for the project. In April 2014 an avalanche struck a group of Sherpa establishing the route through the Khumbu Icefall and 16 Sherpa were killed. The Mazamas Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team was asked by the Ankers to provide grief support to the families of the killed workers. The KCC could also use more construction help as the building was still only about 30 percent complete. I was able to accompany the CISM team to Nepal with the help of Jennie Lowe Anker and the ALCF. 

Departing Oct. 25, 2014, it took two long days to get to Katmandu. It took three days for me to get there with passport problems. But that’s another story. It was a great adventure, made better as we went to help the Nepali people in ways we each could. There is a wonderful feeling in the beginning of a journey, the excitement of the unknown and living in the moment. 

The entrance to the Khumbu is a narrow mountainous gateway accessible by a small prop plane. Symbolically a small prop plane fights its way for more elevation to gain access to a high mountain pass before fast moving clouds close the gateway in. Lukla Airport at an elevation of 8,500 feet is (roll of the dice) a tilted landing strip perched on a high mountain side. A rock wall located at the end of the landing strip forces planes to break hard and turn right quickly. Very exciting!

Yak Train. Photo: Marina Wynton.
The trek into the Humbug began from Lukla. The trek is a blur of time and a moment clear as the mountain high sky. Walking down stone paths, stairs up and down, stone houses made by hand, everything made by hand, many trekkers from many countries: German, French, Japanese, American, and Canadian. Yak trains of goods heading up valley. Porters carrying everything ... six sheets of plywood, mattresses 7 feet high, a kitchen counter and sink (one load), a man-sized bundle of bamboo shoots for dinner, cases of beer and boxes of noodles, the trail is the main highway for all people and goods traveling the Khumbu. This trekking trail follows the beautiful Duh Kosi River (translated it means “milky river”) through forests of Himalayan pine, hemlock, beech and rhododendron. Village tea houses, lodges and homes nestle closely to the trail, made of hand quarried basalt; dry stacked with corrugated metal roofs and brightly painted wood frame windows. A door or curtain is often open with children peaking out shyly. Chickens and dogs freely roam the stone path. Suspension bridges provide some excitement as the trail eventually leaves the river. Climbing breathlessly out of the river valley for 2,700 feet to Namche Bazaar, the largest village in the Khumbu, at an elevation of 11, 300 feet The trekking day is very long and strenuous: seven miles up in seven hours over very rugged terrain. Everyone is very tired. 
Mike heading to Namche.

Namche at night reminds me of Christmas. This beautiful village is nestled in a hillside high above a dark forested valley. The glacier-covered mountain Kongle Ri 20,000 feet shines in the background under the moonlight sky. The lights of lodges twinkle in the crisp, clean, cold mountain air: it’s stunningly beautifully. It’s a gift to be here.

We stay at The Panorama Lodge. Sherep Jangbu and Lhapka Sherpa, the lodge owners, greet us as we drop our packs and enter the tea house. It is an amazing feeling to be here and to be expected as guests. As soon as we are seated on benches along the windows overlooking the village, large thermoses of tea are brought out. I find on this trip that you hardly need water as you have so many cups of tea with lunch and dinner. It is a pleasure to hike then sit in a tea house, relax with tea and begin again. I believe Marina my wife, said it well when she mentioned a meditative walking, like a daily practice and a necessity, as this is how you travel here. So embrace the walk and be happy in the morning sunshine. Everyone takes a day off from the trek in Namche to rest up and acclimatize. We wander the bazaar, the shops, visit the local monastery and the park devoted to natural history and Tensing Norgay.

The next day I departed for Phortse with a porter. The CISM team is traveling in a different direction, so I am on my own now. The trail above Namche traverses a broad hillside where you begin to feel the size of nature here. The pine trees are stunted and soon disappear. Azaleas and grass cover the sub alpine ground on the way to Mong La at 13,000 feet. This small village pass (La means pass) is very scenic, overlooking the Duh Koshi River thousands of feet below and the peaks of 20,700 foot Thamserku and 20,857 foot Kantega 20,857 rising above. Turn the corner at this pass and drop down through spectacular giant fir trees and into a rhododendron forest and all the way down to a gorgeous river valley. Then it’s back up the hillside through beech forests and you pop out of the woods to be greeted by stacks on mani stones and a white stupa. This is Phortse. Blue pheasants and crows hop along in the tree tops and yaks graze at the edge of the trail on the steep hillside. 
Road to Namch - Mani Stones & Prayer

The lower end of the village just above the fields is where the two lodges, the Namaste and Phortse Guest house are located. The KCC building is between the lodges on land given by the owners of both lodges.

I entered the tea house at Namaste Lodge and was met by Lhakpa Dorji, the gracious lodge owner and former Mt. Everest guide and his wife Nawang. I was welcomed with tea by his daughter, Fu Doma, and shown a sunny, warm room to stash my gear. 

Khumbu Climbing Center Construction.
After settling in at the lodge I found Dean working on site. Dean gave me the tour of the building in construction: including gabion wrapped rock footings; an immense back wall of the building standing about 18 foot high and 3 feet thick for the first 8 feet in height. Wooden posts support steel floor joists for the second floor. On the second floor there will be library and class room space. There is an engineered truss connecting the front and back walls that will shorten the roof span. This is critical as available steel must be considered for length and weight when building by hand. The building is about 30 percent complete. Floors, roof, exterior walls, windows are yet to be built. The interior walls will have foam insulation board with a plywood finish panel. One-eighth or one-quarter inch plywood is typical wall finish material for teahouses or lodge rooms in the Khumbu. Since there will be no stud wall framing against the gabion walls the plywood finish material will be three-quarter inch plywood. How the plywood will attach to the gabion walls is yet to be determined. The floor material on the ground floor will be cement pavers (made in Katmandu and transported by plane and yak) or slate. Once all houses in the Khumbu had slate roofs. Slowly slate is being replaced by corrugated steel painted red or green. Slate is locally quarried and a historic building material, so I think slate is the right choice for flooring of the KCC. Sand and gravel are sifted from the river below the village and hand carried up to the site. The flooring concrete pavers or slate flooring will be dry set with sand. Cement mortar is very expensive ($90) for an 80 pound bag
and would be transported by plane and yak from Katmandu, adding to the cost. The building has
gabion wire cages filled with rocks for exterior walls since cement for dry stacking is very costly and stone without cement would not withstand earthquake movement. Gabion wire cages take the place of cement. The traditional stone building method in the Khumbu is mortar joints or tight fitting perfectly chiseled granite blocks for strength and concrete pillars for corners in multi-story buildings. This type of construction for the KCC was ruled out as too expensive.
We toured the village quarry located on an adjacent hillside behind a beech forest. It was quiet as the
Khumbu Climbing Center Construction.
stone masons hadn’t arrived yet and the quarry had not opened yet for the season. The quarried rock is split by pounding sharpened and case-hardened pipe into buried boulders, creating a series of holes until something gives way.

For the next seven days Dean and I worked on finalizing wall elevations, erecting steel wall supports and re-building the top of a 35 foot long gabion wall for the final cement cap. The Nepali stone masons arrived part way through the week and began chipping quarried rock into useable building blocks. Each day the workers case-hardened their tools with a small wood coal fire and a bellows. Now and then I would look up at the mountains around Phortse while I was working, pause and think wow, I’m in Nepal!

We began each day with a family style breakfast made by Fu Dome and Nawang. Omelets, french toast, Sherpa toast with cherry jam from China. A note from my journal says “honey is good, butter is sparse, jam is from China.” One morning we had warm goat milk with a grain. I asked Dean, “what’s this?” He said, “cornflakes.” He got me there. 
Khumbu Climbing Center Construction.

I went for early morning walks around the village as the sun came up to experience the ‘being there’ moments. The frosted grass, the silence, the ancient stupas of the lower fields and the monastery always on the highest sacred ground. I didn’t get to experience the Everest Trek like so many we met on the trail. But for me, this time in Phortse was very special since I was here to begin each day, see the sun rise, the smoke rising from the houses at dawn, to encounter the one-horned bull (and stand aside!) and to be with the friendly Sherpa people who make their lives here. I felt very at home in Phortse. 

Marina and her guide Karki arrived in Phortse several days later. The CISM team had been trekking from village to village visiting with families. The other members of the team had already begun the return trek. I was very happy to see my wife’s smiling face again in this marvelous place. While I worked, Marina had time to wander the village and fields in the sunshine, visit the local monastery and the children’s library, read, do our laundry (in a big bowl of hot water outside) and rest up for the return trek. 

Khumbu Climbing Center Construction.
At the Namaste Lodge, Lhapka and Nawang work very hard to feed everyone and make sure we are comfortable. The walls of the dining room are solid with family photos, photos of Lhakpa and Nawang as a young couple with their children and photos of Lhakpa as an Everest guide. Lhapka has a great, hearty laugh and a big smile for everyone. At night we sit on benches at tables, drinking tea, beer, and having dinner. Dinner may be Sherpa Stew, Dal Bhat, fried macaroni, chicken chow mein. The room is filled with German and Norwegian trekkers, Nepali porters, village neighbors and us. 

We pass the time playing a new card game called Kings Corner and wait for the yak dung-fired wood stove to heat the room. But the night is longer than the day and we were usually very tired after a long day of construction and would go to bed early. Rooms are very small and very cold at night as the rooms are uninsulated and unheated. Before entering the room, one quickly uses the bathroom and get into the sleeping bag pronto to read a while with a headlamp. I didn’t have enough warm clothes to stay outside for very long at night and often a cloud layer or fog would move in to obstruct the night sky.

It was a great experience to go to a place where Shangri-la could be found. Nepal is an amazing place with wonderful, gracious people. I’m hoping to return in the fall, meet up with Dean and get back to work continuing the construction of the KCC. 

Thank you!

The CISM Committee and the Mazamas would like to thank the many wonderful sponsors and donors that help make this trip possible. Thanks go to:
  • Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation
  • Lhakpa Gelu Foundation
  • CAMP
  • Cassin
  • Mountain Hardwear
  • Base Camp Brewing Company
  • Columbia Sportswear
  • The Mountain Shop
  • Mazama Members
  • Petzl
  • Sterling Rope
  • Karma Cafe & Coffee Shop


Where Should I Climb Indoors?

In the Portland/Metro area we are lucky to have six gyms to choose from where we can hone our climbing skills. We reached out to all of the gyms to provide you with this brief guide on where to climb. Each gym provided their stats as well as a brief write-up about why you should climb at their gym. 

ClubSport Ascent Climbing Center

  • Wall square footage: 11,500 sq. feet textured climbing surface.
  • Height: 25–45 feet.
  • Bouldering, top roping, lead climbing—wide variety of terrain, cracks and overhangs.
  • Host of four national youth competitions and local competitions.
  • Other amenities: full service restaurant and bar; childcare available at a small additional charge.
  • Hours: M-F 6 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–6 p.m.

18120 SW Lower Boones Ferry Road,
Tigard, OR.

Day: $16
Punch pass: $99 (11-punch pass; no expiration)

Featuring a new name, ClubSport has been offering a state of the art climbing facility since the mid 1990s when it took over a space that was a former Costco store. During its long history, it has managed to create a consistent tradition of great route setting and programming. One common misconception about ClubSport is that you have to have a membership to climb there. The climbing center has an affordable day pass and a multi-punch card option which now features no expiration. Check out the rock gym’s new 360 cam tour on the website. 

The Circuit

  • Wall square footage: 10,000 sq. feet (SW), 14,000 sq. feet (NE), 19,000 sq. feet (Tigard).
  • Height: 14 feet (SW), 8–17 feet (NE), 14 feet (Tigard).
  • Bouldering.
  • Other amenities (varies by location): Training & fitness areas, slacklines, dedicated kids area, yoga.
  • Hours: varies by location.

NE: 410 NE 17th Ave., Portland, OR.
SW: 6050 SW Macadam, Ave., Portland, OR.
Tigard: 16255 SW Upper Boones Ferry Road, Tigard, OR.

  • Day: $14/$12 student
  • Month: $67/$57 student/$137 family of three; with EFT contract (11-month minimum) $57/$47 student/$117 family of three
  • Punch pass: $112/$96 student (10 punch pass, no expiration)
  • Annual prepaid: $579/$479 student

Planet Granite

  • Wall square footage: 30,500 sq. feet; 18,000 holds
  • 150+ routes, 200+ boulder problems
  • 18 cracks (4 adjustable)
  • Height: 55-foot roped walls; 18-foot ball boulder.
  • Other amenities: Two yoga and fitness studios, two comprehensive training areas, one bouldering ramp, showers/towels, lockers, dry sauna.
  • Hours: M-F 6 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–6 p.m.

1405 NW 14th Ave., Portland, OR.

  • Day: $18/$14 student/$12 child
  • Morning pass: $14
  • Month: $77/$62 student/$120 family of two
  • Punch pass: $165, 10-punch
  • Annual: $847/$682 student/$1,320 family of two

Planet Granite was founded in the Bay Area in 1994 as an elite training facility for climbers at a time when few other such businesses existed. It started simply as an idea that climbers, this small fringe group of athletes, deserved a world-class facility with sport specific training including climbing, yoga and fitness. Our founder, Micky Lloyd, was among the first to design and build climbing specific training tools like hydraulically operable walls and adjustable cracks. 

In the 20 years since we opened, Planet Granite has grown to become a place not only used by some of the best climbers in the world to train, but also a place to introduce beginners to a sport we love. 

The new Portland facility features 20,000 square feet of custom Walltopia designs for roped climbing up to 55 feet high, including 18 cracks, four of which are hydraulically adjustable. The bouldering area includes 10,000 square feet of Walltopia’s signature 3D walls and 18-foot high ball bouldering. 

Two yoga and fitness studios in the facility will host a suite of studio-quality classes. Furthermore, a comprehensive training area, for both climbers and functional fitness enthusiasts alike, offers everything from Olympic weight lifting equipment to a variety of climbing specific tools such as an adjustable systems board and the Atomik Bombs.

Portland Rock Gym (PRG)

  • Wall square footage: 15,000 sq. feet; 
  • Up to 120 routes (60 lead, 60 top-rope)
  • Height: 40-foot top rope and lead walls
  • 150–180 boulder problems
  • Other amenities: Five True Blue auto-belay systems, Finger and System Boards, Pro Shop, Weight Room, Cardio Machines, Yoga Classes
  • Hours: M/W/F 11 a.m.–11 p.m., T/TH 7 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–6 p.m.

21 NE 12th Ave., Portland, OR. 

  • Day: $15/$13 student/military
  • Day Pre-3 p.m. (M–F only): $10
  • Month: $63/$52 w/ annual contract or for students/$43 student w/ annual contract/$150 family of three
  • Punch pass: $135 (10-punch pass; 1–year expiration)
  • Annual prepaid: $572/$1276 families of three/$473 student/military

Founded by owner Gary Rall in 1988, the Portland Rock Gym is the second oldest indoor rock climbing gym in the country. With its mixture of rope climbing and bouldering, top-rope routes, and towering, overhanging lead walls, PRG offers a realistic climbing experience for beginning and experienced climbers alike. 

PRG continues to offer a world-class indoor climbing experience for beginning and experienced climbers alike. At any given time, you’ll find 150–180 boulder problems throughout the gym. There are approximately 60 lead and 60 top-rope lines allowing up to 120 routes at a given time.

Routes at PRG run the full gamut of grades. Currently, you’ll find most boulder problems in the V0-V6 range, and the majority of top-rope routes falling between 5.8 and 5.11-. Lead routes tend to average slightly higher. The variety of course setters and two month route rotation guarantee a positive experience no matter what your training goals. In addition, you’ll find a weight room, cardio machines, yoga classes, and various finger and system boards to round out your workout.

PRG has been a part of the Portland climbing community since it’s humble beginning back in 1988. Much of this success is due to the accessibility of PRG and the beginner-friendly atmosphere. We love being a part of Portland and sharing the positive benefits and fun of climbing with everyone. PRG has been locally owned and operated throughout its existence and plans to remain in Portland for many years to come. 

The Source

  • Wall Square footage: 6,200 sq feet
  • 68 routes, 34 top rope and lead lanes, 60+ boulder problems
  • Height: 36-foot top rope and lead, 20-foot youth wall, 14-foot bouldering, 10-foot youth bouldering
  • Other amenities: Autobelays, fully air-conditioned, warm-up mezzanine, student and family discounts, classes for every age and ability. 
  • Hours: M-F 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–6 p.m.

1118 Main Street, Vancouver, WA.

  • Day: $12 
  • Month: $55/$46 EFT with $27 start up fee (no contract or cancellation fees; option to freeze)
  • Punch Pass: $96, 10-punch
  • Annual Prep-Paid: $472

Climbers go to the Source for great route-setting and friendly staff with flexible membership options in a clean, well-lit facility. The routes are set by active local climbers with as much as 30 years of outdoor climbing experience. The rates are affordable, and there are no cancellation fees or expiration dates. The community welcomes every climber, so don’t be surprised if they remember your name on your second visit. The Source is a sleek, modern facility you will enjoy climbing in. Consider a membership if you live/work in Vancouver, Camas, or north Portland. Otherwise, take advantage of the affordable 10-punch pass with no expiration date or sign up for one of our classes and clinics. The Source is located on Main Street in Vancouver only 15 minutes from downtown Portland, making it a great option for those needing a change of scene from their regular gym. 


  • Height: 20–34 feet
  • Top route options include five auto belays, and eight manual belay.

6775 SW 111th Ave., Beaverton, OR.

  • Day: $11/$10 college student
  • Month: $46/$40 college student
  • Punch pass: $40 5-punch; $68 10–punch (exp. 90 days)

An all-in-one climbing gym, Stoneworks has been open for climbers since 1993. We boast amazing lead terrain on our 34-foot walls that includes a 25-foot lead arch and a free hanging stalactite. Our top rope walls range in height from 34 feet to 20 feet and include five auto-belays and eight manual top roping stations, allowing everyone to try our naturally textured walls, hand cracks, and chimneys. 

The bouldering landscape incorporates a cave, an expansive roof section, a top-out boulder, and three high-ball areas, the newest of which takes boulderers 20 feet above our customized, three-foot padded flooring. 

We offer introductory belay, sport, and trad-climbing classes that will allow all climbers to make the shift from indoors to outdoors safely. Our newest additions, a café and Anti-Gravity Climbing Gear Store, will open in late fall. Come join the great community of friends and family who promote a fun and helping atmosphere. Enjoy, climb, and make new friends!