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 bagand 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.|
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.
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: