Read more about Scott Harper’s trip to Nepal here.

Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 4:35 p.m.

I should have known that we would meet in Boudhanath. As the epicenter of the displaced Tibetan community in Nepal and generally all things Buddhist, there really is no more appropriate place for any true Sherpa. There, in one of the cafes ringing the stupa, I met Lhakpa Sherpa, his brother, Phurba, and the eight Americans who had arrived with him the prior evening.

Among them was a Coloradan family of four, of which one son had been a server at Sherpa House for some time. Next was a mental health counselor for Denver who simply frequents Sherpa House and saw the Hike for Help poster. Then there was a father-son pair, an imminently retiring dentist and an aspiring brewer, respectively. To make things a little more complicated, they are two of several people collaborating with Lhakpa to start a craft brewery in Nepal, both as a way to fill an empty niche as well as to provide jobs to Sherpas through the brewing and distribution of the beer. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, was Elliot: a former professor in Mines’ Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, a consulting metallurgist, a previously avid rock climber, an investor in the upcoming brewery and my tent mate for the trek. Maybe more importantly, though, he is also Lhakpa’s confidante and original sponsor in his bid to come to the U.S. in 1996, as well as chairman of Hike for Help. We had many a tent conversation, ranging from metallurgy to literature, to the various ways that we can improve both of our nonprofits of focus.

Now that I have made introductions, let me give a little bit of background on Hike for Help. Hike for Help was founded in 2011, and the inaugural ‘voluntourism’ trip was composed of a number of Mines students, including three of my fellow Harvey Scholars. But the roots of the organization reach back much further. Lhakpa’s father, Karma, has always been a shaker and mover in the Khumbu region around Lukla, and Lhakpa’s opportunity to come to the U.S. and study was simply the beginning of many things, including Sherpa House restaurant that many Goldenites know and love. In a lot of ways, the Sherpa story is the same as the Jha story. After having the fortune of coming to the U.S. and firmly grasping the opportunities before them, they have directed the fruits of their successes back into Nepal for the benefit of the community. Although Eejot and Hike for Help may be modest beginnings, I’m excited to have the opportunity to see the processes that I imagine will eventually pull Nepal up by its bootstraps. However, neither organizations’ goals come without their challenges, and if electricity shortages, heat and dust are big ones for Eejot, the superlative physical geography of the Khumbu could not more literally be the mountain in the way of Hike for Help.

The approach to Lukla

The view on our flight to Lukla was limited by clouds to the valleys, rivers and terraced fields below us, but I knew we were getting close when the landscape rapidly rushed up to meet us at 11,000 feet. Soon we were skirting around rock faces that disappeared above into the clouds and skating a couple hundred feet over ridges, only to have them drop several thousand to the river in the next valley a few seconds later. Then, with a stiff downward bank to starboard, the runway nosed into view. With a steep drop at the front, a virtual wall of mountain at the back, and 1,500 feet of 12% grade in between, there isn’t much room for error, but our pilot pitched up at the tarmac and set us down with hardly a bump. Our successful landing at the infamous airport had the group in a buzz, which persisted through our coffee and lunch break at Phurba’s ‘Lukla Starbucks’/Irish pub, the 1,500-foot descent to the Dudh Kosi (River), the suspension bridge over the river, and the 1,200-foot climb to Syangma, Lhakpa’s home village. There, in his superbly dry-stacked and plastered family home, we were treated to the first of many excellent meals, courtesy of our camp cook, Kumar.

Dinner at Lhakpa’s house

Camping in Syangma

Camping in Syangma

The next day gave only tantalizing glimpses of ice-bound artes on the giants above the snowline as we climbed the western side of the Dudh Kosi Valley toward the pass. After lunch, with the clouds closing in, Lhakpa called an early halt and our trekking crew set up camp, even digging out level sleeping surfaces for our tents. I never did get used to sitting around helplessly, while the Nepalis waited on us hand and foot. That night was cold and damp, as you might expect when sleeping in a cloud, but before bed and after all the other Americans had retired, I set around the coals of our campfire and made some very small talk with the porters in my poor Nepali. I suppose that was enough to earn their respect because, henceforth, they all began to call me Nepali daju, which means ‘Nepali (elder) brother.’ I became quite friendly with Phurki and Angdawa, two ethnic Sherpas who helped me with my vocab over the course of the rest of the trek. Although all of the Nepalis were exceedingly sociable and overly helpful, there remained a gulf between us that Lhakpa only tenuously bridged. For example, they ate every meal separately from us, even down to the celebratory one upon our arrival back in Lukla. That segregation, undoubtedly passed down over decades of learned trekking etiquette, was the only regrettable aspect of the whole trip.

Up the Lumding Valley

Down the Lumding Valley

The next morning I woke before dawn and unzipped my tent to find that the clouds had vanished, revealing the spectacular silhouettes of the Kyashar Himal across the valley with 20,889-foot Kusum Kanguru dominating from our vantage point. What a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately, the sun had only broken over the range when the clouds swallowed us up again. The remainder of that particularly long day was spent finishing the cloudy climb to Mora La, the pass and highest point on our trek at 14,250 feet, and back down the other side into the Lumding Valley, where Lhakpa used to take the family livestock for summer grazing. We spent two sublime nights in Lumding. I stayed up even after the Sherpas the second night, with nothing but the Milky Way framed by a ring of 6,000-meter peaks as company.

Everest, Lhotse, and the Kyashar Himal

Kyashar Himal and our camp at dawn

Kyashar Himal and our camp at dawn

The following two days were spent heading up and back down the pass, through Syangma via a different route, and further south to Tate (pronounced ‘Tah-tay’) directly across the valley from Lukla. In the meantime, a stroke of lucky weather provided an unobstructed view of Everest and Lhotse from Mora La. At a distance of 30 miles, the tallest peak didn’t look like much, but it was still something to think that we were vertically less than halfway there and still even more than 3,000 feet shy of Base Camp.

The new switchbacks as seen from Lukla across the Dudh Kosi Valley

The new switchbacks as seen from Lukla across the Dudh Kosi Valley

Our token work day on the trail was the day after our first night in Tate. I call it a ‘token’ work day, because it would be an absolutely terrible model to rely on foreign sweat to build a trail in the Khumbu. Lhakpa uses the proceeds of the trekking fees to pay locals to work on a much more regular basis and, as Americans, we simply got the benefit of seeing where our money is going. That being said, the nine of us, plus a handful of locals, cut probably about 800 feet of completely new trail, including four switchbacks, that united the many-mile segment of route south from Tate to Takasindu.

Lukla's Tenzing-Hillary Airport

Luklas Tenzing-Hillary Airport

The ultimate goal of the trail is to bring back the porter commerce that was stolen by Lukla’s airport after it was constructed. These days, Syangma, Tate and Takasindu are virtually ghost towns. Yet, because of rising costs of shipping goods via flights to Lukla, porter trains from Jiri will be more economical, in addition to resuscitating the villages and supporting local culture. In addition to facilitating local commerce, the revamped trail is also essentially the same trail traveled by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Sherpa on the way to their historic first successful summit of Everest, meaning a select number of foreign trekkers will also want to retrace their footsteps.

On the night before we departed Tate, the locals all joined us around the campfire and, in a gesture of appreciation for our contribution to the project, broke out the chang, a local beer of sorts, and moonshine. I went to bed overly pleased about my communication skills with Temba, a gregarious and toothless Sherpa elder, who had been thoroughly enjoying his chang as well. At that point, we all thought the last stage would be to get back across the Dudh Kosi river to Lukla, but the weather had other plans. Low clouds and rain canceled a number of flights, which inevitably created a backlog of trapped trekkers fighting for free seats. Luckily, Lhakpa knows almost everybody in the whole region. He called in a couple of helicopter reservations. We still got stuck in Lukla for an extra night and the short-notice chopper ticket wasn’t cheap by any means, but taking my first helicopter flight out of the Khumbu was pretty cool, especially since I wasn’t even being rescued for a medical emergency.

Another day of sightseeing in Kathmandu had the group parting ways, with the family and the mental health counselor flying back to Denver, and those with brewing interests continuing on down to Chitwan, where the brewery site will be, to conduct some of their business there. Sherpa culture, the great Himalaya, and the making of new friends (both American and Nepali) have been a really great addition to my experience in Nepal thus far. Now it’s time to shift gears again: On Friday, I accompany Prashant and the younger cousins to Sisautiya to kick off my second stay in the village with Deepawali, Nepal’s Festival of Lights.

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