A Porter’s Life in the Khumbu: Superhuman Tragedy
230 pounds push his sinewy body forward with unrelenting force. A freight train unable to swiftly cease. Lonesome and solemn. Eyes fixated on the dusty path. The neck frozen stiff in place, hands delicately pushed against his face providing a center equilibrium so his body doesn’t unexpectedly torque. Sweat trickles down his brow perpetually burning his eyes. Slow and steady as he works his way carrying
ramen noodles that must be delivered by tomorrow. 15 hours more up the incredibly steep Himalayan slopes. Rapidly catalyzing what little oxygen the high-altitude air provides into precious energy to make that next step possible.
When he arrives, he will sleep for 7 hours and do it all over again. Setting out under the gelid morning breeze that whispers keep moving. His body surely will tacitly scream otherwise. No option to rest anymore. The family needs to eat. Down to pick up another impossibly heavy load. A laborious life that leaves the spine unaligned and surely abridges one’s expectancy. These are the days in the life of a porter in the Everest (Khumbu) region of Nepal. A tale of superhuman mental and physical fortitude and ultimately of survival and tragedy.
In my visits to this region leading clients to Everest Base Camp, I’ve profoundly been struck by the struggles so many of these men and women go through. It’s inescapable. It’s not just here and there, it’s hundreds of times where you cross paths on the trail with a porter who looks to be on the absolute brink.
It’s a rather tangled juxtaposition. You are in one of the most stunning milieus on earth. The towering glacial cathedrals; the bluest of rivers; verdant forests filled with harmonizing birds; vibrant prayer flags swaying in the breeze carrying signs of compassion, strength and peace; ancient cultures humbly working offering to the land; monks chanting seeking an attained higher sense of being; an illuminated night sky that completely shifts your perspective and sense of wonder; the melodic sounds of bells on yaks necks putting you in a calm stupor. You get the idea. It’s will bring even the staunchest of souls to tears.
Grappling simultaneously with joys of being there, and the deep anguish worn on the faces and bodies of so many porters leaves your mind in a muddled mess of introspection.
Why must they carry such insanely heavy loads? How do they even humanly carry so much weight? How am I contributing to this? What dreams do they have? Can they even stand up straight or lay down flat to sleep at night? What can we as visitors do to improve their plight? How many years does this work cut off of their lives? Who looks after them? The list goes on…These are just a few of the questions that inundate my heart and mind.
I’ve spoken vulnerably, emotionally and candidly with my local guides about this issue. Many were former porters who climbed the ranks. They provided a leveling sense of empathy. Along the way, they’d often stop on the trail to verbally document the lives and hardships…questioning and/or offering challenging words of empowerment to the porters carrying impossibly arduous loads.
“Namaste. How much are you carrying? Who allowed you to carry this much and who are you working for?” A simple set of investigative questions prying at formulating ways to improve their lives. Oftentimes, they’d poignantly plead to the porters to take on lesser loads and to care for themselves enough so they can return to their family healthier and alive; however honestly, it felt like it usually fell on deaf ears. These porters were in it. All of their mental and physical might was being applied to the job at hand. Understandably, there was no room for conversation or self-pity.
Adventure tourism is at the core. It’s the reason these jobs even exist. It provides economic opportunity, much like it does for the climbing Sherpa who risk their lives escorting high paying clients to the summits of Everest each year. It can pay handsomely, but at what expense? I don’t have answers and it’s not my place to make any of these decisions. I’m forever grateful to visit this magical pocket of our planet. Many of these men and women have made it possible for me. I just can’t ignore that nagging mental scar seeing what they go through. It’s why I write this. It’s why perhaps, this is more of a emotional essay than it is a highly structured piece of writing with deep empirical findings and tangible measures we can take. It’s more from the heart. It’s a calling for awareness. A plea for human dignity. It’s a challenge for us all to be better travelers and global citizens.
The event that viscerally set me off is of this image and story below:
On a rather hot and dusty day on the trail, we first encountered this porter heading up the trail to Namche with distressingly cracked feet wearing cheap rubber flip flops and carrying over 230 pounds. Absorb this photo. Don’t just glance at it. Feel it. Imagine the pain he endures.
My friend and fellow Guide Jagat, a former porter himself asked the man why he was carrying this unreal load? He’s impossibly poor, he has 12 kids and no education. He’s paid 60 rupees per kilo (50 cents). On this trip he’s making around $55 in total. The trip is 4–6 days 12–17 hours a day at painstaking high altitude.
For the next few hours, we see him during rest stops. It torments me watching him. I can only imagine this life…this feeling. I quietly pull aside Jagat and pull out $20 USD to give to the man while explaining I’d like him to at least buy himself a new pair of shoes. It’s no panacea, but it hopefully is a ‘step in the right direction.’ The man coyly yet gratefully accepts hardly making eye contact in part because of the load that weighs down his neck. He gently shakes my hand. I give him an emotional gaze. It’s all I could muster.
A week or so later, we are heading down. I freeze. Those feet. How could I ever forget them? Tattooed in my memory. The pain within those calloused crevices. I felt a burning sensation in my feet.
I call to Jagat, “That’s the same guy!”
He’s heading up carrying another impossibly heavy load. This time 110 kilos (242 pounds) in the same flip flops. Clearly, he hadn’t bought new shoes. Most likely he bought food for his family. Jagat asks if he bought shoes; he hesitantly nods yes . Discernibly he hasn’t. Other porters who know him chime in saying he doesn’t know how to wear shoes. He’s never worn them in his life. It never even crossed my mind.
Each journey is surely cutting year’s off this man’s life. It’s unacceptable, and I felt partly responsible. He carries loads of food for us travelers. A tear slowly slips down my cheek. It’s my heart speaking because my mouth won’t work. With the gentlest of touches I rest my hand on the man’s shoulder conjuring up the deepest of human emotions. It’s pure empathy. I don’t know what to do.
Understanding Gear and Physiology
Viscerally, it tears at our internal seams. Why must this be this way? However, the thoughts are inescapable…how? How are these men and women who tend to weigh less than 130 pounds carry double their body weight in this extreme terrain?
Norman Heglund, a muscle physiologist of Belgium’s University de Louvain spent half a year in Nepal studying porters in the region trying to determine how they carry so much weight. His summation after spending thousands of hours on the trail, “They haven’t got any trick, they simply go and keep going.” Heglund offered porters lemonade and cookies to stop and let him and his team of scientists weigh the load and walk a 10 foot platform constructed out of plates with electronic systems that that measured force and how much effort went into each stride.
The only real difference they found between porters and average European graduate students was their muscles were ‘moderately’ more efficient turning oxygen to work (which I find to be a bit more advantageous than this researcher seems to describe it). However, it’s worth noting that not all of these porters are Sherpa. Many are other ethnic groups coming from other regions of Nepal. But ultimately… It remains a mystery how they carry such heavy loads on small frames. Many believe it’s what they know. From an early age, they are carrying heavy loads in their daily lives which perhaps attunes them into these incredible machines. However, long term effects on the body have not been adequately studied and based on my own observations…there’s surely degradation and extreme prolonged pain and trauma.
Their gear is rudimentary at best, yet it’s tried and true. Most of them stick with what’s been used for decades and even centuries. Often they balance all of this incredible weigh on their Dokos. These are hand-woven and made from dry bamboo strips that have been used by Sherpa Porters for centuries. Bamboo is durable and can also withstand the harsh weather in the Himalaya. A namlo, or headstrap is also affixed across the forehead to take a little pressure off of the shoulders. Each porter will carry a T-shaped walking stick called a Tokma. When taking a rest, the Tokma fits perfectly on the bottom of the Doko allowing the porter to take a rest without completely sitting down and resting the weight of his or her load on the stick.
In my experiences, many travelers with good intentions and big hearts have offered their hiking gear and shoes at the end of trips only to be kindly refused by the local porters. They use what they know even if it might further hindering and hurting their bodies.
Who are Sherpa?
Many porters around the world ferry gear for travelers from the summit of Kilimanjaro to the sacred citadel of Machu Picchu. Oftentimes, I hear them all mistakenly clumped into one grouping…Sherpa.
A common misconception surrounds the word “Sherpa.” Many believe Sherpa equates to porter. This is incorrect. Sherpa are the ethnic group of some 150,000 people who inhabit the Solu-Khumbu District of Nepal (Everest Region). Sherpa, or Sharwa as they are also called translates to “Easterner,” which references the Khams region of Eastern Tibetan where they migrated from roughly 600 years ago seeking the mystical eden of Shangra-La and opportunities to improve their lives.
Historically they are a trading, herding and agrarian based society that is has a mixture of Buddhist and animistic beliefs. Over the centuries, they have adapted to high altitude living and are evolutionary built for the high altitude.
Until the onset of modern mountaineering in the 20th century, Sherpa people did not climb Everest or the high peaks in the region. They believed the mountains to be sacred and had no calling to summit or ‘conquer’ them. When mountaineering and high-altitude trekking became big business, the Sherpa were a natural fit to carry heavy loads and thrive in mountaineering roles. Also important to note, Sherpa don’t call the highest peak on earth Mt. Everest. They refer to it as Chomolungma and respect it as the “Mother of the World.” Nepalis call it Sagarmartha. Everest, is the western name given after the 19th century Surveyor General of India, George Everest.
Today, it is relatively lucrative for a Sherpa to be a high altitude climbing porter or Guide. In a 2–3 month season, they can make $3,000-$6,000 in a country where the median yearly income is roughly $1,000. About a third (94) of the overall 290 deaths climbing Everest have been Sherpa. It’s incredibly dangerous. Folks pay big bucks to get to the top with the assistance of Sherpas paving the way setting all of the ladders and lines to the summit and carrying oxygen tanks and gear. Not all Sherpa are mountaineers or porters. Some 5,000 Sherpa also live abroad. Increasingly, more and more ethnic groups from around Nepal are working as porters and even some as climbing porters, so not everyone you see in the Solu-Khumbu is a Sherpa.
As of today, there is no foreseeable sustainable ethical solution for many of the porters. As long as many tourists demand the modern luxuries within an adventure travel framework, these men and women will continue to forge ahead carrying all the amenities.
Helicopters have become increasingly popular as ways of carrying heavy loads and construction materials for the booming new guest teahouses. They provide an amazing safety net in this region allowing quick rescue and descent to safer altitudes for those that become injured or are dealing with severe mountain sickness. Without these immediate evacuations, there surely would be more deaths. Furthermore, they reduce the need for porters to carry unbearably heavy loads; however, they are becoming a point of contention. If you have been in the Khumbu, you’ll become accustomed to hearing them buzz by every 10 minutes or so. They’re loud. They are disruptive noise pollution to an otherwise serene mountain landscape and ecosystem.
The agricultural Sherpa communities have to listen to them hourly. The wildlife and natural ecosystem behaviors these effect are real. Many visitors with deep pockets are paying to be shuttled up and down for flyby tours or a quick stop at base camp before flying back down to Lukla or Kathmandu. The helicopter companies are making a fortune as well as insurance companies. I talked with numerous locals about this and they are quite frustrated and said the government and companies are greedy and don’t listen to them. Imagine growing up in a community high in the remote bucolic Himalaya and all of a sudden you have a helicopter flying just overheard seemingly every time you look up. They’re also incredibly dangerous and costly to operate in these harsh and high altitude environments.
What about building a road? Road construction has already begun from Kathmandu to the Sherpa town of Lukla. Many have heard the name Lukla as it’s famous for having the ‘most dangerous airport in the world.”
The airport was built in 1964 to bring supplies into the Khumbu. In the 1980s it increasingly saw more tourists flying here as the entry point for tourists heading into the Everest region. Today, the airport sees upwards of 30,000 people flying into Lukla annually.
The road being built aims at assisting with bringing goods and travelers to Lukla to begin their journey into the Khumbu; however, there are still no roads once you get to Lukla. Everything must be carried on backs, put on horses, yaks or helicopters.
The region is remote and it always will be. It is home to the largest mountains on earth which is what draws so many people to this amazing place. Modern technologies can help people getting around, but how will they help the poorer porters who resort to carrying the heaviest burdens?
As I’ve said, I don’t have the answers, but I do want to share some resources where you can help, investigate further or ask questions.
How You Can Help.
Ultimately, I believe awareness is the first step to fostering real tangible change. When we develop empathy, we become better humans. When we travel, we need to step outside of ourselves and feel into the world. It’s not always the heartwarming moments that stick with us. More often it’s the visceral moments of discomfort or inequalities we encounter that indelibly stick with us and give us a reason to care. We live in a world of polarities, and it’s important for us to recognize this. My goal in this piece is to humanize the porters and people who call this magical land home.
Quite honestly, I’m in awe of what they do to survive and provide. As mentioned earlier, this article is at best an attempt to navigate the complex feelings of my place in the world, in my profession as a guide and how to ultimately get some of us to give a damn about others who literally break their backs to enable us to live and travel how we often do.
“In 1997, a young Nepali porter employed by a trekking company became severely ill with altitude illness. He was paid off and sent down alone. It took just another 30 hours for him to die….He was 20 years old and left behind a wife and 2 small children. The International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) was formed to prevent these recurring tragedies.”
The group is run entirely by volunteers. Their mission is to lobby, educate and monitor through direct support of clothing banks, the construction of shelters and rescue posts. You can visit their website to learn more about how you can donate or volunteer at http://www.ippg.net/ or IG @ippguk
Here are some other reputable organizations I’ve found out about due to connections and a bit of research:
The Juniper Fund. www.juniperfund.org @thejuniperfund
Community Action Nepal (CAN): https://www.canepal.org.uk/ @communityactionnepal
Kathmandu Environmental Education Project: https://keepnepal.org/ @keepnepal
Thanks for taking time to view this series and story. There are many more photos and untold stories. I’ve merely presented a brief glimpse into the lives of these men and women. Please reach out to me if you have any additional information, ideas, thoughts, questions, or know of any other organizations working in this area.