Monday, May 5, 2008

Khumbu Climbing School

Khumbu Climbing SchoolBy Amendra Pokharel, Photographs by Sonam

Most climbers, including veterans from the West and other parts of the world, openly express their amazement at the naturally acquired skills of the Sherpas in climbing the mountains. Among the Sherpa climbers who die in the upper reaches of Himalayas, quite shockingly, 80 percent owe it to their scant knowledge and resources in climbing. Physical traits and physiological adaptability make the best climbers out of Sherpas, but the technical skills that elude them often result in fatal injuries. There is a school, fortunately, that takes this problem seriously and helps better equip the Sherpas in particular, and others interested in mountaineering, to the techniques of climbing. The school does its best to accommodate everyone registered for its two weeks training program, though its primary objective is to prepare Sherpas to become better climbers and therefore better guides, thereby reducing accidents and helping them earn a better living.The Khumbu Climbing School (KCS) was set up in the memory of the great American alpinist Alex Lowe by his wife Jennifer Lowe and best friend Conrad Anker in 2003. Alex Lowe died in an avalanche while climbing Shishapangma. He was caught in the avalanche along with Anker and a third member of the expedition, but Conrad somehow dug himself out and survived, and later joined hands with Lowe’s wife to establish the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation that runs the school. The annual training program takes place in the winter, starting from mid-January, at a climbing site located at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) in the Khumbu village of Phortse. Depending upon the number, trainees are divided into groups of eight to ten. Three instructors (two foreign and one Nepali) are assigned to look after each group. For the initial five days the trainees are taught English language and a day or two of lessons on Extreme Altitude Medical Training. These trainings prepare the local Sherpas, who may have little or no knowledge of English, to communicate with the foreign instructors and rescuers when they face problems during the climbs. The medical training chiefly deals with bones, muscles and sicknesses resulting from altitude.

The Khumbu Climbing School is run with the support of mountaineering experts from the USA, Canada and other countries willing to volunteer. Donations from Outdoor Retailing Conventions in USA, which auctions mountaineering antiques twice a year, and from other interested organizations or individuals help fund the program. Two hotels close to the site of school’s makeshift camp have donated their land for a school office, which is to be built soon. On average the cost per candidate for the two weeks program is around NRs 18,000, which includes airfare, subsidized lodging, food and other expenses. The trainees are required to arrange for their own set of climbing equipment or rent it from the school’s store at Phortse for a small fee.The enrollment form for the climbing program is available for NRs 2,000 at Summit Trek Pvt. Ltd., Thamel, Kathmandu, each November/December. Contact Summit Trek by phone: 426.6217 or 426.0970.

English Department KCS.

From L/R Lila Bishop, Sonam, Lhakpa, Michael Sherpa

On the first day, the Lamas at a local monastery perform traditional prayers seeking the success of the program and safety of the participants. The instructors, the trainees and local people take part in the prayer. Even the equipment and accessories to be used during the climbs are brought together and consecrated beforehand. The prayers are also held at the climbing sites. After the prayers are over the trainees, finally, get to put on climbing gear—boots, crampons, ropes, etc., and are let loose to rock, and sometimes roll! Instructors are always at hand, though, leading, supporting and protecting the pack of rookies. The two weeks of strenuous training ends with a grand celebration in the tradition of the Sherpas of Phortse. The foreigners get to live through an all new experience as they taste Sherpa food, dress up Sherpa style and dance to Sherpa music. Phortse community members are highly supportive of the KCS’ activities and join in the celebration. After the training program is over each of the trainees receives a certificate of participation. Among those who have participated in the KCS program three times, the two best ones are awarded a scholarship to join National Outdoor Leadership program held in the United States.

Source: ECS magazine Nepal

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