Vidé-Haut #1 – Two months in Khumbu
The Trek to go
In the past, at the time of the first ascents in the Himalayas, it took several weeks of walking to reach the last village before Everest, and several dozen or even hundreds of porters accompanied the expeditions. Nowadays, 5 days are enough to reach Pangboche if you leave from the small Lukla airport.
Preferring the Jeep to the plane, we walked two more days from the small village of Phaplu a little further down the valley. With its 32 km and 1300 m of elevation gain (and especially the 1800 m downhill !), the first day was very difficult ! And the weight of the bags (15 to 30 kg) made us sweat a lot ! Fortunately, once past Lukla, we are on good paths and the steps are shorter.
The 5th day was an acclimatization day in Namche Bazar. We saw Everest for the first time from a little viewpoint above Namche ! We also visited Sagarmatha Next and the SPCC offices but we’ll talk about that a little later in the Encounters section.
Among the sixty different ethnic groups in Nepal, the Sherpa ethnic group is certainly the most famous one. Who has never heard of their extraordinary physical abilities, the most famous representatives of which are the high-altitude porters, who are able to carry enormous loads (up to 100 kg !) using the sole strength of their necks, and their legs?
It is their extraordinary physical abilities and their involvement in the conquest of summits over 8000m, especially that of Everest in 1953, which have made their reputation throughout the world.
Historically, the Sherpas came from eastern Tibet (shar.pa means “the people coming from the east”) and migrated south about 500 years ago. To do so, they crossed passes higher than 6000m ! And settled in high altitude valleys (between 2600m and 4400m), like in the Khumbu valley.
Although it is the most famous one, it is not the only Nepalese ethnic group of Tibetan origin, most ethnic groups living in high altitudes in Nepal come from Tibet.
Traditionally, Sherpas were farmers, breeders or traders (before its annexation by China, they traded a lot with Tibet). Since the 1950s and the first Western excursions in the Himalayas, more and more Sherpas became mountain guides or mountain porters : they go with tourists on treks and peaks such as Everest.
In fact, the lifestyle of the Khumbu’s inhabitants is punctuated by the touristic seasons:
- Summer is the monsoon, there are very few tourists. They work the fields to cultivate potatoes (only introduced in the 19th century but very adapted to these cold and dry regions) and few other vegetables (carrots, spinach, cabbage…).
- Autumn (late September to early December) is the first touristic season. The Sherpas who own the lodges welcome the tourists while the guides take them on treks or to the summits, and the mountain porters transport their equipment and what is necessary for the lodges to function (food, gas, bottled water, sodas, biscuits…). Few others continue to work the land.
- In winter, it is very cold in these valleys (around -10°C during the day, and even colder at night). Most people go down to Kathmandu during December and January, but some stay and live in isolation for more than a month after having stocked enough food.
- Finally, spring is the second touristic season and the warmest season. Once again guides, lodges and porters are very busy offering tourists everything they need. It’s Everest season, and the basecamp is a true city made of tents.
Sherpa guides are part of the richest people in Nepal. And many of them go to work abroad during the summer, and sometimes even in the winter (especially in France). They come back for the touristic seasons.
If the Sherpas are used to the biting cold of the valleys when the sun sets or the wind rises, it’s a completely different story for us, especially when we know that no building is insulated. .
Once the wood-burner is turned off, temperatures can drop to -5°C inside the room, and much lower outside ! At this temperature, frost covers the windows, the bottles freeze and our breath condenses on the blanket to form a small layer of ice which falls on us during the night… But the hardest part is getting out of the bed, and the breakfast that follows ! Since the stove is rarely lit in the morning.
In short, a little insulation wouldn’t hurt!
Everest Basecamp & Gokyo
During this month and a half spent in Khumbu, we discovered incredible landscapes through different treks.
After a week in and around the lodge, waiting for the rain to stop, we left for a 4-day trek to Everest base camp. We went up immense valleys, alongside monumental glaciers and even crossed one, covered with thousands of tons of rocks coming from the summits. While the landscapes are magnificent, with Everest and Nuptse looming on one side, and Pumari on the other, the basecamp itself was extremely disappointing. This is because no expeditions to Everest are taking place this fall… The next day in the early morning, we went up to admire the sunrise from the summit of Khala Patar at 5,600 m, and how beautiful was it ! The starry night slowly gives way to the orange hues of the early morning, the peaks set ablaze above the cold valleys and the splendor of the moment almost makes us forget the biting cold that surrounds us…
A few days later, after returning to Pangboche, we went to Gokyo and its resplendent azure lakes. To reach destination, we went through the Cho La Pass, at 5400 m, and even went up a small glacier to get there. It was a very tiring day, but it was worth it ! The next morning, another sunrise awaits us, this time at the top of Gokyo Ri. And the landscapes are just as magical, if not more ! The photos flow, the good mood is there and the memories take shape in our brains where they will remain engraved forever…
Let’s end the poetic page, it’s time to talk about the annoying things : the problem with wastes in Khumbu, and especially plastic pollution ! As said a little above, Khumbu is an extremely touristic region, and everything is put in place to satisfy tourists. This results in a large quantity of plastic packaging (bottles, biscuits and noodles wrapping, etc.) and metal ones (cans).
An organization exists to take care of those wastes, it’s the SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) which takes care of collecting the wastes on the paths (bins) and the main base camps, and of bringing metal and glass ones down to Lukla where they will be sent to Kathmandu for recycling.
That’s in theory… In practice, we find a lot of metal and glass along with plastic wastes (which are not collected) in the 80 or so open-air landfills that dot Khumbu. These landfills pollute the soil and rivers, but also the air once burned. This is the whole challenge of the Tri-Haut project : to succeed in finding lasting solutions (ie which correspond to this particular region) to recycle those wastes into useful products for local populations. And this must obviously be accompanied by a reduction in plastic consumption…
Having spent almost two months in Khumbu, we met a lot of great people !
First of all Pasang, our guide on the trek to Pangboche and to Everest basecamp. He is a young sherpa of our age who studies in Kathmandu and returns to Khumbu during the touristic seasons to work as a guide and help his mother run the lodge.
We also met two Westerners who are doing projects in the region. First of all Tommy, a Swede who spent 7 years building a sort of museum where works of art made from waste collected in the valley are presented. This is Sagarmatha Next, a project that aims to educate tourists about the waste they leave behind. In particular, he offers them the opportunity to take small 1kg bags of waste down to Lukla, where they will be taken for recycling.
We also met Colin, a Scot who is building a lodge in Dingboche with his long-time friend, Ang Nuru. This lodge has the particularity of being insulated, in order to show residents the benefits of insulation (if only in terms of comfort for tourists). The most interesting thing is the way in which this insulation is produced since it is produced from plastic waste found in the valley ! Thanks to a Polyfloss-like machine.
If these meetings particularly marked us, we also met lots of other extremely interesting people : mountainers used to the region, people on a world tour, locals who still live in a fairly traditional way far from tourism…
Waste collection, Meeting & Plots
Okay, and in all of this, what did we do to move the project forward ? Actually, less than expected… We spent most of our time waiting for Nuru, our main contact on site, who was first on an expedition to Dhaulagiri, then to Island Peak, then to the Ama Dablam… But we finally managed to have him free for us for an entire day, a very busy one !
In the morning, we participated to the monthly waste collection of Pangboche. It is the Women’s Group that organizes it, and each household has to send someone for help. If not, they must pay a fine (so it helped Nuru that we went there in the end !). It’s quite striking to see the quantity of wastes hidden in the bushes near the paths, or even far from the paths, carried by the wind. At the end of the collection, we threw everything into the same landfill (theoretically a sorting is done between glass, metal and plastic, but only theoretically…) then we met at the monastery to drink tea.
In the afternoon, Nuru organized a meeting between us and the local stakeholders (SPCC, national park, local government, Women’s Group, Youth Club, etc.). We presented to them the project, explaining the progress we have made since last year and the arrival of the first team, then we exchanged questions in a constructive discussion where everyone was really interested in the project. This is really encouraging !
After this meeting, we went to the plot that was offered to us (it actually belongs to Nuru) then the next day and the day after that, we did a whole bunch of measures on it (with what we had at hand), following the instructions given by Kharsa School architects who are greatly helping us with the construction of the building.
After almost two months spent in Khumbu, we had to return to Kathmandu to work on the machines ! But before that, we went to climb Mera Peak (6470m) after several days of trekking to pass from Khumbu to a parallel valley. The cold made us suffer, but the views from the summit were worth it !
All we have to do now is go “down” ! That means another 3 days of walking and 2 days of Jeep…