Text & photos by Caroline George
In late January, Adam and I traded our skis for our huge duffle bags, full of ice climbing gear and warm down parkas, to go volunteer at the Khumbu Climbing School, teaching Sherpas how to be safe in the mountains. My friend, Amy Bullard - who was the 2009 director of KCS - had been raving about KCS and offered a few times for me to come along. This year, the time felt right and both Adam and I were excited to go spend a month at the base of the highest mountain in the world - Everest. I had been to the Khumbu in 2002 and remember thinking that I would love to help these people, never thinking that this would be how it would happen. With our background as mountain guides however, it only made sense for us to give back by working at KCS.
The Khumbu Climbing School is based out of the little mountain town of Phortse. It takes about 3-5 days from the Lukla airport to get there. But before hiking, one must fly from Katmandu to Lukla. Seven years after my last trip to the Khumbu, I still felt the trauma from the shaky flight. In order to get the Gods on my side, we therefore decided to pay a visit to the famous Monkey Temple and spin some prayer wheels. Anything to help us survive the 45-minute flight to the Khumbu Valley!
The landing strip in Lukla sits on the edge of steep hillside. It is so narrow, short and leaning towards the the precipice that the chances of a crash are a reality. No later than this past October, eight people died when the pilot missed the landing! I clung hard to my seat the whole way there, hoping that it would save my life in case something went wrong. The flight is for sure the crux of any journey into the Khumbu!
I still have this romantic concept that when I fly to countries such as Nepal, Ethiopia or Morocco, I will be cut off from my daily life, with no access to modern technologies such as the internet or cell phones. As we started down the dusty trail to Namche, I realized that every single Nepali travelling with us was holding a cell phone... and speaking into it or texting! Our friend - Jiban - even had an IPhone. I couldn't help feeling a sting of jaleousy, since I don't have one myself! But mainly I felt a little nostalgic that there is no more escaping from technology, unless you are in the USA, which seems to have far worse coverage than any of these countries!
I had heard of how brutal the winters can be in Nepal, but upon arrival, I realized that we were getting lucky... or unlucky... The ice was melting away in front of our eyes, there wasn't any snow anywhere other than on the surrounding gigantic summits, and the trails were brutally dusty! We came hoping to climb the amazing ice route across from Namche: Losar (VI WI5 700M), but the middle section collapsed the night before we arrived and we could see water running down it. Disbelievingly, we turned our backs on it and went...
...sport climbing in the blazing sun instead. The panorama was really breathtaking, but the climbing on the other hand was loose, dirty and well, a fun experience all the same. I mean, how often do you get to sport climb in the Khumbu!
Four days after landing in Lukla and lots of huffing and puffing later, we finally arrived in Phortse. The terraced village sits at close to 12'000 ft on the sunny side of the Gokyo valley, across from the famous Tengboche Monastery, and a four hour walk from Namche Bazaar. Conditions were so dry this year, that the hanging glacier close to the summit on Ama Dablam (on the right) purged relentlessly. Scary! I wondered then if it was just an unusually warm year, or if global warming was also starting to take its toll on the highest mountain range in the world: the Himalayas.
After the opening ceremony at the Gompa on the first day, we met with our individual groups to check out their gear and introduce ourselves. Each group had two western instructors and a Nepali instructor, who has gone through the basic and advanced curriculum at KCS. The current goal is for the Nepali instructors to, one day, be fully in charge of KCS.
This year, we had 8 groups of 7-8 students! When the school first started, some people had to go and beg their friends to come and participate. Now though, the school is having to turn down applicants! Students come from all over Nepal.
Each day, we hiked for an hour, down to the river and up the other side of the valley to get to the blue plastic ice lines. The ritual Puja was held on the day following the opening ceremony by the "School Room" (in the background in the picture). We piled our gear and packs around the Lama and he blessed our belongings for nearly an hour. At the end of his prayers, we were offered blessed food and tsampa (local flour) to bless each other. Like kids, we took advantage of this ritual, resulting in all of us looking like...
...this! Phil Henderson plastered in tsampa!
Now that our gear was blessed and that a prayer flag had been raised in celebration of the 2009 edition of KCS, we were ready to officially start climbing. I mean, with all the ceremonies we had just attended, there was just no way anything could happen to any of us now...
Aside from the last day of school, the sky was clear blue and the sun was shining on the ice just like it is in this picture! In my opinion, that's how ice climbing should always be!
...Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3!!