Khumbu Climbing Center: In the Footsteps of Hillary and Norgay

Photo: An instructor speaks with students at the Khumbu Climbing Center, Nepal.

An instructor speaks with students at the Khumbu Climbing Center, Nepal.

Photograph by Lincoln Else

By Freddie Wilkinson

"It really started with the 1999 Mallory/Irvine Everest Expedition," American climber Conrad Anker recalls, "because on that trip, I became friends with a number of our Sherpa staff who were from the village of Phortse, in the Khumbu Valley." That year, when Anker discovered the body of George Mallory, which had been lost on Everest since 1924, he added his name to the list of mountaineering greats forever linked with the history of the mountain.

During the 1999 season, commercial mountaineering on Everest was booming like never before, and the mountain was near breaking point. Nepali high-altitude staff were dying for reasons as mundane as not knowing in which direction to attach an ascender to a fixed rope, or how to properly diagnose high-altitude illnesses. Three years later, in 2002, Anker traveled to Phortse with his wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, to visit some of his old teammates. The pair were struck by how much the Sherpa guiding community craved a chance to develop better technical skills, both for professional advancement and to simply avoid getting killed. "It seemed like a pretty clear case of how promoting education could save lives," Lowe-Anker recalls. They decided something needed to be done.

This was certainly not the first time Mount Everest had inspired its summiteers to give back to the people of the region. Everest's first summit team, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, were both self-made men with an appreciation for how hard work, ambition, and luck had all come together in their own lives in spectacular fashion. When given the chance, both Hillary and Norgay wanted to give back, too.

Hillary had served as an enlisted man in World War II, dropped out of college, and gravitated toward a vigorous life of farming and mountain adventure instead. In 1960, he was back in the Khumbu on yet another expedition. As he squatted around a campfire in conversation with several Sherpas, he asked what was the one thing their village needed most. "We would like our children to go to school, sahib!" one responded. Hillary convinced a company in Calcutta to donate a prefabricated aluminum structure, and arranged for it to be flown and then portered to the remote village of Khumjung, where a team of volunteers assembled it the next year, when it was blessed by a local monk.

The Himalayan Trust was born. From its inception, Hillary infused the organization with a sensible, blue-collar ethic, insisting that they only do what was requested by the Sherpas, and that the Sherpas themselves were involved in the work. "Fine, the trust will buy the materials ... but you carry them in on your backs and help build it," Hillary is rumored to have responded to one request for aid.

For more than 40 years, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the Sherpa people, raising money and building dozens of schools and medical clinics, and two hospitals, plus "quite a few bridges over wild rivers." Along the way, the self-described rough old New Zealander not only helped improve the Sherpas' lives but helped empower them, too.

For Tenzing Norgay and his people, the journey to the summit of Everest was even more profound. Barely a half century before, the first Sherpas had left their impoverished mountain home, the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, to seek their fortune in the British hill station of Darjeeling, India. Many worked as laborers, and a handful were hired to help as porters on the original Everest expeditions of the 1920s. At the time, they knew nothing of mountaineering; Sherpas didn't climb mountains for fun.

Norgay was born into poverty in Tibet in 1914, then moved to the Khumbu as a child and was placed in the indentured care of another family in the village of Thame. As a young man, he ran away to Darjeeling. For 20 years, he worked in the mountains, learning the ropes of the nascent and dangerous sport of Himalayan climbing largely through trial and error.

Soon after summiting Everest, Norgay helped found the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling at the bequest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the first permanent mountaineering school in the Himalaya, and Norgay served as the institute's director of field training. Although the Himalayan Trust is widely credited with leading the drive to bring basic infrastructure to the Khumbu in the 1960s, and HMI exposed thousands of Indian citizens to the sport of mountaineering, the two efforts never quite connected.

Then, in 2002, Conrad Anker had an idea. The Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC) held its first session the following winter, in 2003. Its mission: to increase the safety margin of Nepali climbers and high-altitude workers by encouraging responsible climbing practices in a supportive and community-based program. The goal was not only to teach technical hard skills, but also to promote climbing for fun. "Climbers who not only know what they are doing, but enjoy doing it, are more engaged—and that makes them safer in the mountains than the guys who are just punching in nine to five to make a wage," Anker says.

The program is funded and run by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. It was created around a philosophy similar to that of Hillary and the Himalayan Trust. Eight- and ten-day classes are offered in winter, the low season for tourism, when most Sherpa guides are free. Students must pay their own travel to Phortse as well as room and board. In less than a decade, the KCC has served over 700 aspiring Nepali mountain guides—both men and women.

"We just completed our successful ninth session, teaching 68 students our basic curriculum and 46 our advanced curriculum," reports Pete Athans, Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation board member and KCC instructor. "Now we are seeing many trekking/mountaineering agencies looking on job applicants with KCC diplomas extremely favorably."

The program has rapidly expanded to offer comprehensive classes that focus not only on climbing but also on first aid, English language skills, and the natural history of the area. "Part of what we're trying to do for the younger generations is foster a sense of place among them; the Khumbu Valley is a wonderful home," says Lowe-Anker. The KCC is currently constructing a building in Phortse, using contemporary environmentally friendly building techniques, to serve future classes of students.

Passang Tenzing, who has summitted Everest nine times, first attended the KCC in 2004. In 2007 he enrolled in an advanced course taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School in the United States, and has since returned to the KCC as an instructor. "The Khumbu Climbing Center is very important to my people and my hometown, the Khumjung-Phortse area," he says. "The more Sherpas get training, the less dangerous the mountains become."

American volunteer instructor and top climber Renan Ozturk says, "At first, it was us Western instructors doing everything. Now, we just help with safety checks ... The Sherpas are doing everything themselves."

A few of the parallel efforts to bring modern guide training to the Himalaya are beginning to have a collective impact across the region. The Nepal National Mountain Guides Association (NNMGA) has partnered with French guides to develop a certification program that is in accordance with international standards, while Italian climber Simone Moro recently started a mountaineering school to serve the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. In 2005, Nepali guide Sunar Gurung passed his final exam to become a fully certified UIAGM (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) guide. He is the first native of a Himalayan state to have achieved this standard.

"On my most recent expedition to India," Anker relates, "there were two other teams in base camp—one Italian, one English. And both teams' sirdars [lead guides] were KCC graduates. They were the most dialed guys on the mountain."

For Anker, it's all part of a legacy that began 59 years ago, with Hillary and Norgay's partnership. "Unquestionably, it all goes back to Sir Ed," Anker says. "He said it first: If you're lucky enough to be a climber, you should give something back."

On Everest

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    2012 Expedition

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