If you looked at my Instagram yesterday, you saw that I shared a few words about our porter team during the Mera Peak expedition. The forced brevity of Instagram captions just doesn't do things justice, so here's a more in-depth introduction to our lovely support crew.
Tara, Kat and I traveled with four locals: Mingma Sherpa, our climbing sirdar with whom I've been friends since I first started mountaineering in Nepal; Antarwu Sherpa, his brother; Geljin Sherpa, Mingma's nephew. And Gishnagiri, a Chhetri from the Kathmandu Valley for whom our trek was his first foray into high altitude work.
I have an inkling that Gishnagiri may have signed on to the trek because he thought it would be an easy introduction - three women, taking the long way up the Hinku Valley towards Mera Peak. Should be nice and mellow, right? Not with Tara and Kat: these two ultra-running, peak-bagging powerhouses were moving so fast that we all had trouble keeping up with them - particularly on the longest approach days. When I asked Mingma about the state of the crew after we had made it back to Lukla (our last long day of hiking on the way back towards civilization), he chuckled. "Ma'am, for the team... Mera Peak climbing: easy. Hiking days: HARD."
We could tell that the guys worked hard. Not only did we trek faster than your typical expedition (going from Karikhola to Tangnag in three days rather than the standard four, and crossing over mighty Zatr La Pass in two days rather than three) but we also brought gifts for the villagers as well as all our climbing gear and tents and food from the US, where many expeditions will only bring the bare necessities and rent crampons/axes/tents/group gear in Khare, the last settlement below the glaciated flanks of Mera. So Antarwu, Geljin and Gishnagiri unsuspectingly ended up in the perfect storm: walking faster AND carrying more than on your standard Mera expedition - even though Tara, Kat and I also all deliberately carried between thirty and sixty pounds in our daypacks! The guys did very well in all regards, and we acknowledged their hard work and great performance in our collective tipping and with personal tokens of appreciation that were well received.
Even with the fast pace it was impressive to see how 21-year-old Geljin would constantly run ahead, offer to take extra weight, and always be on the lookout for ways to help us. He also made an additional 3,000ft ascent to high camp to help carry gear when Tara and I decided to return for a second summit bid after Kat's HACE scare at 21,000ft (more on that in my next post). Antarwu, Mingma's brother, found great amusement in our initially desperate tries to remember and pronounce his name, and later turned out to be the natural-born dancer of the group. Gishnagiri, one of Mingma's non-sherpa friends from Kathmandu Valley, was always ready with a smile and continuously pushing hard to keep up with his sherpa companions. Rumor has it that he decided towards the end of our expedition that construction work, his year-round work, makes for an easier gig than high-altitude trekking - but he was a joy to have around and be part of our small multi-cultural team.
At one of our early teahouse stops, day 2 on the trail in Nunthala, I spotted a sobering sign in the dining room. It said: Porters: STRONG. PROUD. VULNERABLE. Please provide your porter with necessary food, shelter and shoes. Yes, guys like Antarwu and Geljin and Gishnagiri may strike us as incredibly strong and fast and seemingly invincible - but they are not superhuman. They may cheerily cross icy steeps without crampons, balance 65lbs+ loads on their backs with jerry-rigged carrying systems and dance up and down thousands of feet of snowed-in passes barehanded and in tennis shoes or even sandals... but just because they do it with a smile on their faces (or because the porter pay of ~$15/day is a high-earning gig compared to Nepal's average annual income of ~$700pp) doesn't mean that this is how it should be. The often desperate state of warm weather and mountain gear available to the locals working to support high altitude expeditions is the reason why I am very excited about having been able to partner with CAMP USA to bring a few sets of cutting-edge, lightweight glacier travel gear into the country for our sherpa friends to use on future climbs.
Of course the collective high altitude workers' gear need is a lot greater than what can be covered by the harnesses and jumars and helmets and pulleys we gave to our crew... but it's a start. Passing on high quality personal gear - boots, crampons, gloves, hats, warm socks, insulated pants and the like - is another step that we, like hopefully most other Himalayan climbing expeditions, naturally incorporated into our giving at the end of the trek. And then there's the ultimate engine to help alleviate the porters' and high altitude workers' plight: keep climbing in Nepal, spend the money to hire local support staff, compensate them fairly and make sure they're well taken care of. The moments and friendships that you'll share during the trek will make it more than worth it. And who knows, you might even learn some local dance moves along the way!