Following Namche Bazar, the environment changed quite drastically. Villages became more remote, access to common utilities was rare, and the climate more unpredictable.
We embarked on a 7.5 mile trek to a very small village called Phortse. This journey took us on a wide dirt path that winded alongside the edge of massive Himalayan hills and overlooked a deep valley below. We passed many Buddhist stupas (domed monuments) and walked through tiny villages with no more than three buildings. At one point, we even encountered an elderly man named Pasang Lama Sherpa, who for years has dedicated his time to maintaining the trail that connects all of these remote villages. Now too old to do the work himself, he spends his time raising the necessary funds for others to care for the trail. He sits in a small chair at a table along the trail, accompanied by a large sign that explains his story in broken English and a log book where those who donate can write their names. Given how widespread the trail’s use is by both tourists and locals alike and its sheer necessity in connecting a multitude of otherwise isolated villages, his work is instrumental in keeping the Khumbu Region economically and socially healthy.
After many hours of following the rocky ups and downs of the hillside trail, the towering beauty of Ama Dablam came into full view. For the remainder of our journey to Everest Base Camp, this gorgeous mountain would keep us company. It is by far the most stunning massif in the Himalayas, much more attractive than Everest’s pyramid peak. A steep rising face at 22,350 feet, its name translates to “Mother’s Necklace.” The dual peaks resemble a mother (the larger peak) wrapping her arms like a necklace around her baby (the smaller peak). Although shorter than Everest in elevation, Ama Dablam is an extremely technical mountain and regarded as a jewel of the Khumbu region.
Long Way There
As we followed the winding trail and walked alongside terrifyingly steep cliffsides, the terrain opened up for us to see deep into the Himalayas. At one point we were able to catch a full unobstructed view of Phortse—our next destination. The small village sat peacefully tucked into a hill and shrouded by the summer haze. There were multiple moments during our trekking that we were able to visually see just how far we’d come and how far we still had to go. These moments demonstrated just how small we were compared to the vast Himalayan landscape. We would peer across miles of rough terrain to see a tiny dot on a hill that was our next destination. Looking at Phortse was a humbling realization that it would be a long way there. We would have to descend deep into a valley 650 feet below, cross the Dudh Koshi at its most narrow point, and ascend another 1,000 feet up before arriving at the small village. It was by all means a grueling process.
Arriving at Phortse
After many hours navigating the rocky terrain, we stepped out of the dense forest and into the village of Phortse. What we saw was shocking. Unlike Phakding, Namche Bazar, or any of the smaller villages we previously passed through, Phortse was entirely deserted. It was quiet, still, and barren.
As we walked up the hillside and through the center of the village, the only audible sound was the eerie howling of the cold wind. The afternoon fog settled just as we arrived, and nothing could be seen beyond the hillside’s sharp drop off into the valley below. The already small town, home to only about 100 or so people, was completely empty, cold, and quiet. Why? The answer is simple… Mount Everest.
While Namche Bazar and other places were quite ethnically diverse, Phortse is a 100 percent Sherpa village. It is also off the main path used by trekkers and transporters to get to Everest Base Camp, making it a fairly isolated settlement and an accurate depiction of an authentic Sherpa village. At first glance one might assume that the village survives solely on farming; however, a far different industry sustains Phortse’s population—mountaineering.
Because it is entirely composed of Sherpa, nearly all men who are physically able work as high altitude porters or guides for Everest expeditions. I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had not encountered any Sherpa on my journey. This is why. They are all gone… working with climbers from around the world on the face of Everest. And the month of May is prime time. Many climbers dream of summitting in or around the last week of May both for reasons of weather and nostalgia (the first summit of Everest took place on May 29, 1953). Villages like Phortse feel the brunt of that, as inhabits work to make the dreams of international climbers come true. Phortse was empty because all of its people, men and even some women, were risking their lives on the 29,000 foot peak of Everest.
Taking a Walk in Phortse
I decided to take a walk throughout the village to see for myself how the Sherpa lived. In a matter of minutes it was clear—they live in extreme poverty. Homes are made of loose rocks piled into walls and covered with mud, pieces of stone or sheet metal are used for roofing, and much of the infrastructure remains damaged from the 2015 earthquake. At the top of the hillside lies a large Buddhist monastery, still being rebuilt after the four year old earthquake. Near it is an abandoned white tent that reads “German Red Cross” with the remnants of emergency supplies lying around it. It was a rather bleak picture, and one that revealed just how difficult living in the Himalayas actually is.
Positivity Despite the Circumstances
Our team happened to pass through Phortse during Buddha’s birthday, a day of celebration for the village. I saw many elderly couples and groups of women carrying large baskets of treats and hurrying up the steep village pathway to the monastery doors. Buddhist monks stood at the entrance welcoming all who came by. I wanted so badly to speak to the Sherpa people, but none of them seemed to know English. Not to mention, Nepali people are often reserved when approached by Western strangers and I was no exception. Regardless, I made my way up to the monastery and peaked inside. I saw children running and playing, mothers preparing food, and grandparents laughing together. Even with most of the village gone thanks to Everest, families still found joy in celebrating together.
Meeting the Sherpa
As I walked back downhill and passed through a small arch that leads to the monastery, I encountered an older man with his daughter-in-law and her baby. The man surprisingly smiled and greeted me in English. His name was Angtshering Sherpa (Nepali people’s last names are always the name of their ethnic group). He explained to me that the reason for the celebration was Buddha’s birthday and that all those who were not on Everest were celebrating. When I mentioned that I was trekking to base camp, he shared that he was once an Everest guide himself and that he had actually summited the mountain three times. He shared that he enjoyed the job for many years, however it was quite difficult never knowing if you would return home again. But in terms of pay, no other opportunity could rival mountain guiding, especially in a village as small and remote as Phortse.
Reliance on Everest
After speaking with Angtshering, I returned to the tea house with some burning questions for our guide Ram. He explained to me that generally all of the men in Phortse, and villages like it, serve as high altitude guides and porters on Everest. In fact, even the man who owned the tea house where we were staying was a guide. At that very moment, he was on his way to summit Everest for the tenth time in his career. His son was on Everest was well, serving as a porter. Villagers in the remote Himalayas rely almost exclusively on income from the mountaineering industry. However, that does not mean that they prefer it that way. Ram explained that although Everest mountaineering is the dominant industry, many dream of doing something else with their lives and careers. Unfortunately, because of the lack of economic alternatives, they must choose between agriculture or mountaineering.
The Reality of the Mountaineering Industry
Of course, mountaineering pays far more than agriculture, but still less than one might expect. The typical Sherpa guide for Everest makes the equivalent of $3,000 to $5,000 USD for an expedition and only participates in one expedition per year. After subtracting out the costs of clothing, oxygen tanks, and other gear to make the expedition possible, this is a rather meager salary. For comparison, Western guides on Everest make approximately $50,000 per expedition. Of course, the cost of living is much higher in the West, but living in a remote place like Phortse does not come cheap. One kilogram of salt in Kathmandu costs only 25 rupees, while in Phortse it can cost as much at 200 rupees—eight times the price. Because of the mediocre pay in comparison to their Western colleagues, high expenses, and high cost of living, Sherpa mountain guides in Phortse still live in general poverty, risking their lives constantly just so they can provide for their families.
The Core Problem
The problem is simple—these remote villages need economic alternatives. And the only way for that to happen is through economic growth.
In speaking with our assistant guide, Surya, I asked if he enjoyed taking part in Base Camp treks. He said yes. Then I asked if he could do anything in the world for a living, what that would be. He said he would love to be a teacher. But to do so, he would need education from a university, something that is extremely rare and nearly impossible to obtain in the rural areas of Nepal.
The truth is that the Nepali people have dreams as big as anyone in the world, but their circumstances prevent them from being able to make those dreams a reality. Phortse revealed this to me. While the Everest industry has brought a great deal of development, growth, and jobs to the Khumbu region, it has also created an economic system that is one-dimensional. If you are born in the Khumbu Region, and especially in a remote Sherpa community, chances are that you will find yourself working on Everest one day. Otherwise you will have to accept your fate as a poor farmer.