After Phortse the conditions of each village continued to worsen. Dingboche, Lobuche, and Gorak Shep were all impoverished communities filled with makeshift buildings and isolated from anything other than tourists seeking to reach Everest. The prices of even the simplest commodities increased significantly as village’s became more remote and higher in altitude. In Gorak Shep, the last village before Everest Base Camp, there is no fresh water other than bottled water, which costs $4.00 per bottle. Buildings were fashioned out of nothing more than thin sheets of plywood and sheet metal for roofs. Electricity relied entirely on solar energy, meaning cloudy days resulted in blackouts. There was no plumbing or running water, so waste was collected over time and had to be carried down the trail every so often for disposal. During the night, even at the end of May, temperatures were as low as 10ºF and winds blew incessantly. It was an experience of contrasts, as the conditions were absolutely dreadful, but the mountain scenery was simply stunning.
Reality versus the Imagination
These conditions were temporary for me, but for the local Nepali people… this was their life. Crumbling buildings, trash everywhere, no running water, cold conditions, lack of resources, and the constant smell of feces. It may be easy to romanticize the idea of living in the remote mountains, surrounded by beauty and farming in an environmentally sustainable manor, but the reality of it is dark, difficult survival. Most of the people who live in these regions, wish to leave.
Arriving at Base Camp
Of course, our final destination made the difficult journey worth every bit of trouble. After 9 days, over 100 miles, and 8,000 feet of elevation gain, we arrived at Everest Base Camp. Walking alongside the Khumbu Glacier as it cracked with a thunderous roar, surrounded by nothing but Mars-like fields of rock, and looking in every direction to see towering snow covered peaks—this was a surreal experience. We walked up the icy trail to a large monument dressed in Buddhist prayer flags with a small sign that read “Everest Base Camp – 5,364 meters.”
The camp was beautiful. Sitting atop the Khumbu Glacier, dusted in snow, and covered in bright yellow tents, it had an energy unlike any other place I have ever been. This was the epitome of exploration. Home base for the world’s bravest and most motivated climbers. We could stare straight ahead to see the Khumbu Icefall—the deadly, crevasse-filled gateway to Everest—only a football field away. From there it was easy to see the route, as it stretched between Nuptse and Everest’s Eastern ridgeline, up to the South Col (the lowest point between Everest and Lhotse). It was as though I could simply start walking in that direction and find myself on top of the world in no time at all. The reality, however, is much more difficult.
Our team congratulated each other, hugging and shaking hands, then took a number of photographs to commemorate our achievement. Standing in front of Everest revealed just why this mountain so deeply captures the world’s imagination. It is the embodiment of man versus nature. It is the quintessential example of humankind’s thirst for adventure. And it is the ultimate shrine to human curiosity. There is something about the unknown, the dangerous, and the mysterious parts of this earth that attract the human spirit. Perhaps it is admiration. Perhaps it is madness. Nonetheless, people will always climb mountains and Everest will always be a landmark achievement for any person that attempts it.
Everest’s Relationship with Nepal
For the last half century, Everest has been the driver of change in Nepal. There is a reason it is pictured on all currency and every Nepali brand seems to have ‘Everest’ somewhere in the name. Everest is Nepal’s currency. It is Nepal’s brand. People respect it, fear it, and celebrate it.
Thanks to the international exploration of Everest, Nepal established a friendly relationship with the Western world long ago, ensuring it would never be conquered. Instead, it has profited from a mutually beneficial unwritten contract—the West can explore as long as Nepal can make money off of it. This has led its cultural, economic, and social diffusion. Nepal has taken what it likes from the West and left what it dislikes, making significant gains in overall development… thanks to the allure of the mountains. Now it is up to Nepal to take the next step in its growth.
Much to Be Done
One of the largest problems for mountain communities in Nepal is isolation. Mountain residents lack connection to the rest of the country and the world. Apart from satellite WiFi, they are separated from all other civilization by days of trekking across harsh and unforgiving terrain. However, locals and foreigners alike are against the building of roads throughout the region. They believe it would destroy the nostalgia of its primitive by-foot-or-yak-only transportation system and the adventurous feel of being in a remote place. While this is absolutely true, turning away from infrastructure growth and investment in these villages will result in the continual stunting of Nepal’s growth and a perpetual reliance on one industry—tourism.
Roads must be built to connect the people of Nepal. Towers must be built to transmit reliable communication. Schools must be built to educate students for a more skilled workforce. Hospitals must be built to make for a healthy and strong people. Businesses must be built in order to pull the region out of poverty and into the developed world.
There is a way for Nepal to grow, while simultaneously preserving its culture and environment. That is the purpose and ultimate goal of my next assignment—working in environmental conservation in the remote mountainous region of Annapurna. There I will explore the possibilities of a middle ground between economic growth and environmental sustainability.