Story and Photo by Mackenna Mejdell, Personal Travel
“We are not the masters of this planet.” Each year, hundreds of individuals make the perilous climb to disprove this by summiting Mount Everest. Climbing this mountain is no small feat. It requires several years of alpine climbing experience, a personal supply of oxygen for climbing in the “dead zone” (which does not contain enough atmospheric oxygen to support vital respiration), extensive knowledge of the mountain’s routes, and the ability to predict weather conditions. These are all essential skills that Nepali guides must master. Their lives, as well as their clients’ lives, depend on it. These guides, along with local porters and yaks, lead visitors to the summit, carrying the brunt of the weight, taking the most risks, and receiving the least reward. Mountaineering is a gratifying sport that I have had the privilege of participating in for several years. It is also a sport that requires great attention and care. Not only must one’s respect be oriented towards the mountain one is climbing, but also to the cultural environment and to the individuals who call the land home.
I visited Nepal on a Northeastern team fundraising program. A small group of fellow students and I completed a trek to Everest Base Camp in Sagarmatha National Park. Exploring the Himalayas resembled visiting a distant planet. The sharp lines of the vast icy mountains met the blue sky in perfect balance. Mount Everest’s radiance only represents the tip of an iceberg, where a deep-seated history of inequity lies beneath the surface. Mount Everest was named after the British royal surveyor Sir George Everest in 1865, linking the peak to the Western world. However, this tremendously beautiful summit is locally referred to as Qomolangma, Romanized as Chomolungma, in Tibet, meaning “Holy Mother.” In Nepali, the mountain is named Sagarmatha, “Peak of Heaven,” among several other venerating translations. While the peak is not fully visible from Base Camp, the Khumbu valley nearly convinced me that I was in heaven. It was impossible to feel alone or separate from this beauty; each connected spire of ice embraced me as a fellow, albeit smaller, piece of the same whole. Nepal is the most stunning country that I have ever visited. I observed an environment so breathtakingly beautiful that these adjectives don’t seem fitting enough. This experience altered my outlook on life because, among the beautiful, I encountered the ugly truths of hidden injustice.
As the steam from our morning coffee slowly rose towards the sturdy wooden beams of the tea house common area, Santosh, a trekking guide, shared his perspective on working in the Everest industry. While better than the national average, his income does not cover food or transportation costs to the mountain. Similarly, the four porters I trekked with spoke of the difficult weights they must carry along the journey. Bishal told me how he typically carries loads between 100 and 140 pounds. Durga spoke of the minimal pay porters receive, along with unequipped gear. I noticed that many porters were making these treks across the rugged mountainous rock in sneakers. These are among the most dangerous jobs globally, and they echo the unspoken truth of inequity in Himalayan climbing today.
Cracking buildings and tilting wood posts hang ominously over-exhausted power lines. Highways and bridges remain inaccessible and require hours of detours to circumnavigate. From the heart of Kathmandu to the most remote village in the Himalayas, the effects of the 2015 Gorka earthquake weigh heavy on Nepal. Natural disasters, such as flooding and forest fires, have worsened in recent years due to climate change. The Himalayan region is also incredibly seismically active, as it is positioned on both the Asian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. While staying in the remote village of Tengboche, several locals shared their experiences of the earthquake with us. They explained that, for them, the only option was to bunker down and pray that rockslides would miss their precarious position between two ridgelines. International climbers residing at high elevation cities simply took helicopter transportation to safe regions in low-lying plains. Many villages remain inaccessible by any modern transport and require incredibly long walks even to reach medical clinics.
I had the opportunity to speak with the nonprofit Himalayan Rescue Association in Dingboche about the quake and other mountain tragedies. This organization works to support locals during crises by providing free care for those affected. They also expressed the importance of sharing local perspectives, considering stories are mostly told from a western standpoint. Western influences have changed Nepal in many ways, and we must all be mindful of these modifications and aim to empower local voices who are impacted the most. Current efforts are being made to improve this imbalance. Among the sea of yellow tents at Base Camp, I saw one particularly altruistic site: Everest ER. Everest ER is a seasonal clinic run by Dr. Luanne Freer, which provides subsidized health care access to local guides and porters at Base Camp. The organization supports all climbers and trekkers but recognizes the inequity in treatment towards local guides and seeks to correct it through accessible health care support.
During a simultaneously physically demanding and naturally magnificent experience, it can be challenging to think of the impacts one makes with each step. After a grueling day of hiking 14 miles with over a thousand feet of elevation gain, the last things on my mind were global imbalances. After the first few days, I realized that thinking about how much my legs hurt or how hungry I was, did not change my prospects or experience in the slightest. What did change my outlook, however, was shifting my perspective to think of others instead. By shifting our focus to caring for and helping others, we can aspire to something greater than ourselves. We can visit places with the forethought of what we can leave behind, not just what we can take away. We can share the weight we carry.
The story is featured in VOL 5 ISSUE 2 Fall 2020 (Print Edition)