We are five minutes into our seven day trek and 50 metres into our 4,500 metre ascent and I am already checking if the porter is OK. He is carrying our belongings weighing around 12kg on his back in only his sandals. I feel immediately uncomfortable even though I was well aware what the situation would be when we booked a porter to accompany us.
Prakesh, our guide, has great English and tells me not to worry. "This is our job. Before I was a guide, I was a porter and sometimes carried 35kg. It is our job, our profession and we have experience in this."
During our time in Nepal, I have often thought about the thousands of locals, especially the Sherpa community who service the Everest trails, who risk their lives and spend weeks away from their families, to help tourists climb summits that are all but uninhabitable, and should probably be left well alone. It's an interesting dilemma and one that is addressed in an excellent film called "Sherpa".
The film focuses on a disaster in 2014 when an ice slide on Everest killed dozens of climbing Sherpas. The story is told through the eyes of one Sherpa and looks at Sherpa culture, their spiritual relationship with Everest and the huge risks and sacrifices every Sherpa makes. After the incident, the Sherpas unite and refuse to climb until the government and tour operators offer better climbing conditions. Eventually, that season's expeditions have to be cancelled. The film goes on to show the ugly side of climbing Everest with tourists outraged that their expeditions have been cancelled and expat tour operators talking about loss of business.
And that's exactly what climbing Everest is. An incredible profitable business for all those involved. Tourists spend 65,000 dollars per person just for the chance to climb to the summit of the world's tallest mountain. Only 40% make it. We met one Serpa in Kathmandu before we started our trip who has climbed to Everest's summit 18 times. Mike felt pretty stupid when he got finger blisters from tying his shoe laces in this man's shop. The shop keeper explains that for the Sherpa community, trekking brings in little money compared to the big bucks involved in expeditions to Everest. It is this that drives Sherpas to continue this gruelling work.
Our guide, Prakesh tells us that Sherpas understand the risks and that they are prepared to die doing this job. In Nepal, the community or caste you belong to very much determines your future, including your job. Children in communities are built in such a way as to accept their fate. Those born into the Gorkha caste will join the Indian, British or Singapore armies. Those born into the lowest Dalit caste will grow up believing they belong at the bottom of the pile, that they are dirty and do not have the same privileges as others. Those that are Sherpas understand that they are physiologically and mentally engineered to climb.
This is their calling and they accept it. They also very much accept the developments such as electricity and clean water that the money from tourism has brought to their community. And although tourists moan at the sight of a local Sherpa youth with Adidas trainers and an iPhone, these communities are rightly thriving and modernising thanks to the money tourists bring in.
I have somewhat digressed from our personal experience but the point is the same. Although we were obviously not mountaineering up the side of Everest, the dilemma was there. We had hired a porter who had rocked up grossly under-prepared for the trek we were about to undertake. After the initial awkwardness of someone carrying our bits had worn off, we all just got on with it. The first morning was glorious sunshine and so sandals didn't seem too bad and Prakesh had reassured me that our bag was light.
Then day two, three, four and five came. On these days it rained, sleeted, hailed and snowed, usually a combination of all four. By day two, we were trekking through snow and I was terrified our young porter was going to lose his toes. On night three, we slept at middle camp at 2,900 meters. The snow fell all night and in the morning Mike and I decided that we'd make the porter wear Mike's spare shoes before our descent to high camp. I'm glad we did. There was around four or five feet of snow along the route.
There are a few things I have learned during this experience. Firstly, respect and appreciate the incredibly tough work porters and guides do and the many sacrifices they make everyday to ensure tourists get up and down the mountains safely. Their daily salary is still less than what many Londoners make in an hour.
Secondly, that it was our responsibility, his responsibility, our guides responsibility and the trekking company's responsibility to ensure that everyone was safe and well during the trek. We can only hold ourselves to account and we now know that we didn't ask enough of the right questions before we started. We checked that both were insured and would be fine to bring their own belongings. What we should have made clear is that we wouldn't trek unless both porter and guide had adequate shoes, coats, waterproofs and thermals. We should have known better. The guide and the company should also have done better.
Making sure that you think through the consequences for all those involved in a trek is something we are now more aware of. However, for those that want to go one step further there are now many companies promoting ethical trekking. Many companies 'ethical' actually means 'eco', and they will call themselves ethical just for taking their rubbish off the mountains.
Two companies we came across that we were impressed with are the 'Three Sisters' which is an all women's guiding and porter organisation promoting empowerment and job security for vulnerable women. The second is a small initiative started by a couple from the UK. They want to organise treks to remote parts of Nepal so that poor 'Dalit' or low caste families can benefit from tourism. In Nepal, where the caste system is at large, the Dalit have no opportunity to benefit from the booming tourist industry. Many guides and porters are from higher castes and they hold discriminatory views which prevent them guiding tourists through Dalit villages. This couple's aim is to address this gap and you can read more at www.offthebeatentreks.org.