PHORTSE, Nepal – Pasang Diki Sherpa couldn’t contain the excitement in her voice as she burst into the dining room of her guest house with a fax letter clutched in her hands.
“A construction crew is on the way,” she said. “We should have action by the end of October.”
Action had been stalled for almost two years on a new training and community center for the Khumbu Climbing Center, which stood half-completed next to her Phortse Guest House and Restaurant. Yaks wandered between the stacks of steel girders and blue foam insulation. Two days before, Pasang had got word from her husband, Panuru Sherpa, that government officials in Kathmandu were finally responding to paperwork about the center’s budget and operating plans. And he had asked if a reporter was there asking about the project.
Everybody in the dining room looked at me.
I claim no credit for popping the logjam holding up the Khumbu Climbing Center. That goes to the Alex Lowe Foundation in Bozeman and people like University of Montana-Western professors Steven Mock and Rob Thomas, who’ve spent the past 13 years bringing advanced ice-climbing training to Sherpa guides and porters in the Solu-Khumbu region around Mount Everest. They are some of the multitude of Montanans who’ve formed deep connections with Nepal – professional, academic, social, religious, charitable and friendly.
It was just coincidence that I visited Phortse a few days before Jennifer Lowe-Anker and several companions arrived to continue work on the center in preparation for a winter training session. And a few months after the Alex Lowe Foundation had helped raise $60,000 in emergency aid after last spring’s Gorkha earthquake killed more than 9,000 people and ruined more than 700,000 homes.
The journey to Nepal was made possible through a grant from the International Reporting Project. IRP initially organized a group of reporters, including former Montana Public Radio (and now NPR) journalist Kirk Sigler, to visit the country and investigate its progress improving civil rights and economic development. Most of the team arrived April 25 – the day of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Their carefully scheduled work plan crumbled into on-the-scene disaster coverage.
My reporting project centered around the links between Nepali Sherpa Buddhists and the Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee. Because it was topically distant from the more government-focused tour of the group visit, IRP decided I should pursue my stories solo. Ironically, I arrived in Kathmandu on Oct. 1 – the day a political dispute with India turned into a serious fuel embargo that’s still grinding the nation to paralysis. For the sake of future news coverage, I hope Nepalis don’t associate the arrival of IRP journalists with catastrophe.
Before, during and after the October trip, my email filled up with notes from other Montanans sharing their Nepal connections.
Martha Newell updated me on the efforts of Ric Conner and Denise Attwood, who organized an earthquake relief benefit in Missoula. Attwood’s son Cameron, Conner and several friends returned to the Gorkha area in October and November to check on the delivery of aid and help with a novel earthquake-resistant “earthbag” construction workshop. They also delivered winter clothing produced by Himalayan Knitware, the knitting factory that’s partnered with Missoulian Matt Skousen’s Everest Designs company.
Nichole Ichertz wrote about her experience in Sindhupalchok, where the non-governmental organization Conscious Impact organized a work crew to help rebuild a community center. They’ve also provided training building rocket stoves and cob ovens that burn wood and dung with much greater efficiency than traditional fireplaces.
“The amount of care and ingenuity put into this site is incredible,” Ichertz wrote of a new compressed-earth block building in Takure. “From three-layer terraced living quarters to bamboo showers, composting toilets, running water, a well-stocked kitchen, and a central living and dining area, the space is a feat of engineering in itself. There are no power tools, save one electric drill. Everything is cut and built by hand by an extremely enthusiastic and skilled team of people from all over the world – from Australia to the U.K., Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Canada, India and the United States.”
And there was Doug Ammons, whose expedition in 1995 to kayak the Thuli Bheri River in western Nepal made a permanent impression. He still describes the area in terms of wonder: “If you enlarged Glacier National Park, doubled the size of all the mountains and raised them by 7,000 feet of elevation, that’s the Dolpo area. And it’s the hidden land – traditionally when the Mongols invaded that part of northern India and Nepal, this is where people went to hide.”
It was there Ammons met Angad Himal, who was trying to establish a boarding school for children who lived two or three days’ walk from the regional center at Dunai. It evolved into a 20-year relationship with a generation of students.
“Almost all the money I made from adventure writing has gone to that program,” Ammons said. “And the Thuli Bheri has become known in kayaking circles as the greatest river trip in the Himalaya. It’s become somewhat of a destination for expedition paddlers. And since there are these groups going up there, I got them to agree to carry boxes of books and CDs to the school.”
One of the first students Ammons met, Tshring Lamu Lama, went on to get her master’s degree in forestry.
“These people are incredibly dedicated to going back and helping their own country,” Ammons said. “As a kayaker, kayaking’s what opened that up for me, but the rewards were these human connections. If we’re going to respect and admire the culture, don’t just make it an exotic photo op. Part of what our response should be is to support the people who live there.”