Fighting Injustice In Nepal's Guiding Industry

In 2016, Da Tenji Sherpa died on Makalu with his tent partner—probably simply due to carbon monoxide poisoning from running a stove in an unventilated tent. He had guided successful summits of Cho Oyu, Makalu, and Mount Everest from the North and South, but wasn’t able to afford training with the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Nepal Mountaineering Instructors’ Association or other certifying bodies, and he was unaware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Da Tenji Sherpa was a close friend of mine, and the brother in law of my friend Karma—whom I started a nonprofit with, in order to help make change in the region. And it was in honor of Da Tenji Sherpa that we held a guide training course this past winter to teach those kinds of necessary skills to Sherpas in the Makalu-Barun region who guide on 8,000-meter peaks.

In retrospect it’s easy to see why Karma and I bonded so many years ago. In Kathmandu, a half dozen people approached me each day hoping I would buy goods, go on trips, or invest in a business venture. Karma never asked if I wanted to buy or invest in anything. Instead, he asked if the mountains in the United States were big and if they had glaciers. He wanted to know if porters were treated well in my country, what Seattle looked like, and if I had ever met the president. He was brimming with curiosity and not a dash of self-consciousness.

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Karma’s uncle was supposed to meet me in Kathmandu to discuss partnering with a study abroad program I was working for. He was unavailable, so he sent his nephew, Karma Gelyjen Sherpa, in his place. Karma spoke Sherpani but very little English and limited Nepali—the national language of Nepal, which I was learning. Our first meeting was pleasant, if a little awkward. And our relationship changed both my life and his in ways neither of us thought possible. 

Karma and I started a nonprofit in 2011 after spending three years working and climbing together in Nepal. The nonprofit’s name, Karma Project, was sort of a fluke. When I began raising money for scholarships for kids living in Karma’s village a friend said, “Oh, that’s the Karma project thing.”  I liked the double meaning of the word “Karma.” And it stuck.

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Karma Project began because Karma and I saw a need to develop methods to protect the mountain environment in Nepal, provide quality training and equipment, and offer above-standard wages, insurance coverage, and education to Nepalese mountain tourism workers. We not only wanted to make working in the mountains safer, we also wanted to provide porters and guides with the finances and education needed to choose whether to continue to work in the tourism sector or to pursue other professions. Moreover, we wanted to address the biggest contributor to injustice in the tourism industry of Nepal: poverty.

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The organization has given scholarships to young women to study medicine and return to their villages to provide medical care, provided English language training to tourism workers, given scholarships to students to attend high school, funded computer courses for small business owners, sponsored guide training for Nepalese women, paid for medical procedures and transport of patients, installed water lines, reconstructed trails destroyed by monsoon rains, developed a system to pack out waste from high-elevation base camps, funded disaster relief and reconstruction after the 2015 earthquake, and—with the help of Outdoor Research—provided clothing and equipment to porters and guides who cannot afford the tools they need for their professions. We’ve managed to do this without a single paid employee.

We’re planning another Himalayan Alpine Guide Training this winter, like the last one. All of the Nepalese students who attended the Karma Project course had worked on 8,000-meter peaks including Cho Oyu, Dhauligiri, Makalu, Manaslu, and Everest, but—like Da Tenji—none were able to afford industry standard training.

They learned basic skills like how to set up a rope for glacier travel and how to rappel were lacking. Karma Project paid for the food, lodging, transportation, and course fees for each student, and with the help of Outdoor Research, provided equipment and clothing for students. Guides and instructors from the United States and abroad generously volunteered their time to teach students, and subsidized the cost for the students to attend the course. The course addressed material that is specific to guiding clients in the Himalayas, such as assessing fixed-line strength and safety, building anchors with pitons, ice screws, and snow bars, hand-drilling bolts, client management, high altitude medicine, rescue skills, and managing hazards such as icefall, rockfall, and avalanches. Material was adapted from that taught by the American Mountain Guides Association in the USA.

OR has proudly been partnering with Karma Project since 2013—and you can help, too! If you’re interested in learning more about Karma Project, making a donation, or in helping with the Himalayan Alpine Guide Training scheduled for November 20th to December 20th 2018, visit the Karma Project website and get in touch at https://karmaproject-nepal.org/.