Boise climber Doug Colwell spent three weeks earlier this year working at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal, helping train Sherpas who work with climbers on Mt. Everest and other mountains in the region (the total trip was 33 days).
We featured Colwell, an insurance agent who also co-owns Idaho Mountain Guides, as our Explorer of the Month before he left and caught up with him after he returned to Idaho. You can watch a video and see some photos from his journey above. Below are some highlights from our conversation about the experience.
▪ Khumbu has produced about 1,300 graduates. This year’s class featured 79 students, 16 of whom were in the advanced class. Topics during 12 days of instruction included climbing techniques, harnesses, knots, geography, plants, animals, first aid, emergency communication and advanced rescue skills. The rescue exam for the advanced class involved lowering a person 240 feet down a frozen waterfall.
▪ Colwell spent much of his time watching the students, double-checking their work and explaining what they could do better. On exam day, students had to tie 22 different knots and tell him how they are used in a 5-minute span.
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▪ Colwell heard many stories from students about family members who have died (13 of the 16 Sherpas who died in an avalanche in 2014 were Khumbu graduates). Sherpas earn outstanding wages compared to the rest of the population. “The Sherpa people, they’re an indigenous group that moved into the Mt. Everest area starting 500 years ago,” Colwell said. “Their lungs are acclimated to this. Not all Sherpas are from that actual area, but most of them are.”
▪ Sagarmatha National Park covers 443 square miles of the Khumbu region. Colwell was amazed by the way work is done there. “There’s not a wheel to be found,” he said. “Not a car, not a wheelbarrow. Once you land, everything happens by hand. I saw them crushing gravel by hand. You walk everywhere. Everything is getting carried (by animals) or by a human semi. The first day, this guy walked by with a full-sized refrigerator on his back. I’ve got pictures of guys carrying two full gas tanks, the 5-foot ones.”
▪ After landing in Lukla, Colwell walked to Namche Bazaar, then to Phortse, at 12,598 feet. The trip covers more than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles). “You can see Everest,” he said. “It’s right there. The first day, I’m feeling the altitude and the exercise of the trip. I had to go to sleep at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and didn’t wake up till the next morning.”
▪ From Phortse, the group walked 4 to 5 miles every day to the climbing venue. Phortse is a village of about 200 year-round residents, Colwell said. It balloons to about 500 during the climbing season.
▪ Part of the instructional program is teaching Sherpas to communicate in English. While teaching, Colwell could call in an interpreter when necessary. “Sometimes when you’d say things you could see question marks in their eyes,” he said.
▪ The people taking the Khumbu classes aren’t accomplished climbers. “These are people that live in the Khumbu region, and with the onslaught of people that have shown up there, they have taken on the duties of carrying the baggage and leading the way for many of these climbers, at their own peril,” Colwell said. “They don’t climb for fun like we do. For the most part, these people are trying to learn a skill set and get a job.” The Sherpas “both suffer with their lives and benefit financially from tourism — the main industry of the Khumbu region,” he said.
▪ Colwell’s favorite part of the trip: “Helping those that are helping others, and learning about a new culture where the people are very loyal, they’re very honest, they are very hard-working and they are very generous.”
▪ He expects to return to climb in the region. He isn’t interested in Everest but wants to do a “lower 6,000-meter peak.” And then “maybe Cho Oyu,” he said of the world’s sixth-tallest peak at 26,906 feet. “It’s the easiest of the 8,000-meter peaks to ascend,” he said.
▪ His thoughts on Everest: “There’s too many people there. There’s (hundreds of) people a day trying to summit that thing. I don’t want anything to do with that. There’s 36,000 visitors to 40,000 visitors a year that go into that national park. Most of them want to go to base camp. ... I want to go (to the Khumbu region) with a couple of buddies and a couple of Sherpas and do my thing, low key. Get there, climb to the top and off you go.” His idea of a successful trip: “Success on international climbing trips is best measured by examining the people you meet who become lifelong friends, learning about/experiencing a different culture, and the summit. If you get one out of three, it’s a great trip. Two out of three, it’s an awesome trip. Three of the three, it represents years of planning, lots of luck and the culmination of years of preparing oneself physically.”
▪ Colwell unexpectedly lost most use of his communication devices while on the trip. “While in Nepal, I experienced a true disconnection with the world, which, incidentally, was the best part of the trip. Losing use of my computer, iPad and almost all functionality of my iPhone was quite liberating. It gave me space to think about what’s important in life, how I can still learn to be a better person, even at 57, and to try to use those insights to help myself and others. I’m very lucky — I have a wonderful wife who retires after 33 years of teaching elementary school, two awesome adult children, an extremely good staff and patient clients who know that with Doug, comes climbing. It’s my space, a form of ‘moving meditation’ allowing me to clearly think, rest and prepare for the everyday challenges of life. Some folks hunt, others ride snowmobiles, I climb. I’ve just as much respect for them as for others.”