To Sherpa or not to Sherpa?

Tadapani to Chhromrong-1

Early morning view of Machapuchare from Tadapani

Day 4: Tadapani 2706 meters (8878 feet)to Chhomrong 2170 meters (7120 feet)

I woke up the next morning, my stomach feeling better, but with my legs still wobbling a bit beneath me.  Mandy and I shuffled outside, blinking as bright sunlight replaced the grimness and dinginess of our room, the sacred peak of Machapuchare (which has never been summited and is now off-limits to climbers) towered ahead of us.  We breakfasted at a long table outside under a clear blue sky that capped the glistening white Himalayan peaks surrounding us.  Breakfast was warm porridge–I was able to eat half.

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breakfast in the sunshine

Today’s trek was supposed to be fairly easy, but I had not regained full strength or confidence in my body after my spectacular collapse the previous day.  It turned out to be a fairly uneventful six-hour trek, which Dende described as “Nepali flat” (since there is no actual “flat” in the Himalayas, this term refers to alternating climbs and descents with an overall minimal elevation change at the end). In fact, the day was a slow one all around as as I recovered and Dende, our Sherpa guide, came down with food poisoning himself.  Which brings me to a crucial observation: while it’s not that uncommon for trekkers to get food poisoning in Nepal, if your local guide gets ill you are probably staying in the wrong places.  And this is vitally important because the standards of hygiene in the Himalayas are very different to anything I’ve encountered before.

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“Nepali flat”

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Moving up the valley — a view back on our trek

The Annapurna Basecamp Trek is not a very technical climb and it doesn’t require a guide (although one set of our friends did get lost following the small painted stones marking the various routes). Guides and porters lighten loads and provide a cultural bridge to the local villages and farms that one passes through. We weren’t really carrying any excess weight, but decided to hire a guide for the latter reason.  Not to mention we were both hoping to learn more about Sherpa culture and the remarkable people who not only survive, but thrive at the highest elevations.  Sherpas have assisted almost all major ascents in the Himalayas (and without them, nearly all famous ascents would have been impossible).

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Directions to Chhromrong

In that respect, Dende did not disappoint.  He’d summited Everest twice and many other more difficult, but less famous peaks.  In broken English, he told us about life on those expeditions, and the tiny village where his family lived, together with his ten siblings and their children, in a smoky one-room house heated with buffalo dung. When the winter closed in around them, they were essentially snowed in for months.

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A farmer spreading his harvest out to dry on the ground

On the other hand, Dende was getting older for a guide and no longer up for the extreme two-to-three month expeditions required to summit major peaks like Everest.  For the Sherpas, those trips have become their lifeblood. Westerners may pay over $100,000 for the chance to climb Everest. On a successful expedition, Sherpa guides may make thousands of dollars in bonuses and tips, well above the $600 average annual household income in the country. Sherpas are expected to risk their lives to ensure a successful climb and many of them have died in support of these ventures.

Foreign companies have moved to monetize the Himalayas, and their sacred mountains, redirecting funds away from the Sherpa infrastructure that the entire industry is built upon.  During our trek, this actually came to a head in the infamous “Brawl on Everest” in which Sherpas were accused of attacking three foreign climbers and nearly killing them  (these hyperlinks will take you to a Western and Sherpa account of the incident).  Regardless, the “brawl” was not a single incident, but years of tensions between Sherpas and Westerners bubbling to the surface.

We had hoped to navigate the cultural divide by arranging our guide through a local Nepalese company (remarkably, the only one we could find).  The double food poisoning, however, was an eye opener.  After conferring with our unguided friends who were selecting their own teahouses, it was clear we were staying in significantly inferior and less clean lodging.

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One of the guesthouses we stayed in–It’s hard to capture the layers of dirt, sweat, and old food in the photograph

The trek had become a tale of two trips.  During the day, there were the dramatic, expansive mountain vistas, rhododendron forests, and bright, terraced fields of wheat.  In contrast, at night the dank and dark teahouse guest rooms closed in around us like a jail cell. In fact, a jail cell would have been preferable and certainly more hygienic than the beds we slept on and squat toilets we used.  And to be clear, I have no problem with squat toilets, but I do have a problem with nasty squat toilets.  Mandy even debated not starting Acetazolamide, a medication to prevent altitude sickness, because of its diuretic effect– she wanted to avoid using the bathrooms any more than absolutely necessary.

The short story is that the Sherpas take kick-backs from the local families running the lodges. Dende was steering us to substandard teahouses to maximize his own profit (our expenses came out of his pay). I confronted him in what I hoped was a non-judgmental manner, merely asking that we select our own accommodation while promising to cover the difference in costs ourselves, approximately $1-2 per lodge, so that he would not personally be affected.

Our expectations were probably too high. In the past, we’d had guides that were both paid employees and became our friends. The reality was different here: Dende was a burnt-out Sherpa guide who really just wanted to spend time with his 7-week old baby boy. It’s impossible to blame him. At the same time, although our relationship recovered gradually from the nadir of the confrontation, the remainder of the trek was colored by the knowledge that he’d been willing to take advantage of us.

Hiring Dende was probably more insightful, educational, and informative than we wanted at the time; sometimes the most poignant truths are the most uncomfortable. Our eyes were truly opened to a piece of the Sherpa reality. With the passing of time, the dirty rooms and unwashed bedding fades in comparison with the sheer adventure of the trek, while the discomfort from food poisoning becomes an interesting side note.

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Mandy hiking through as local women work in the fields


Would I hire him again? I’m not sure.


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