Our three-day walk to Khumjung, a Sherpa village high in Solukhumbu in Nepal's Everest region, is full of extraordinary stories.
In this village, you can see a yeti scalp, says our guide, Mahendra Kathet. This monastery is led by a 7-year-old monk, the reincarnation of the previous head monk. In that valley, a landslide, shaken loose by one of the devastating 2015 earthquakes, destroyed a small village. This spring is believed to be inhabited by a serpent god.
But the most remarkable tales are of the everyday journeys made by the people who live high in the Himalayas. To us, accustomed to the ease of car travel and wide, flat footpaths, the long distances covered on foot seem more incredible than any yeti sighting.
We meet a man who, as a boy, walked three hours to school and back each day, leaving home under a starry sky. A doctor tells us of a new mother stretchered up the mountain overnight for treatment, her day-old baby carted along in a basket. During the pandemic, medics spent days travelling the region on foot, getting the message out to remote villages, and later, bringing vaccines.
Porters cover many kilometres carrying loads of up to 120 kilograms, the weight borne on straps across their heads. They’re paid per kilogram: the more they carry, the higher the paycheck. The better-paid tourist porters heft overstuffed backpacks for days on end, so foreign hikers can have an easier walk. Yak farmers walk their beasts to over 5000 metres each summer, higher than Everest Base Camp, descending when the weather cools.
We are here to explore the impact of Khumjung School and Sir Edmund Hillary’s educational legacy in the Solukhumbu region.
Opened in 1961, Khumjung School was the first in the region, and the first of a number of schools built by Hillary and now maintained by the Himalayan Trust. Over time, student hostels were built, putting an end to long journeys on foot to reach school. Today, Solukhumbu schools are supported by the trust, who also support projects including clean water, reforestation and medical centres.
Our journey to remote Khumjung (3800m) begins at Lukla Airport (2800m). The walk is at first undulating and then relentlessly uphill. As we ascend, the air grows thinner and we rest every few minutes, breathing hard.
Kathet, our guide, taught at Khumjung School for almost four decades, the last 16 years as headmaster. He has made this trek many times, but his journey was longer than ours. His village, in the district below Solukhumbu, is a five day walk from Khumjung. Each year he made the round trip about four times, first to visit his parents and later, after he married, his wife and children.
Kathet retired in 2015 and moved to Kathmandu to be close to his children. But part of his heart remains in the mountains – along with countless friends, acquaintances, and former students. Several times a day, Kathet pauses to greet people along the trail, asking after their families, their work and their wellbeing.
Many of the people we meet – guesthouse owners, porters, trekking guides – are reliant on the tourists who flood the region each high season in October and November.
During the pandemic, the lack of hikers not only spelled the end for many small businesses, but without tourist revenue (hikers pay about $50US to enter Sagarmatha National Park) the little support the municipality could offer locals dried up.
“The people who are workers, they suffer a lot,” Kathet tells us.
Some moved to larger centres like Kathmandu. But with visitor numbers now swelling to 2019 levels, many are returning. Some locals we spoke to were initially wary: the reappearance of tourists meant exposure to the Covid-19 virus. But most welcomed the injection of cash into the local economy.
Amy Ridout: "Hillary's efforts meant generations of children received an education." (Photo Virginia Woolf)
Kathet points out the smart, stone-built Sherpa guesthouses, many built after the earthquake, which hit Solukhumbu region hard. Sherpa are astute businesspeople, and if they can’t make a living locally, they’ll go further afield, to the United States, he says.
“People who have houses on the trail open a small shop or a guesthouse. But if you leave the trail and walk five minutes into the village, you see a different world.”
Hillary's efforts meant generations of children received an education. However, the remoteness of the region means young people still have to leave their village for further education once they finish grade 10, at around 15 years old.
For young Sherpa, the pull of the cities or the chance to live abroad is strong. Many don’t return, and the Sherpa villages are dotted with empty homes.
But for some, the desire to preserve their culture and maintain their roots is strong. We met Khumjung graduates who returned after gaining university education and skills, channelling their knowledge into their region and completing the long journey that began in 1961 with Sir Edmund Hillary’s first school.
Amy Ridout's article accompanied by Woolf's photos will be published by Stuff in coming weeks.