Taking Initiative The Nepalese Way
We’re almost 4,000 meters above sea level and the breeze is picking up. The grass, dry and yellow from the cold November air, bends with the relentless wind.
Anish Lama, my guide-in-training, and Tika Pun, my lead guide, are ahead, waiting as I plod up a wide trail of hard-packed dirt. I can’t breathe. I feel my asthma kicking in but am determined not to rely on my inhaler. I take five feeble steps and stop, sucking in deep breaths of oxygen. The air is thin, barely enough to keep me moving at a slow walk on a slightly inclined path. I need a few minutes. Anish checks his phone; Tika watches me, making sure I’m still alive. They’re sitting on a rock, waiting for me to reach them.
I’m ready to go. I steal another lungful of air and move forward.
For ten days in November, I trekked up to the famed Annapurna Base Camp and back down. Located in the Himalayas, Annapurna is one of the fourteen “eight-thousanders”, mountains whose peaks are over eight thousand meters (26,247 ft) above sea level and whose summit lies in the “death zone” – the point at which the oxygen available is not sufficient to sustain human life. The base camp lies at 4,130 meters: a much more plausible feat for someone with virtually no mountaineering experience and an irregular commitment to exercise.
Trekking in Nepal had been a goal of mine for over five years. Attracted by photos of stark white peaks, dramatic forests, and snow-covered trails, Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) lay high on my Asian adventures bucket list.
But as a young female traveller with an incredible penchant for getting lost, the idea of trekking alone filled me with trepidation, as images of falling off a cliff, body never to be found, or of passing out mid-trek from a lack of oxygen, flashed before me.
A friend of mine recommended hiring a guide for the trip. She put me in touch with Chandra Ale, the founder and director of Initiative Outdoor (IO), a leadership school that provides training for outdoor adventure guides in Nepal. Chandra placed me with Tika, one of a handful of female trekking guides, with almost a decade of experience leading trips in the Himalayas. And accompanying us was Anish, a teenage trainee with IO.
In an e-mail, Chandra shared with me that IO’s mission is to “inspire self-discovery and personal development in people of all ages and backgrounds through adventure and challenge in the outdoors.” After several years of living abroad and completing various outdoor adventure programs, Chandra returned home and founded the organization in 2003 to provide skills-training to the younger generation and help develop Nepal’s outdoor industry.
Roughly six hundred youths – including orphaned youths, former child laborers, human trafficking victims, and refugees – have taken part in IO’s programs. These include trainings in rock climbing, white water rafting, first aid and basic rescue, and environmental education. Many graduates of IO’s programs are now living and working abroad, although some assist Chandra by training new recruits, while others have found positions as guides in Nepal.
Chelsilyn Ball, IO’s course coordinator, noted that not all have been open to IO’s approach to education.
“It has been a challenge to shift the mindset of Nepali schools. Nepal holds a very traditional idea of education, [so] it is often difficult to win the support for outdoor education programming.”
Anish was one of IO’s youth participants who found his vocation – leading outdoor adventure trips – at a young age. Born in Kathmandu, Anish grew up in an orphanage home from age three onwards. Thinking back to his first memories of formal education, Anish recalls that schools were “not that practical. They used to do all theory… and I never understand that way.”
When he was ten years old, Anish remembers looking out his window and seeing the mountains in the distance. “One day I’ll be there,” he thought. “I’ll get [to the mountains].”
I’m wearing two pairs of leggings, two pairs of socks, five layers on top – including a fleece and a windproof shell – and I’m still freezing. On the wall behind me, there’s a sign noting that it will cost one dollar to have a heater brought in. I ask the woman running the mountain lodge we’re bunking in for the night if I can purchase a heater. She shakes her head at me sadly and tells me there is no extra fuel right now.
A fuel shortage has rocked Nepal since it adopted its new constitution in late September 2015. The new constitution contains citizenship measures that an ethnic minority community, the Madhesi, find discriminatory. It also enshrines secularism, which has angered the conservative Hindu population of Nepal. As a result, there has been a blockade at the main border to India, a country with a Hindu majority and close ties to the Madhesi. As India provides almost all of Nepal’s fuel, the blockade has effectively crippled the country. Fuel is now double or triple the price it used to be and the black market operates openly during the day, as there are few other places to purchase fuel.
The lodges and guesthouses located on the highly trafficked route to ABC have also felt the effects of the fuel crisis. Which is why, on a cold November night with temperatures below 0 degrees, there is no fuel for purchase.
Anish comes over to me with a cup of hot masala chai (spicy Nepali tea), my favourite drink after a long day of trekking.
“Are you cold?” He looks at me, eyes warm with sympathy.
“Yes,” I tell him, shivering. “There’s no fuel for the heater.”
He comes back a minute later with his down jacket.
“Here, put this on.”
“But then you’ll be cold.”
“No,” he says proudly. “I am Nepali.”
Anish tells me later that the greatest challenge to being a trekking guide is taking care of his clients. Both experienced and inexperienced trekkers may suffer from altitude sickness, dehydration, and a litany of other illnesses.
“Being a guide, it’s a job. You have to look after… all the guests: what they’re doing or eating… they’re drinking enough water or not, all that.”
While his training has prepared him for most eventualities, it is a different experience performing in a real-life situation where another person’s life is on the line.
“If anything happens, we have to treat before the doctors can. If not… a guest might lose their life.”
I can see one of the ABC mountain lodges now, less than 500 meters away. It’s been in view for the last hour, but with the thin air unable to satisfy my oxygen needs, and with five days of trekking behind me, I’m making slow progress. Anish plows ahead of me, checking back occasionally to see if I’m still breathing. Tika walks behind me, stopping when I do and forcing me to drink water.
Finally, we reach the sign: “Namaste – Annapurna Base Camp heartly welcome to all external and internal trekkers”. I lean on the signpost, gasping. Tika and Anish are laughing, most likely out of elation for not having had to carry me up the rest of the way. We do a three-way hug, our arms wrapped around each other’s necks as we breathe in the crisp mountain air. After six days of trekking through some of the most stunning yet difficult terrain I have ever been on, Tika, Anish and I make it to ABC.
While understanding the dangers posed to him as a trekking guide in one of the most volatile mountain range systems in the world, Anish cannot think of anything else he would rather be doing. One of his goals is to start his own trekking company, sharing what he has learned from IO with disadvantaged youth who have few opportunities or job prospects. And he wants to eventually climb Everest.
I remind him of the extremely high death toll and risk. Of the 4,000-plus people who have successfully summited Everest, the bodies of well over 200 climbers and guides, many of them Nepali, are scattered across the mountain.
Despite this grisly fact, it is still a goal for the teenage guide-in-training, and one he hopes to accomplish within a decade.
I don’t know if Anish will ever get to the summit of Everest. Nor, considering the high morbidity rate, do I know if I even want him to. However, Anish’s transformation – from a young boy bored and frustrated with education to a young man who dreams of running his own business and summiting the highest mountain in the world – demonstrates the determination of Nepali youth in the face of tragedy and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
For more information on Initiative Outdoor:
E-Mail: Chandra Ale firstname.lastname@example.org.
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