The Everest Myth
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, May 2001

Most photographers never reveal the secret. Why let on that your Mount Everest trek with all that camera gear was easier than backpacking in Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? It feels too good to bask in the adulation of friends and family for having done something that sounds so rugged.

Isn’t it far harder to walk in Himalayan thin air? Not if you’re carrying just your day pack instead of backpacking with tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, tripod, film, and all your camera gear in that American park.

A typical morning on a trek through the Khumbu Valley to Everest begins with “tea time” uttered softly outside your tent. A pair of Sherpas have brought you hot drinks and warm wash water. You’re up before alpenglow strikes the peaks, shooting situations that you scouted the previous evening. When the magic light fades, you stuff your heavy tripod, big lenses, extra bodies and film into your duffle and sit down for a hot breakfast. Your sleeping bag and tent are packed up and that duffle with more little luxuries than you’d ever carry in your backpack is lashed onto a sturdy yak’s back before you hit the trail with a light camera pack.

You hardly notice kitchen boys passing you well before you round a corner to a a tablecloth spread in a meadow with a hot brunch. An hour later, you saunter back onto the ancient path, keeping an eye out for great photo ops and slowing for the occasional steeps. The tents you spot in the mid-afternoon, pitched in a distant meadow, are yours.

Commercial trekking began in Nepal in 1965, when British Indian Army Colonel Jimmy Roberts put an ad in Holiday magazine that netted three middle-aged women from the American Midwest. He hired a dozen Sherpas and a yak train to carry all the gear for what he dubbed a “trek,” borrowing a South African word from British Army vernacular that originally meant a slow journey by ox cart.

The number of Everest trekkers had jumped from three to more than 5,000 per year when I first arrived in the seventies. I found the experience so magical that I kept returning. By 1982, my wife, Barbara, and I had become “old Khumbu hands,” making three visits that year. One was what our lead Sherpa called Star Trek–we guided Robert Redford. Another was a North Face catalog shoot that Barbara directed while I led a photo trek and later ascended Cholatse, the Khumbu’s last virgin peak, with three friends. It rises above the clouds in the 1998 photograph that appears here, with Barbara strolling between two camera porters we hired for $4.00 a day.

Nepal remained closed to foreigners until 1949. Before then, many Sherpas trekked to Darjeeling, India, to find work. When British Everest expeditions began passing through India to attempt the Tibetan side in the 1920s, they selected the cheerful and selfless Sherpas as mountain porters. After Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, Sherpa became a household word.

Sherpa means “people from the east” in Tibetan. It’s hard to imagine a culture better suited for trekking tourism. When the Tibetan ancestors of the Sherpas began migrating over high passes into the uninhabited Khumbu Valley four centuries ago, the south side of Everest was considered part of Buddhist Tibet, rather than Hindu Nepal. The seminomadic Sherpas supplemented the meager yields of their short growing season by herding yaks and running the salt trade over mountain passes between Tibet and the Nepalese and Indian lowlands.

Enterprising Sherpas have recently built small inns all along the trail to Everest. Budget-minded tourists can now do the trek with just a sleeping bag, a jacket, and a fistful of Nepalese rupees, staying in cheap lodges every night. After Barbara and I began hearing many differing opinions about the current state of Khumbu trekking, we decided to return again in 1998 after a period of years to see for ourselves. One of our goals was to determine if a classic trek with tents and cook staff was still the best option for photographers, considering its far greater expense. We knew we would find more buildings and tourists in the Khumbu than in the past, yet we sensed American media overspin in stories of massive Mount Everest as a trash dump littered with oxygen bottles, rising above overcrowded valleys. By that reasoning, the Colorado Rockies have long been an unworthy hiking destination because of all those old mines, newer ski lifts, and awful national parks.

We arranged a private itinerary for ourselves and two friends from Italy with Geographic Expeditions of San Francisco (415-922-9448). They arranged everything door to door, including a Thai Airlines flight overnighting in Bangkok. Both Geographic and Wilderness Travel of Berkeley (800-368-2794) offer superbly run scheduled treks for larger groups of about 15 at a lesser cost than a private trip.

On our third morning, we flew from Kathmandu to Lukla at 9,200 feet, where we were met by our Sherpa sirdar, Ang Tsering. He handled all logistics, while we made decisions about where, when, and how far to go each day, based on weather, photo ops, and past experience. The next day we reached Namche Bazaar, the trading center of the Khumbu, where we found many more buildings than before and fewer Sherpas who smiled and said, “Namaste,” which means “I greet your soul.”

Farther on, as I was silently decrying ramshackle clusters of stores and lodges where I had previously walked through pastures, I met an enthusiastic first-time trekker from Los Angeles who delivered my come-uppance: “Isn’t this paradise?” , he said, “I hope it never changes. It’s so wonderful right the way it is.”

Decades earlier, a Sherpa who had been with Hillary on Everest made a profound remark in broken English: “Many people come, looking, looking, taking picture. No good.… Some people come, see. Good!” His first five words became the title for my 1980 book on tourism in the Himalaya that describes how many of those who came and saw most deeply returned to assist the Sherpa’s entrance into the modern world with education, medical clinics, running water, and sanitation. To date, the Sherpas have kept their homeland roadless and their rivers running free. In 1998, we found trails far cleaner than before, thanks to local education and Sherpa efforts more than “clean-up expeditions,” which Sherpas regard as thinly-disguised scams to get free treks. They face tremendous pressure to give up traditions and simply rake in tourism rupees, yet families continue to plow their fields using the same yaks that bear trekkers’ loads followed by the same kitchen boys, sowing barley. Working more slowly beside them are elders who once carried the camp gear that enabled Hillary to climb Everest and lesser-known climbers to ascend far more photogenic Ama Dablam, which rises above the fields of Khumjung like an outsized Matterhorn over a nineteenth-century Zermatt.

Despite changes in the Khumbu, the region holds far more of the spirit of old Tibet than photographers can experience in that occupied nation, where human rights are severely restricted. Those who genuinely crave an on-site understanding of Tibet should go there, but those who seek great photography of a Tibetan Buddhist culture in a scene as close to Shangri-La as they’ll find in the Twenty-first Century should opt at least once for a traditional Sherpa-supported trek on the Khumbu side of Everest.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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