By Dougald MacDonald
Conrad Anker, keynote speaker at the AAC’s Annual Benefit Dinner in Seattle, February 25, made his name by climbing high summits in the Himalaya, Alaska, Canada, and Antarctica. But for many years, one of his greatest passions has been down in the valley—specifically the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. In more than 25 years of expeditions to Nepal, Conrad and his wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, have developed deep relationships with the Sherpa people, who are instrumental to most expeditions’ success. We asked Conrad how this commitment to Sherpa climbers first developed and where it’s leading now.
When was you first trip to Nepal and first encounter with Sherpa climbers?
In 1990, Chris Noble and I climbed Ama Dablam, a peak in the Khumbu Himalaya. Since then I have visited the Himalaya approximately 25 times.
How did the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC) originate?
The idea of vocational training for Nepali climbers wasn’t new. It became obvious to me that there was an interest and a need when I was guiding a trek and all the staff—from the kitchen help to the guides—enthusiastically joined us for ice climbing at the end of the day.
Jenni Lowe-Anker had started the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, which now organizes and funds the KCC, after her late husband died in 1999. The foundation’s goal has always been to connect with indigenous mountain populations through climbing. In 2002, Jenni and I visited Panuru Sherpa in the Khumbu village of Phortse, and he suggested we use his family lodge as the start of the KCC. Fortunately, there are many ice climbs in the vicinity—frozen waterfalls are the ideal training medium for high-altitude workers. We launched the program in 2003. The course runs for two weeks every winter, during the off-season.
How many students now go through the program each year and what do they learn?
This year, 2017, we have 89 students attending. There are basic and advanced classes, and the groups are taught by fellow Nepali climbers. Six Western guides and National Park Service rangers from the U.S. oversee the program and make sure the testing is up to par.
The students start each day with an hour of English lessons, which is the lingua franca of the trekking industry in Nepal. Then, imagine an introductory climbing class at NOLS or a university. The training covers the basics of knots, belaying, protection, and movement on both water ice and granite. There’s also a day each of advanced first aid, rescue technique, and regional science—basic ecology and geology.
The students that work in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest have a specific course in early March to help them build a safer route through the icefall. This class is taught by KCC instructors in conjunction with the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, the local group that manages the icefall during Everest season.
The KCC’s main focus is training students each season to be safer climbers when they work in the mountains. The broader outcome is creating leaders among the indigenous alpine climbing community.
The KCC has a big construction project under way, right?
Yes, nearly a decade ago, the KCC board set out to build a new home for the center, allowing for more instruction and year-round operation. The building will also serve as an earthquake-resistant, passive-solar refuge and community center for the village. It was designed by students from Montana State University School of Architecture, and it’s under construction now. When it’s done, the building will include a library, tech center, and a small heath-care facility.
What are your and Jenni’s roles with the KCC today?
Jenni is the president of the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, which also runs a library program and an exchange program that helps Sherpa climbers learn rescue, climbing, and management techniques in Denali National Park. Jenni’s day-to-day work is primarily centered on raising funds to complete the building.
I am a past program director for the KCC program. The current leaders are Pete Athans and Steve Mock.
It’s been a tumultuous few years in Nepal, with the earthquake, the avalanche, and other problems. How does the situation look for Sherpa climbers?
The dispute between Sherpa and guests, the Khumbu Icefall accident that took the lives of 16 Nepali, and the earthquake that shook Nepal were all setbacks to mountain tourism. This year the number of visitors to Nepal is back to pre-earthquake levels. Tourism is a nice way to move the wealth accumulated in developed nations to people around the world. You infuse the local economy with purchased services and goods.
What are the biggest misunderstandings among Westerners about Sherpa mountain workers?
A common belief is that that they are impervious to altitude and cold. They are human, just like you and I. The other misconception is that climbing is solely a vocation. Many of the students and instructors enjoy climbing for the same reasons you and I do. It’s fun and it provides us with our defining moments in life.
What can climbers do to improve their working relationship with Sherpa climbers?
When visiting Nepal, Tibet, India, Pakistan, and Bhutan (the countries that envelop the Himalaya), get to know your staff. Ask about their families and what their lives are like. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Be kind, be fair, and don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do.
Is there anything else you’d like to say directly to the AAC membership?
Thanks for the ongoing support. We have over 1,000 graduates of the Khumbu Climbing Center. Together we are making a difference.
Join us at the 2017 Annual Benefit Dinner to hear more of Conrad's amazing story.