The call of the mountainsAs the climbing season picked up again this year after two years of hiatus, it brought some respite to workers whose lives depend on mountain tourism. Mountain tourism is a source of income for thousands in Nepal. Besides those working as climbing guides, there are also those involved in a number of other activities related to climbing and trekking. Some risk their own lives in order to make sure the others can return alive from the high-altitudes. Others make sure the climbers receive enough nutrition to keep going.
As the climbing season picked up again this year after two years of hiatus, it brought some respite to workers whose lives depend on mountain tourism. Mountain tourism is a source of income for thousands in Nepal. Besides those working as climbing guides, there are also those involved in a number of other activities related to climbing and trekking. Some risk their own lives in order to make sure the others can return alive from the high-altitudes. Others make sure the climbers receive enough nutrition to keep going.
The highland chefs
Gyalzen Sherpa and Sukh Bahadur Tamang are seated in their office of their trekking company, resting for a change, after their long haul in the Everest region. They are back in Kathmandu after working together on an expedition to the Base Camp, as the ‘off-season’ in mountaineering has just set in. The two have worked cooked on the slopes of mountains around the country for what they term as many-many years.
“I’ve worked for at least twenty-two years on the mountains,” Sukh Bahadur tells me. “But I wasn’t always a cook. I started out as a porter.”
When Sukh Bahadur was a student in the fourth grade in his village in Gaurishanker VDC, Dolakha, he heard about trekkers on their way to Rolwaling, looking for porters. School, with the mid-term exam almost due, didn’t exactly interest the fourteen-year-old. So, he joined a band of four other boys from his village, to offer help as porter for a trekking expedition. They crossed into Rolwaling and then to Jiri. The boys had no plans or trekking gear. In their flip flops and sheer clothing for the harsh weather, they traversed the mountains, making the first incomes of their lives.
“I can’t remember exactly how much I got paid then. But, when I arrived in Kathmandu after paying a bus fare of 50 rupees, I still had 250 rupees with me. It was a lot of money then,” he recalls.
Sukh Bahadur eventually went back home when he’d exhausted his income. But it was only to begin what would be a series of stints on the mountains. From carrying loads for trekkers, he soon graduated into a kitchen spare, and worked that job a decade before he became the head cook, the 42-year-old tells me.
“A kitchen spare is a helper. You help wash first, then learn to chop. You get promoted to cook if you show the confidence with providing the service to guests,” says the cook of his journey of climbing the ladder up the hierarchy in the trekking industry. During off-season, Sukh Bahadur has always taken up odd jobs, as a carpet weaver and construction worker.
Gyalzen, who had disappeared briefly, appears with a tray of Khapse and tea and joins in the conversation.
“We always need to have an alternative source of income,” the 32-year-old says. “My wife runs a tea shop in Lukla and takes care of our boys. I light the fire on the mountains so that our house can have warmth,” he smiles.
Gyalzen is still nursing a spinal injury he suffered when an avalanche on the Base Camp triggered by the April 25th earthquake slammed him against the rocks last year. This season, he battled a terrible back pain as he went about his job. But after a break of two seasons, he needed to make some money. He has been making rounds of hospitals since he returned to Kathmandu. Sukh Bahadur tells Gyalzen it might be the ghosts of those who died on the mountain. He says he consults the dhami-jhankri every year because he falls sick after he comes back from the mountains.
“Working on the mountains is always fraught with risks. I’m a family man. I can’t always keep roving the mountains on my own and not be there for my children. Also, a man isn’t strong forever.” Gyalzen says he wants to retire to his village and educate his sons so that they don’t have to follow his line of work.
Sukh Bahadur, however, says he’s been encouraging his son to join him on the mountains. His son dropped out of a bachelor’s degree and has been considering applying to the Middle-East countries for a job. But the father says he’d rather his son stayed closer to home.
“He could begin as a porter. Unlike me, he has an education so if he got some training, he could soon be promoted to a guide. If you speak English and are familiar with the route, it’s easy.”
Sukh Bahadur says that over the years, the services and the modus operandi on the mountain have also improved. When he began working as a kitchen spare, twenty years ago, he recalls his seniors using firewood to cook, struggling with keeping the flame right most times and wringing their hand in the cold. The helpers had to carry the firewood and buy them from villages they passed through. Overtime, the use of kerosene stoves replaced firewood. These days, some trekking companies purchase gas cylinders from the villages. A cylinder can cost up to seventeen thousand rupees on the mountains, as they have to be ferried on donkey-back. Majority still go with kerosene stoves.
The first meal on the mountain is always an assortment of the continental breakfast; muesli, porridge, eggs, coffee, hot chocolate, milk, juice, and toast. The recipes have been passed down to Gyalzen and Sukh Bahadur from the cooks they worked with during their days as helpers. With the influx of Japanese and Chinese tourists, some companies have also been trying to cater to the taste buds of their clients and will serve rice congee, dashi or vegetables cooked in Asian style. Fresh veggies are now flown by choppers, while they had to be carried in dokos for weeks in the past. Fresh meat and veggies have become a welcome replacement for what used to be a menu mostly crammed with tinned food. Roast potatoes, Tibetan bread, chapatti, tee-momos, and spring rolls, for lunch, and soup, served with noodles in various style or pasta, have become the new favourites.
The Nepalis on the mountains however, prefer daal-bhat-tarkari, always eating after the guests have been fed.
Graduating to cooking means only having to carry one’s own belongings, instead of the usual 25 kilos and the pay is ‘lucrative’. While working on other mountains would fetch about thirty-five thousand for an expedition, lasting around a few weeks, working on Everest can pay more than eighty thousand rupees for a month’s work. But it also means that the high-altitude cooks have to wait until another season. Until then, it’s going to be painting houses for Sukh Bahadur and for Gyalzen, nursing himself back to health.