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Reproduced from The Sunday Times Magazine of 19th February, 2000

 

Dead Men Walking
by Stephanie Clark

 

It's just on 6am, and a pale light is struggling to filter through the walls of the tent. Another dawn, another chance to gaze at mountains. Enormous, staggeringly beautiful mountains. At least four of them over 8000 metres high. I'm in the Annapurna region of Nepal, doing what thousands of westerners do every year: trekking. And, like thousands before me, it was obvious before leaving home that treacherously slippery paths, hours of walking each day and dubious hygiene would be more than enough to contend with, without having to lug a pack around. The locals could do the heavy lifting. So while I struggle to wake up and wonder how already aching muscles will cope with yet another day of constant uphill walking, a man who makes his living from helping softies like me will arrive at the tent with a cup of tea, a bowl of hot water and a cheery greeting. Later, after having breakfast cooked for me, and when the 3> kilos of gear strewn through the tent is packed up, he'll tie it up into a bundle, attach a thin, old piece of rope and hessian head strap (called a tump line) to it and carry it to the next camp site, bearing the weight on his forehead. The tourists on this seven-day trek have to do nothing but stroll along, try not to twist an ankle and enjoy the scenery. It costs £54 a day for the privilege of having meals cooked, tents erected, and belongings carried by what basically equates to a team of human pack mules. There are 10 clients, 26 Nepali staff. My porter's share of the financial spoils is about £2 or £3 a day. That's a good rate. He also gets to sleep in a communal tent, and if the weather's bad, or we're at higher altitude - perhaps in snow - he would be lent shoes and a jacket. The trekking company running this expedition looks after its Nepali employees well. Not all porters are so lucky.

*****


Shyam Bahadur Nepali was one of the unlucky ones. He was hired by a commercial trekking group two years ago to carry their gear over the Thorong La, a 5416-metre pass on the Annapurna Circuit. One morning, near the top of the pass, Shyam felt ill, so ill he couldn't carry his load. He was paid his wages and dismissed. Fellow porters said later that snow was falling steadily as he staggered off, alone, without even a blanket for protection and with just a handful of American dollars. Shyam didn't get far. He was vomiting and complaining of a severe headache by the time he arrived at a teahouse just a short distance from where he'd been sent on his way. Much later in the day, he staggered into a half-built lodge in the hamlet of Letdar.

Seeing how cold and exhausted the 24-year-old porter was, the man building the lodge gave him a blanket, some food, and settled him down for the night. The next morning, Shyam was worse. He collapsed. By this time, it was clear what ailed him: acute mountain sickness, which if not treated swiftly can be fatal. But in an impoverished high-altitude settlement, medical care is pretty much nonexistent. It wasn't until that afternoon, when an American climber arrived, that he was given any medication. By then, Shyam was unable to stand, could scarcely breathe and was coughing up fluid. The medicine stabilised him, made him able to travel. If he was to survive, he would have to go to the aid post in Manang, at least four to six hours' walk away. The hat was passed round; 3000 rupees (£30), a pair of gloves, a blanket and a head torch were collected from trekkers and locals; two porters were hired to carry the sick man down. By now it was 7.30pm. They set off into the dark, battling icy paths and still-falling snow. Just an hour short of Manang, Shyam collapsed and died. His body lay by the trail for three days.

The high-altitude aid post at Manang and its sister operation at Pheriche are run by the
Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). It's a nongovernmental organisation funded by donations from international groups. Both posts open each trekking season - February to April and October to November - to cater for the burgeoning numbers of western climbers and trekkers who make the pilgrimage to explore the mountains of this small Hindu kingdom. They also end up treating the local villagers, for whom regular medical care is all but nonexistent. The two posts are staffed by volunteer doctors from around the world, who are willing to put up with three months of freezing cold and primitive conditions and a stream of cases that range from sprains and stomach bugs to potentially fatal cerebral and pulmonary oedemas - fluid on the brain or lungs.

The volunteer doctor on duty at Manang that season - the man who would have treated Shyam had he managed to hang on for that extra hour - was Dr Jim Duff, a high-altitude medicine specialist who has spent 24 years as an expedition doctor - for Chris Bonington's successful Everest attempt in 1975, among others. Duff, British-born but based in Australia, has seen many deaths from altitude sickness - a sometimes fatal illness that can trigger fluid on the lungs and brain, gastrointestinal ulceration and cardiac failure. What angers him is that many of those who have died have been porters, and many deaths have been preventable. "In the past eight years, in the Makalu-Barun National Park area alone, they know of 20 porters who have died," he says. "And on one particular pass there are six fresh graves - of two years ago - of porters."

Each trekking season Duff returns to Nepal, and each time tales of preventable deaths involving porters are relayed to him. He's only been in the capital, Kathmandu, a few days, and already the reports are piling up. "I've maybe got three, four, five descriptions from people about porter deaths they've come across, or near misses where they've been following a group that's paid some people off and they've run onto them and found them so bad that they've had to take pity on them and feed them and warm them up, and then send them on their way. The worry is - maybe I'm a kind of bleeding heart and I'm exaggerating - but I've got no doubt that there's a large and growing tally in death and frostbite and injury, and it's the tip of the iceberg."

The reason people keep bringing these tales to Duff is that, for him, Shyam Bahadur Nepali's death was the last straw. Now he and a handful of Nepalis and westerners with links there are trying to highlight the sorts of conditions all too many porters endure. Two years ago, after Shyam's death, Duff set up the
International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) to highlight the exploitation and neglect of local labour that is rife throughout the trekking industry.

Specialist climbing porters and the traditional Sherpas who work in the climbing industry aren't really the problem. A mountaineering expedition's safety can depend on its support crew, and high-altitude specialists have gear that is comparable with their western clients'. The porters who work the walking routes, but who are still faced with high altitude - often higher than Everest base camp - are less fortunate. For years, Duff has seen porters exploited, pushing themselves to the limit for what to a westerner is the price of a pint. He's seen them tramping through knee-deep snow, their only footwear a pair of flip-flops, not even given a blanket, let alone a tent, for shelter. Stories abound of them wearing just a garbage bag for protection, working for a pittance.

Doug Scott, the first Briton to summit Everest, runs his UK-based trekking outfit as a charity, putting profits into community development in Nepal. One night last spring in the Manaslu area, 3500 metres up, he met porters lugging 40-kilo loads. They'd begun walking at dawn, climbing 7000ft from the Marsyangdi river, for just £1.08 a day. Scott won't name names, but says they had been hired by an English public-school group.

"It's very sad," says Charlie Holmes, a guide with World Expeditions, a veteran Australian-based company backing the work of the IPPG. He too has been coming to Nepal for two decades and says such sights - and far worse - are common. "We had an incidence earlier this year [May 1999] at Mera La. We were camped in a total-whiteout-conditions camp, it was all ice and snow - and there was another group behind us. We didn't know where they actually were at the time, because they weren't our responsibility, and in the morning one of the porters had died through the night, purely from an altitude problem - he'd been taken hypothermic. Now, we had the right gear with us, we had a portable altitude chamber, a tent and all to put him in. But we didn't know. We weren't told until the following morning. But this is totally avoidable. That porter should have been in with the other two people. It was private; they had a tent themselves. He was just left to fend for himself."

The small number of tourists who die in Nepal each year is well documented. There are no statistics kept on the number of porters who also perish, no system of coroners to investigate why they died and whether their deaths could have been prevented. The conservative number of preventable porter deaths per year is put at two; people like Holmes and Duff say the real number is far higher. Each year, when the snows melt, the corpses are found: porters who became separated from the group, or who were paid off and sent on their way if they fell ill and were unable to carry a load any longer.

"We found porters in the Manaslu area about six years ago," Holmes recalls. "They'd been with a group that was organised in Kathmandu. As they got going towards the top of a pass, called the Larkya La, they came into whiteout conditions. The group separated - some went over the pass, some went back down. There was nobody responsible for where the porters were. Three porters just sat down in the snow. We came through and found them. They were buried in the snow, but it was coming up to the thaw.

"At these high altitudes you come across them on the trail. You'll see a porter's body - it's just repulsive. They'll have just sat down, become hypothermic and died, and again there's just been nobody responsible within that group. They can't find the porter, so they just don't worry about it. You've got to be responsible, you've got to know where they are at all times." Last season, dozens of porters' bodies were recovered during the thaw on a pass going into Gokyo, in the Everest region; they'd stopped for the night on an area notorious for slab avalanches. Nobody on the trek they were carrying for had stopped to check if they were safe.

Duff feels guilty that it has taken him so long to try to do something about the conditions the porters - among the lowest of the low in Nepal's caste-ridden society - put up with in order to eke out an existence in this Third World country, where the per capita income is just £120 a year. "It took me until 1997 to get really pissed off about it and to do something about it," he admits bluntly. "Because, like everybody else, I am coming and I'm going. I see a little bit of abuse, a little bit of exploitation, a little bit of lack of care, which, in a way, is appropriate to where Nepalis are [economically]. But if you want to change it, you've got to get angry about it, and it took me 23 years to get angry about it."

The IPPG wants stringent monitoring of pay and conditions, and also wants tourists to hit operators where it hurts by insisting porters are treated and paid well, or taking their business elsewhere. "IPPG is
hoping to clean up the scene here before it becomes an international human rights issue," says Duff.

Changing working conditions - and saving lives - won't be easy. Nepal's main priority is just to keep its more than 23.6m people fed. It has been a fledgling democracy for only nine years, an agriculturally based economy with little in the way of natural resources other than its mountainous beauty. One natural resource has been timber; its harvesting has created an increasing deforestation problem. Seventy per cent of Nepal's population are subsistence farmers - with just one crop a year - who barely scratch out enough to feed the family their traditional two helpings a day of dal bhat, rice and lentil soup. Unemployment is rife. Tourism, largely mountaineering and trekking, is crucial. The IPPG doesn't want to deter visitors from hiring porters; it's an essential jobs sector, and many, despite the poor wages, enjoy the work. Some are driven to improve their lives because of the contact they have with tourists; they see that there can be a better future.

Wongchu Sherpa is one porter who has managed to create a better life. He was 11 when he ran away from his village and came to Kathmandu. An orphan neglected by the older sibling he lived with, he saw portering as the only way to earn a living, lied about his age and somehow managed to survive. There was a lucky break: he was taken under the wing of some Italian climbers in his late teens, and ended up working as a climbing guide in the Alps. Now he runs his own specialist trek outfit, employing more than 300 people.

Ngima Dawa Tamang started even younger: he was just nine. He too has managed to drag himself out of portering and set up a trekking business. Like Wongchu Sherpa, he is illiterate, but he has been able to send his brother to school, and he is the other partner in the business. Dawa is also lucky to be alive. At 14 he fell ill while carrying on a trek. Like Shyam Bahadur Nepali, he too was paid off and left to fend for himself. "I was very sick, just left there by myself. I had my cooking pot, nothing else. I was there 18 days, I just had nettles to eat." He was rescued by another trekking party.

Western visitors, even the independent backpacker travelling on a shoestring, have money to burn compared with the average Nepali. The money they bring - nearly £95m in 1998 - is desperately needed. That year the country hoped to attract half a million visitors; it hasn't quite reached those heady heights, but the annual influx is only 100,000 or so off that. Part of the country's allure is how little it costs once you're there. Tourists, drawn by the idea of an exchange rate that has to be experienced to be believed, and convinced that haggling is de rigueur, are out to get the best deal.

There are more than 400 trekking companies in Kathmandu. Competition for those tourist dollars is fierce; undercutting is the name of the game, and corners are cut to keep prices low. But it's not tourists who are on the receiving end of those cut corners: it's the people humping their gear. Subsistence farmers flood into the main jumping-off points for trekking - Kathmandu and Pokhara - to find work as porters when they've nothing to do on the farm. Many come from the impoverished, desolate, deforested valleys that most tourists have no idea exist, from lives so desperate that the opportunity of earning even £1 a day for a few months a year is an attractive proposition.

*****


Walking the narrow streets of Thamel, Kathmandu's crowded, smog-filled tourist quarter, is to run the gauntlet of hustlers out to convince the gullible western trekker that the firm they work for is the only one worth bothering with. With every step comes a fresh business card, every second of eye contact a potential booking.

And they'll promise the earth to clinch a sale. But just how cheap will they go? I instantly invent a dozen keen trekkers who will join me in a fortnight. Now it's time to do business - and what a deal I can get. For just £12 a day, my imaginary companions and I will be able to walk the mountains of the Annapurna or Everest ranges - sleeping in teahouses by night, three hot meals a day, a rescue service on stand-by. We'll have two nights of three-star accommodation before we start, one porter to every two people. The deal's incredible. But it's not we who are really paying: it's the porters. In the Everest region, a hot shower costs £2, a pot of instant noodles, 65p; it doesn't take a genius to work out that at £12 a day there won't be much flowing through to them.

Unions have been set up, but as yet have little clout. They say about 25% of trekking companies are okay, but new outfits, often run by people with no experience in the mountains, treat their porters appallingly; some short-change hirees or don't pay them at all. Some countries have worse reputations than others. It's a small market; everyone knows everyone else, so nobody wants to name names, but, privately, some English and French companies are said to be particularly poor employers.

What the IPPG is hoping to do is educate the tour companies, the trek leaders, the porters themselves and the people who come to explore the mountains. They say it's time to dispel the romanticised image many westerners have of porters as hardy souls at home in the mountains, for whom the comforts of high-tech protective equipment are unnecessary. It's an image held by some Nepalis as well. Read any travel story, thumb through any travel guide, and you'll find a throwaway line or two about the rugged locals carting the greenhorn walker's gear. You'll find a quick contrast drawn between blisters from new boots and porters running ahead in their flip-flops or bare feet to set up the soft western clients' tents. There might be an amusing tale of the camaraderie as the porters bed down for the night around the fire, each wrapped in his thin blanket. Then, seemingly without a second thought, the narrative will swing back to the mountains. After all, that's what everyone's there for. It's a holiday, a mountain idyll in a fairy-tale setting, well away from the day-to-day grind - and it's far easier to accept the mores of such a country than question them.

The reality is that the bulk of those who make up the trekking porter workforce are no more used to coping with high altitude than the tourists whose equipment they lug through the mountain passes. They're not all Sherpas or high-altitude specialists; they're not any better than the tourists at coping with extreme cold; no reason why the man carrying 60 kilos on his back shouldn't be wearing the down-filled jackets, caps and gloves that no tourist in their right mind would consider going to Nepal's mountains without.

Speak to anyone who's treated the injuries, and it's a sobering picture: snowblindness because they don't have goggles; frostbitten limbs, pneumonia, cerebral oedema. Urs Hefti is a Swiss doctor who last season worked at Pheriche aid post. In three months he treated about 180 Nepalis; a third were porters. Although some had minor ailments, others were the most severe cases of mountain sickness he saw: "All these cases, using a portable altitude chamber and oxygen, and carrying people down, were porters. We never had to carry a trekker down; we flew some out, with heart problems." The worst case of altitude sickness he treated still sticks in his mind: "I really think one of these guys, he was next to die. It is always hard to say, as a doctor; talk of saving lives is for the movies or TV. For this guy, I'm really not sure. If we had not been there, I think he would have."

Getting patients to a lower altitude fast is crucial when treating acute mountain sickness. For tourists, there's always an airlift. Few companies extend the same courtesy to porters, despite laws introduced last year making them liable for their health and safety. Porters are usually carried down, if they make it down at all.

*****


In the international camping ground at Pokhara, the starting point for treks in the Annapurnas, a group of porters from a village four or five hours' walk away are sitting patiently on the grass, hoping to be hired. They arrived earlier today; if they don't get work within two or three days, they'll go elsewhere. One man has been waiting for five days. The youngest is 18, the oldest, 54: old for what is essentially a young man's game.

Speaking through an interpreter, they say they don't like the work, but they have to do it: they need the money. The top rate they can expect is about 150 rupees a day (about £1.20); they'll carry loads of between 50 and 60 kilos, and they'll have to provide their own food.

They say it's unfair that they have to carry so much, when the standard load is 30 kilos. But what can they do? There are no unions here. They don't have too many complaints to make about the tourists whose loads they will carry, at least not to a western reporter; there might be a tip to supplement their meagre wages, maybe even a cast-off garment or two. Most are clad in ragged singlets and ripped, torn trousers. There's not a pair of shoes in sight. Depending on who hires them, they may be given warmer gear if they ask for it, but they all say that what they've got at the moment is not enough.

They all have tales to tell of porters being mistreated; one knew someone who died of altitude sickness. At least his widow was given a little money for the funeral.

Nepalese law now requires all companies to insure their porters against death. The more reputable firms talk up the premiums they pay, but the unions say the payouts, maybe 80,000 rupees, aren't enough. Losing fingers through frostbite will end a porter's working life; if he were insured, he might get about £55. The United Nations rates Nepal the world's seventh poorest country. A social safety net is nonexistent; remarriages by widows are rare and culturally frowned on. If a porter dies, or can no longer walk, it leaves the family desperate. But the porters sitting on the grass at Pokhara simply shrug their shoulders. The trekking companies won't listen to them, and if they refuse to work under these conditions, there are plenty more men willing to take their place.

All of them say they want an education.

We find others even more destitute. We arrive at twilight, just as they are cooking their frugal meal of dal bhat. There are about a dozen. They have one tent. They're camped in a clearing a few miles from the airport. One, 45-year-old Srichan Lama, says there's only one upside to being a porter: at least they get to see their country. He can find no way out. He's been a porter for 29 years. He works as a labourer and woodcutter the rest of the year, but still struggles to feed his extended family of six.

"Can you give us money?" he asks. He is desperate to educate his sons, so that at least they have a chance to escape this. "What's the point in complaining?" he says. "Nobody will listen to us. We are worthless."

 
 
(c) Times Newspapers Ltd
 
Kind thanks to the Times Newspapers for permission to reproduce this article on the High Altitude Medicine Guide.
 

Please check out the International Porter Protection Group website if you have not already done so.


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