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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Updated June 2011

To update readers on the current status of the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal (see project description below), information resources for the project have been expanded.

A new Web site, http://www.arch.montana.edu/khumbu provides a comprehensive overview of the project, monthly construction updates and links to additional blogs.

This blog site will continue to be available as an archive of our December 2009 work in Nepal, so you can see how MSU students started construction: the foundation excavation, and fabrication of the roof truss prototype, window prototype and seismic braces.

Thanks for your interest,

Michael Everts, professor
MSU School of Architecture


Posted November 2009

A team of six Montana State University architecture students and Michael Everts, MSU professor of architecture, left Bozeman Nov. 17 and traveled to Phortse, Nepal on a month-long trip to begin building the Khumbu Climbing School. For nearly two years the MSU School of Architecture team has worked with the Sherpa people that live at 13,000 ft. in the remote Himalayan foothills, to design a 3,000 sq. ft. building commissioned by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

The students are: Dean Soderberg of Laramie, Wyo., Jaron Mickolio of Laurel, Elissa Jones of Billings, Adam Rouns of Missoula, Marit Jensen of Port Ludlow, Wash. and Chris Hancock of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Team member Sean Weas of Green Bay, Wisc., is coordinating efforts from MSU. A blog about their experience follows.

About this blog
Architecture isn't just buildings. It is how we engage with the space around us – in learning, in socializing, in working, in playing and in our constant connection with the materials that form the built environment. The Khumbu Climbing School project in Phortse, Nepal, founded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and designed by the MSU School of Architecture, is as much a unique process of open source education as it is an unprecedented building prototype for healthy living, seismic safety and cultural sustainability.

This blog, from six MSU architecture students and their professor, will present the experiences and perspectives of their trek to Nepal for the start of construction…it isn't architecture if it isn't built.

--Michael Everts

General comments:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 10:13 AM
Hey guys! Your blog fills my heart with joy as I join you there. The quality of your writing allows (me) to jump right in and feel the thrill of your experiences; the sights, smells and sounds of your days. I can feel in your expression, the appreciation you all have for what you have been given and what you are blessed to now give. We who love you anticipate not only our reunions, but the stories you will tell for years to come...and wonder too, how this richness of this experience has served to shift you at the core of your being. Will you forever be blown away by the people and culture?

Peace this day and all the rest,

Mz Gypsy (Hancock)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 8:14 AM
WOW, it has been thrilling to follow this wide-eyed group full of enthusiasm and energy to impact the world. I crave information about this team. I love learning of their experiences and perpectives in Nepal with the Nepalese people. Chhongba, their guide is a blessing. Each night I eagerly check for more entries into the blog. I have given the web site to many so they too can follow their jouney.

Eileen Rouns

Monday, December 07, 2009 11:06 PM
I very much enjoy each and every entry to the Khumbu blog. As one of the family members left at home, I anxiously await each new update. I am so proud of the work each member of the group is doing and am happy for the experience they are sharing together. As the stresses of the season increase with the holidays, work, school and preparing for tests and projects of finals week; checking the Khumbu blog is the highlight of my days. Thank you to the group for letting me live through you! Blessings to all! Here at home, I keep all of you covered in prayer!

Deanna Stanton (Mickolio)

Saturday, December 05, 2009 7:17 AM
It so great to keep up with your adventures every day. Thank you so much for doing this blog and for giving those of us who are not there insight to what is happening. Plus, as a mom, it's really great to know that you're ok and to follow the progress of the Climbing School. I look forward to each entry and have been really impressed with what great writers you all are. You are all in our thoughts and prayers.

RomaLee Jones

Monday, November 30, 2009 3:54 PM
Hello to all…your blog is amazing, and we all wish you well…thanks especially to whomever takes the photos, they are magic. We all wish you the very best, and please keep up all your good works.

Sincerely,

Anne, front desk incoming
MSU School of architecture

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Layers of Nepalese prayer flags
Layers of Nepalese prayer flags
Wednesday, 12/16/09 -- Gratitude and Goodbyes

Our last full day in Kathmandu and Nepal… It is hard to wrap the mind around the fact that we are leaving. The day started much as the rest of our days here; overstuffing ourselves with the delicious hotel breakfast and then off for some exploring and errands. We wandered the streets slowly and with deliberation, choosing alleys and paths previously unexplored. We picked up last minute trinkets and gifts, haggling like the pros we felt like (we have become), and attempted to soak up the patchwork of chaos, color, noise, aroma, and other characteristics that define this dynamic city. We navigated the convoluted streets with confidence, at one point noticing an extremely confused and overwhelmed looking fellow traveler, clearly a newcomer still becoming accustomed to the controlled pandemonium. With a mix of pride and chagrin, we fondly remembered our first days in the city, (when we were) out of our own comfort zones.

Around lunch time, we met up with Jiban for a farewell lunch at the beautiful "Yak and Yeti" hotel. It was an area of town we hadn't explored, and it made it clear that we had not experienced all of Kathmandu. Through all of our adventures and endeavors, we had stuck to the more industrial and often less well-to-do neighborhoods of the city. The "Yak and Yeti" showed us another aspect to this multi-faceted city, one of lush lawns, beautiful flowers, preening swans and majestic architecture… We felt like we had stepped into a scene out of a James Bond movie. More than any part of our trip, I think this moment defined that even with our feelings of vast exploration, Kathmandu is a city difficult to define or compartmentalize. It has its luxury, its suburbs, and its slums, much like any urban area. We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch buffet in this almost decadent atmosphere, each savoring expertly cooked dishes that we had been craving, be it mounds of leafy green lettuce or a wide variety of meat, meat and more meat. We parted with Jiban reluctantly, lingering over dessert, coffee and promises to show him the slopes next time he is in Bozeman.

The afternoon slipped away before our eyes, more exploring and circuitous routes making the return trip to our hotel feel luxurious. We then did our best to clean up nicely for a final dinner in Kathmandu with Chhongba, at the well known "Everest Steak House," hardly a stone's-throw from our front door. The leisurely dinner was filled with laughter and reminiscing as we recollected the highlights of the trip; the jokes, the successes, and our impressions of this place. There was a subdued underlying feeling as we discussed what we were looking forward to at home and what we would miss from Nepal. Time and time again the conversation came back to what an incredible experience this was, and how overwhelmingly lucky we all felt to be a part of such an amazing endeavor. Our feelings were mixed and emotions torn; excited to head home for the holidays and see loved ones, pleased by the camaraderie and positive outcome of the trip, sad our adventures are coming to a close, and anticipating the next steps in the project and our intentions to return to this magical place. A couple drinks on the rooftop, e-mails to double-check rides home from the airport, some creative packing to fit in all our new acquisitions, and our last evening in Nepal faded quickly to night… the next day bringing the first of our many flights on the voyage back to Montana.

Beyond any other thoughts though, we are all grateful. Grateful to the multitudes of people involved in this project who have made this possible, grateful for all the support from home, grateful to have been given this life-changing opportunity, grateful for the generous and loving people we have met along the way, and grateful to have shared just a little piece of our adventure with you those that have read our blog.

Namaste!

-- Marit Jensen

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

MSU team reviews building's truss
MSU team reviews building's truss
Tuesday, 12/15/09 -- Transitions

The whole trip has been full of transitions and layered juxtapositions of experiences: Nepali culture (specifically Sherpa) and American, new building technologies and traditional vernaculars, eastern and western religions, working on a building and trekking in the most wondrous, remote region of the world, permanence and temporality, young blind ambitions and somber reflections of mortality…

Before we left Kathmandu and trekked to Phortse, we had coordinated with the aluminum window fabricator and the truss fabricator to complete prototype mock-ups. So, while we were gone the mock-ups could be done, then when we returned we could review the final sample, make adjustments if needed, and review the final design. We are now back in Kathmandu. It is about 9 a.m., time to review the mock-ups and scout out drain tile piping, waterproofing for the foundation wall and insulation for the Gabion cage wall. For the material scouting, two strategies were suggested: first, to visit the industrial area, going directly to the factories that make the material and second, to visit some of the larger hardware stores and back track, ordering from the same supplier that they use to get the smaller quantities. For the pipe, waterproofing and insulation, neither of these strategies worked. Kathmandu is a complex network of semi-formal and informal suppliers and manufacturers. There are so many makers, at so many scales, that it is nearly impossible to understand what you are really getting. The products are bought at discount rates (who knows how long ago) and then sequestered in side street storage shops throughout the city… so to actually see what you are going to get before you buy it, you need to sift through this dense network of distributed stores, trying to get to a point that you can tangibly roll the thing in your hand, and then intuitively gauge its quality (not a lot of printed specification sheets to review). The process makes it very difficult to verify and know the quality or even find exactly what you are looking for. It was a bit of a bust as far as waterproofing, insulation and drain pipe were concerned.

Cremation of Chongba's cousin
Cremation of Chongba's cousin
The window and the truss, on the other hand, turned out spectacularly. Tek, the truss fabricator, and Mingma, the glass and aluminum frame fabricator, did extraordinary jobs, their respective prototypes were better than our expectations. This was exciting and rewarding. In particular, because at this stage of the project, the very beginning of construction is critical to the future success of the project, in the sense that what gets done now, stays for generations.

In the afternoon, Chhongba invited us to the Bodnath Stupa to attend his cousin's funeral. Many members of his family would be in attendance and he said that we were welcome to attend. We all met at the Bodnath around 2:30 and then walked for about 30 minutes through, and to the edge, of the city. Finally, we ascended to an overlook where the crematoriums altar was located. Respectfully, we sat at the outer edge of the gathering, quietly observing and, I would imagine, individually reflecting on how we fit into so many different realities. The body was eventually taken from a wooden box and laid in the large crisscrossed logs, piled with fuel soaked straw and lit. Thick purplish grey smoke pillowed upward into the wind, pattering itself to the drums, horns and chants of the seven presiding lamas.

-- Michael Everts


Khumbu Climbing School rendering, second floor looking east
Khumbu Climbing School rendering, second floor looking east
Khumbu Climbing School rendering, west entrance
Khumbu Climbing School rendering, west entrance
Khumbu Climbing School rendering, second floor looking west
Khumbu Climbing School rendering, second floor looking west

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Lukla. Home soon.
Lukla. Home soon.
Sunday, 12/13/09 -- Lukla to Kathmandu

The propeller of our little plane never stopped. It was the third to land this morning on the little runway, hanging on the mountainside of the village of Lukla, where we had first landed to start our trek to Phortse (nearly a month before). Flights in and out of this small Himalayan airport are unreliable at best and oftentimes can be shut down indefinitely. Radio calls back and forth to Kathmandu are necessary to verify weather conditions. We waited patiently, eating breakfast at our lodge that was adjacent to the airport's radio tower, until we heard the siren telling us that planes were on the way from Kathmandu. Chhongba informed us that we had about 30 minutes to get ready for departure. Our porter's had already carried our bags to the gate and checked them in while Chhongba had arranged our boarding passes. So, all we had to do was gather our belongings, walk to the departure gate and get through security.

We patiently waited at the gate for the planes to arrive. Everyone cheered as the first, second and third planes landed safely on the short, inclined runway. Watching these planes land is quite a sight and spontaneous applause is an appropriate response to the incredible event. We were escorted immediately out to the tarmac and led directly to our plane, which was the last to have landed and evidently the first to depart. With the engines still running and the arriving passengers just unloading, we boarded, found our seats and barely got buckled in before the small 18-person plane moved into position for takeoff. The stewardess (yes, stewardess) hardly had time to hand out earplugs and candy (not the best time to order drinks) before the engines revved and the pilots positioned us at the head of the runway. I have seen driveways longer than the runway we were now preparing to hurdle down which, at the far end, terminated with a 1,000 ft. drop down to the valley below. Fortunately, we did not have time to worry about it, because the engines roared and we throttled down the ramp and we were off.

MSU team on their plane back to Kathmandu
MSU team on their plane back to Kathmandu
The first plane out of Lukla this morning was a fantastic ride that filled our minds with images and thoughts of our trip. We all regarded the Himalayan views from our windows with a feeling of relief and fulfillment for our recent journey. We all reflected upon our trek, the project, the efforts we put forth, the remarkable people we had met, and our imminent homecoming. It was a satisfying feeling for all of us as we looked out over the fog covered valleys and back towards the mountains that dominated the horizon.

The view from here, above the mountains that we had just traveled, has given us a unique perspective as to how far we have come. Getting a project of this nature started is truly a difficult task. To see it started and set in motion is unbelievable. There were times when it seemed insurmountable. Looking back now, staring at the mountains from above, we are truly humbled by the entire endeavor.

As we sit at the table of our favorite Kathmandu restaurant - Fire & Ice - we are grateful for the pizza and beer. We have all been longing for some small comforts from home. We will still have to wait for that huckleberry shake for a few more days. In the meantime, we will enjoy the chaos of Kathmandu, which has surprisingly felt very familiar to us all.

-- Chris Hancock

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Entering Lukla
Entering Lukla
Saturday, 12/12/09 -- The Finish Line

Architecture is a very broad field combining thousands of issues and ideas into a completed work. Our journey would become complete today as we reached Lukla, where our trek into the mountains began.

Leaving Monjo around 8 a.m. everyone, even though tired, hungry, and definitely stinky, had an extra pounce in there step as they knew this was the last day of hiking. The duration of the hike to Lukla was determined to take five to six hours. Our group finished the hike in less than four hours.

Walking into Lukla, our team was all smiles, giving each other praise for the hard work and effort. In the 16 days of hiking and working on the project in Phortse, we hiked more than 80 miles to an elevation of 18,000 feet plus, and started construction on our building that has connected two cultures a world apart. After lunch in Lukla, we had free time all afternoon. Beginning to unpack in our rooms, I looked up and saw what I thought was myself in the mirror. With a full beard and overgrown head of hair, it was obvious that a shave and trim were in order.

Borders bid the MSU team good-bye
Borders bid the MSU team good-bye
The one barber in town would charge 700 rupees, about $9.50, for a shave, trim, and upper body massage. This process, or should I say ritual, would last an hour. Like Edward Scissors Hands, the barber cut at my hair sculpting it as though it was a piece of art. Finishing in less than 15 minutes with my hair, he then began the shave. With a brand new blade, he shaved my entire face twice, each time lathering it up with a delicate shaving cream. I was finished, except now it was time for a 20-minute upper body massage -- pulling and pushing in just the right places, causing my body to relax in ways I never thought possible. If only they had something like this back home in the states. Oh wait, they do and it costs hundreds of dollars!

It wasn't long before our entire group of males had to visit the barber; the two girls even contemplated getting some type of cut. Later that evening we would have our final dinner with our guide, and a going away party for the porters. At the end of dinner, we presented each of our four porters with a bonus. The first bonus was 2,000 rupees, approximately $27 American, and though minute to us, (the bonus) made our porters unbelievably grateful. We also split up extra clothes and belongings, including hats, gloves, shirts, jackets and pants, which we gave to the porters to use. Again, it seemed small to us, but life-changing to our porters. With Christmas closing in as we head home in the week, it was clear that giving or receiving gifts isn't about the materiality of the gift or the thought, but about being with the people we love and our thanks for the things we have in our life.

-- Adam Rouns

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Adam Rouns and the $9.50 shave and haircut
Adam Rouns and the $9.50 shave and haircut

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

The MSU team on the runway of the world's highest airport.
The MSU team on the runway of the world's highest airport.
Friday, 12/11/09 -- Saying Goodbye and Snow Leopards

Leaving Phortse this morning was an emotional event that was both sadness and hopeful. Sad, because we were leaving the community we had grown a part of the last few weeks; hopeful, because we knew the project was well under way and we would be back for the grand opening. Final hugs and handshakes were exchanged, and in the same warm way we were received we were sent on our way.

Kevin, the song and dance genius from the night before, decided to join our motley crew for the last part of the journey down the valley. The first stop was the village of Kumjung to see the school Sir Edmund Hillary had established in 1961. It was a beautiful place with very organized buildings and several big open areas for recess. After the brief, but uplifting tour, Chhongba snapped our picture with the bronze bust of Hillary and we were on our way.

We hiked through the beautiful valley behind Kumjung to our second stop, the world's highest airport in Khunde. The eight-foot-wide stairs wound up through huge boulders and yellow grass sprinkled with juniper bushes. After the cresting the top of the hill, the walk was short to the airport landing strip. The dirt tarmac stretched out before our eyes for about 250 yards before it dropped straight off the side of the cliff. Always consistent, Chhongba snapped our picture on the runway, all of us very happy we were posing for a snapshot and not waiting for a flight out of town.

The bust of Sir Edmund Hillary near the school he established in Kumjung
The bust of Sir Edmund Hillary near the school he established in Kumjung
Hiking down the hill, we paused in Namche for lunch and to pick up some belongings we had left behind on our journey up to Phortse. Then we made our way to Monjo for the night. Sitting in the common room waiting for dinner and resting our bones we met a Canadian lady who is a guide in the area. She was a fascinating woman who spoke fluent Sherpa and gave injections to yaks that were attacked by snow leopards. Apparently (snow leopards) are quite prolific in the area and she has actually seen them 10 or 12 times. In fact, according to her, there is a village near the Tibetan border where a snow leopard walks down main street every morning (turns out they aren't so rare). This story needs to preceded by the fact that this entire trip Mike has been obsessed with seeing a snow leopard. Since we left Namche on the hike up, every single time we're on the trail Mike is determined to see a snow leopard. Needless to say, this wonderful lady had his full attention for 30 minutes just sharing stories about snow leopards. This was pacifying to Mike because, even though he didn't get to see a real leopard in the wild, he got to hear first- hand some great stories, which by my judgment comes in a close second.

Tomorrow was another long hike to Lukla where we would fly out for Kathmandu, Mike's last chance to see a snow leopard in the flesh.

-- Elissa Jones

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

The community helps move rocks on the Khumbu Climbing School site.
The community helps move rocks on the Khumbu Climbing School site.
Thursday, 12/10/09 -- Last day in Phortse

Today began like any other day in Phortse, with the exception that our pace felt a little more frantic. As the sun rose over the mountain peaks on our last full day in Phortse, we gathered as a group to assess what would be our last checklist of tasks. Of primary importance was the need to assess and establish the builders' interpretations of our gabion systems so they can proceed with confidence (with) the gabion systems after we leave. Even before we had finished our breakfast, the masons were hard at work placing and cutting the finished stone for the braced-frame pier.

We partially approached our day with a "divide and conquer" mentality in order to achieve as much as possible before we take our leave of Phortse. Of our task, demonstrating and explaining our gabion foundation system, was paramount as this and excavation would be the builders' primary tasks over the next few months.

MSU team members and workers check out gambion cage.
MSU team members and workers check out gambion cage.
While work on the site continued, another group broke off to begin mapping Phortse. Though a large task, the process used would have made MacGyver proud. With a watch (including an altimeter and compass), a 30-foot length of string and a camera, the process began. A series of t photos at 30-foot intervals along the peripheral paths of Phortse will be used to create a digital three-dimensional model of the town once (we are) back in Bozeman. Through this process, our hope was to take roughly 2,400 photos, but (we) wrapped-up with only around 1,200 photos. However, this should prove more than sufficient to begin mapping and modeling the village.

Late in the evening, we had yet to re-layout the footprint of the building one final time, and the sun was setting fast. At the low latitude of Phortse, the sun pops-up from the horizon and is high in the sky most of the day. Consequently, it also drops quickly in the evening, leaving us with only one precious hour of twilight to place our string lines. Armed with headlamps and a strong desire to join the rest of the town with a glass of chyang (warmed rice beer), we scrambled in, out, and around the half-excavated pit to place the corner batter boards. The now empty pit, vacated by the plethora of Phortse townspeople eager to help, was easy for us to traverse and mark out the building without impeding on the community's fluid organization and efficiency.

The members of the Phortse community who helped with the excavation.
The members of the Phortse community who helped with the excavation.
Covered in dust and headlamps askew, we returned to the lodge for the night's festivities. We had no idea what to expect. We sat down in the lodge's common room per usual, but tonight was to be like no other. We were in the company of countless Everest summiteers, including one who had just completed the Everest Marathon, finishing fourth (previously finishing second and third). The youngest to summit in the room had done so at the age of 16. Phortse's best sat with us as the land donors, Panuru and Lakpa, addressed us. Both professed their thanks with regards to the project and process and professed to us how much the Khumbu Climbing School has transformed Phortse from a forgotten village off the trail to a shining example of progress and prowess.

Having been off the beaten path for so long did lend Phortse advantages. The lack of commercialization in Phortse has helped Phortse maintain its traditional Sherpa identity. Shortly after we exchanged thanks, the entire congregation of Sherpa stood and began to dance one of their many traditional dances. The floor began to shake as nearly 20 Sherpa began to dance in a half circle in unison. Their feet stomped and tapped the floor boards in such a way that the room itself became an instrument drumming out the beat of the dance. We watched with complete fascination and no sooner did we finish clapping than we were brought into the dance to complete the circle. Our feeble attempts to step in time with songs we had never heard were no distraction from the fun we were all having. The dances began slow and picked up pace, all of our new Sherpa friends singing and stomping to familiar songs. It was truly unbelievable and another opportunity for us to become immersed in the community of Phortse and share a smile with those whom we had dug and hauled dirt with. Dancing drew to an end when we tried to recall an American song that we the students could all sing from memory. Our fellow travelers were able to throw some folk songs into the mix, while Adam showed the whole room how to cut a rug and so our pride was salvaged.

MSU's Adam Rouns, third from left, dances with the Sherpas on the team's last night in Phortse.
MSU's Adam Rouns, third from left, dances with the Sherpas on the team's last night in Phortse.
As the festivities drew to a close, we had a chance to digest what had happened that day. Earlier that morning we were conversing with a fellow traveler, to which Phortse had become very dear, about how truly remarkable it was how far the village had come in the last decade. Off the beaten path for the longest time, Phortse had seemed forgotten, a veritable Wild West. But through a variety of community projects over the last decade, Phortse has managed to become an example of progress and community solidarity. Where many villages in the Khumbu are littered with private projects, of which lodges seem the most apparent, Phortse continues to grow through community projects such as the hydro plant, school, and, most recently, the Khumbu Climbing School. These projects allow for more than just a select few to reap the benefits of the influx of materials, money and general interest. During the evening festivities, this notion was reiterated by Lakpa Dorjee as he remarked on the impact of the Khumbu Climbing School and how it has brought prowess and prestige to a community.

It is truly amazing that we were able to witness and share time with a community that is able to band together and has a high degree of talent and achievement in the Himalayas. As we leave, Phortse keeps a little piece of our hearts, as we all begin to plan for our future return to this fantastic place.

-- Dean Soderberg

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Locals dropping brace frame into place
Locals dropping brace frame into place
Wednesday, 12/9/09 -- Ideas Set in Ink and Stone

As another beautiful day dawned in Phortse, Nepal, we were still in a bit of shock at the progress accomplished in our absence. The plan was to make the most of a sunny work day in our short time left before returning to Kathmandu. The first item on the agenda was to take the metal gabion cage pieces and complete an in-place mock-up of the gabion foundation with braced frame pier above it. We double-checked our measurements and as a group began to infill the hole with large stone pieces, using the old fire-brigade technique to shuttle rocks from the increasingly large excavation pile into location at the bottom of the trench. After we toiled for around an hour, doing our very best to carefully place stones to create a solid foundation, the expert stone masons came in to inspect our work and get an idea of what we were attempting to convey. They quickly understood the idea, but were not impressed with our efforts, immediately removing the small pile of rocks we had organized and replacing it with expertly placed boulders. Realizing that we were out of our league, we stepped aside to let the experts continue, helping to verify dimensions where necessary.

End of the day braced frame success
End of the day braced frame success
Unwilling to simply watch and not get our hands dirty, we moved on to jobs we believed we were better qualified to do – helping in the massive effort to excavate stony earth. We chipped away at the stony hillside with heavy metal pry bars and picks, separated small stones from the soil into piles to relocate and shoveled dirt into the seemingly unending brigade of baskets removing the excess earth and stone from the site. We were constantly offered encouragement and tips from the 45 or so locals working the trenches with us, assisting with unfamiliar tools, providing a different angle on a particularly difficult area, or simply providing a warm smile as we fought the rocky, stubborn earth. As large boulders were unearthed, several people would band together to carefully push and roll the huge stones to a central pile. It was after uncovering one of these particularly behemoth rocks that I was offered the chance to help move it. With the assistance of a passing trekker who had found himself pulled in to the infectious energy of the project, we slowly maneuvered the huge stone, avoiding toes, pits, and other obstacles to its destination around fifteen feet away. It seemed like a mile. As it thumped gracelessly into place, me collapsing at its side, the entire construction site erupted in cheers. The locals laughed and patted me on the back, supportive of my efforts, no matter how trivial. We were really and truly all in this together. As I moved back to collecting small and more manageable stones for removal, Lhakpa turned to me, flashing his infectious grin. "Lots of work, but also sometimes lots of fun, huh?" he said. I couldn't have put it better myself.

Chhongba reads the document
Chhongba reads the document
Document close-up
Document close-up
The line of the dirt and stone carriers sang a chipper song as they wore their path between the excavation hole and growing pile offsite, cheers and whistles called out as large stones were unearthed and moved, and a cheerful banter and laughter filled the air as work continued. A particularly sun-wrinkled elder woman stuck her tongue out at me playfully as I tried to lift too many small rocks at once. The atmosphere was catching, a smile impossible to keep off your face.

As the working day wound to a close, and the sun slipped behind the snow-capped mountains, with a final wrench of the bolts and a last push of manpower, the braced-frame slipped firmly into place. The gabion cage had been expertly tied together and artfully filled with stones by the masons. The top of the stone had been double checked with both batter board lines and a low tech water level that worked perfectly to check elevations. The 80 kilo metal frame had been maneuvered into location and connected to the anchor bolts. The day felt like a success, but there was much more to come.

While warming up in the comfort of the lodge gathering room, the council members of the Khumbu Climbing School came together for a momentous occasion -- to officially sign the site plan documents and donate the land to the Khumbu Climbing Center. Presided over by Chhongba, who first explained to us the legal description of what he had written in Nepalise on the site plan documents. Then he described what Lhakba and Panuru were donating and how they would sign it. A process of signing with thumbprints and signatures followed, interspersed with the ceremonial placing of Khatak scarves around each of the participants' neck. The room was hushed, sensing the enormity of this situation. It was not a moment to be forgotten. To make the event all the more surreal, after both land-donors had signed, we were offered the honor to add our signatures to the site plans. We were an integral part of the situation and they wanted us included on the official and historical document. We were humbled beyond words.

With our own ceremonial Khatak scarves wrapped around our necks and our bellies full of warm Chang, we relocated to Lhakba's lodge to let the council complete their meeting. To add to an already overwhelmingly fantastic day, we were offered the chance to make a quick phone call home. As we savored the brief international phone calls to our loved ones, we basked in both their well-wishes and the fact that it was currently around negative 30 degrees in Bozeman. Both the surprising warmth of the Himalayan winter weather and the unsurpassed warmth and compassion of its people instilled a sense of comfort and belonging in all of us, even as we thought of those far away at home.

-- Marit Jensen

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Celebrating after the signing
Celebrating after the signing
Successful signing team cheer
Successful signing team cheer

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Everest at sunset.
Everest at sunset.
Tuesday, 12/8/09 -- The Big Hole

Giggles and shouts welcomed us as we peaked over the last ridge, before descending back into Phortse. The grade school is located on the high southeastern side of Phortse and the children were having their morning recess. They ran around us and then, at the bell, we followed them inside the two room schoolhouse. Beautiful with learning, the walls were covered with many of the same English, geography, science and math displays we were used to, just more densely packed. We didn't stay too long; they were just about to take an exam. Stepping out, we walked west across the playground, a high vantage in the village, overlooking the new building site. We hadn't seen the site in four days (the villagers had just started excavation when we left for our trek to Kalapatar, more building materials were in the process of being trekked up, so a great time for a break), and we were anxious to return "home."

Forty villagers, men and women, old and young, moved over the site, digging, picking, carrying baskets of dirt and stone, and singing…around a big hole. We had calculated the amount of dirt that had to be removed for the whole building, so we knew, with half done, they had excavated about eight dump trucks of dirt and stone while we were away. We vibrated with excitement, like kids. It was so cool to see the earth being moved for the new building, through an extraordinary community effort. If you squinted, you could imagine the building.

As anxious as we were, we decided to visit the Magic Yeti library, next to the schoolhouse, before descending to the site. One of the intents of the new KCS building is to house this library. The library is an incredible collection of donated books, National Geographic collections, Hemingway, Stephan King, Tolkien, Aragon (of course), Dr. Suess, …it was like the "best of." And even though we knew that Pete Athans, Liesal Clark, Chris Bergum and others had the donated books, it was quite another thing to see 40 linear feet, 7 feet high, of book stacks here. The Phortse community is an extended network of caring and generous people from all over the world.

After the library, we bounded down the hill… "Namasteeeeee!" to the villagers, we were eager to help with the digging. The rest of the day was spent taking turns at helping with earthwork, verifying the building layout, working on the building cost estimate, beginning the prototype construction of the seismic brace frame pier, and imagining the new community activities that would be happening here as the building came into shape.

-- Michael Everts

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Members of the MSU team sunbathing at 17,000 ft.
Members of the MSU team sunbathing at 17,000 ft.
Monday, 12/7/09 -- Steady Yeti

As architects and outsiders, one of our greatest fears is unraveling or destroying part of this unique and ancient culture. We understand that we have the power to have a great influence in this region. And, most importantly, we understand our responsibilities of the proposals we offer in the design we have created. Ever since westerners have been coming to the area (especially since the 1950s), there have already been many changes and adaptations brought upon the people, culture and tradition. These changes, for better or worse, have been welcomed and even embraced by the Sherpa. They now rely on the Western climbers and trekkers for their trade and economy, such that the two cultures are inseparable and have molded into a new. Now it is our responsibility to embrace the positive aspects of this new culture and do our best to mitigate the negatives.

The last few days we have spent trekking through many villages across the Khumbu Valley. Today we have arrived in Tengboche, home of the oldest monastery in the region, as we make our way back to Phortse. This small trek has allowed us to see a greater extent of the region; how people live and work, how each village has adapted to western tourists and climbers, and how the architecture has or has not adjusted to accommodate new technologies, the cold climate, and this western influence. It is very interesting to see the similarities and subtle differences between these other villages and Phortse.

What we have noticed most in the last few days is the difference in economy between Phortse and the other villages. Most of the other villages we stopped in were located on the main trail to Mt. Everest, and thus receive many visitors throughout the year. Their economies are directly driven by Westerners; whereas Phortse receives far fewer visitors because of its location. Other villages are also on the map for their icons: high schools, monasteries, hospitals, museums, markets, etc. With the Khumbu Climbing School, Phortse now has its own claim to fame. With the construction of the new building, Phortse, too, may have its own icon.

Yet, our goal is to provide Phortse with more than just an iconic building. In addition to providing a space to hold the annual training classes, the Khumbu Climbing Center will also provide a source of income for the community, offering the potential to charge Westerners for showers, indoor and outdoor climbing lessons, or renting out the gathering space for events. Just as importantly, this will be the only building in the region designed to be completely passively heated, solar-powered and structurally engineered against earthquakes. We have taken advantage of traditional building techniques, but combined them with our own newer building technologies that we hope will be adopted by the rest of the region to provide safer, warmer, healthier buildings for everyone.

Other buildings throughout the region have maintained the traditional dry-stacked stone construction. Even buildings now under construction are done in the very same way. In some buildings, attempts have been made to bring in more light by adding skylights or more windows (all of which are non-insulating, single-paned, glass). But these apertures seem only to act as heat sinks to draw the warmth out of the building. Few attempts have been made to even properly insulate these buildings. Even those that have been insulated were unsuccessful, as they still let in drafts. And everywhere we stopped, the main gathering space had a wood-fired stove, which could be renamed yak-dung-fired stove. Firewood is scarce in this region, so the locals must supplement with yak dung to fuel their stoves.

Twice a year, each household is allowed to gather dead wood to help them make it through the cold winters. It just so happens that we are here for this short gathering period. We passed many people on the trail, young and old, carrying loads of firewood in baskets on their backs. Each family is allowed to collect as much fallen wood as two people can carry in one trip, in one day. However, this isn't much, so it's easy to see why yak-dung is primarily used to heat houses and cook meals. This solution is actually a big problem, as smoke from yak dung is very unhealthy and even dangerous over a long period of time. Visitors to this region not used to breathing in this smoke often develop an upper respiratory illness, referred to as "the Khumbu cough."

Obviously, we were aware of these concerns before beginning the design process. But it wasn't until our recent trek that we became so aware of how important it really is that we offer a solution to these problems in the form of the Khumbu Climbing Center. If we can offer a safer, warmer, and healthier building than already exists, then in many ways we have already succeeded. And by integrating existing building techniques and archetypes into this solution, hopefully, these ideas will catch on and we really will be able to make a change, not only for Phortse, but the rest of the Khumbu region. If the people of Phortse are any indication, we think that this building will be one Western influence the valley will certainly embrace.

-- Jaron Mickolio

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Descending down the Khumbu Valley
Descending down the Khumbu Valley
Sunday, 12/6/09 -- Reverance and Relevance

As we descend from the summit of our trek, it is clear to us how much effort, planning, resources and knowledge it takes to lead a successful trek in the Khumbu Valley, let alone a major climbing expedition.

The Himalayas of the Solu-Khumbu region demand respect, not for any vanity on their part, but for the fragile resources for human survival they provide. In this remote region of the world, basic necessities cannot be taken for granted (fresh water, warmth, sanitation, and nutrition). While the teahouses we have visited and stayed in along the way provide much of the support needed for us to stay healthy, there are some aspects of this region we could not prepare for – notably, the altitude. Some of our party could not make the full ascent due to the unexpected realities of altitude sickness.

For those of us who were able to evade the headaches and nausea (of altitude sickness), our final stop was Gorak Shep, located at the head of the Khumbu Valley. It is as beautiful as it is desolate. As we ascended the valley, the sparse and limited crops of the high altitude villages became far and few between. Everything available to us at the teahouses and lodges had to be carried. At 17,000 ft. above sea level, human survival is tenuous. Even the high altitude yaks must search for the scarce grazing land. Without the help and guidance of Chhongba-Dai Sherpa, none of us may have made the final leg of the trip and witnessed the breathtaking vistas of the tallest mountains in the world.

MSU students at the Everest Memorial built by Jon Krakauer in honor of those who died in a tragic Everest expedition of 1996.
MSU students at the Everest Memorial built by Jon Krakauer in honor of those who died in a tragic Everest expedition of 1996.
The extremes of the Khumbu Valley are symbolized most by the expeditions that summit these peaks that reach far above 20,000 feet. Before we descend from Gorak Shep and the highest inn in the world, Chhongba took us on a short excursion to see the memorial that he and Jon Krakauer built in honor of those who had fallen in the tragic Everest expedition of May 1996. Witnessing the effects of the dangers of these expeditions reminds us of the importance and relevance of the Khumbu Climbing School. The intention of the school is to provide better safety, greater knowledge, and a more qualified training base for the Sherpa and local mountain guides, who are the most vulnerable on these expeditions due to the higher risks they must take in guiding and leading the foreign groups through the unforgiving terrain. The program within the KCS project provides the opportunities for this education as well as a community focal point for this inspiring culture and people.

As we descend, we all agree that heading back to Phortse feels a little like coming home. There will always be a place in our hearts for this small Himalayan village and its people. The Khumbu Climbing School project has taken on a whole new meaning, significance, and imperative for us all.

-- Christopher Hancock

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Hancock, Jaron Mickolio and Dean Soderberg, from left, at the top of Kala.
Hancock, Jaron Mickolio and Dean Soderberg, from left, at the top of Kala.
Saturday, 12/5/09 -- The Khumbu Valley

At more than four times the elevation of Bozeman, our goal for the day was to reach our maximum altitude of 18,500 feet by trekking up to Gorak Shep (about a three-hour hike), and then hiking another 90 minutes to Kala Patthar. Kala Patthar, we were told, would present views that were truly indescribable ,all centered on the Khumbu Valley. Our morning at Lobuche would start early for a few, however. Two people in our group spent the night up sick, with quite possibly some of the worse vomiting and diarrhea they have ever experienced. Within 30 minutes of daybreak, our group met in the lodge restaurant to determine exactly what the day would hold with several ill.

We gave the two ill persons a couple extra hours of rest and decided to start on our hike at 11 in the morning. After only 15 minutes of hiking, we were hit with a big decision as one of our sick members vomited on the trail and begin showing signs of altitude sickness.

On the top of Kala, looking at Everest
On the top of Kala, looking at Everest
Our guide Chhongba-dai, forced with a difficult decision, decided that it would be best for the vomiting member to return to Lobuche with an experienced porter and another to watch the symptoms. The rest of the group trekked on, hiking their way up the Khumbu Valley.

The three-hour hike would present over 20 peaks. Reaching Gorak Shep, our group began to see the light at the end of the tunnel as in less than 90 minutes some of the most beautiful sights on the world would be visible to each person. I was fortunate enough to make it up to Gorak Shep, but as the second ill person from this morning, I wasn't able to make the last surge up to Kala Patthar. The rest of the group did reach their destination at 18,500 feet. One of the students, Chris, described the views as, "watching the last rays of sun hitting Mount Everest, made him realize how small we really are, and gain an understanding of our place in time and the importance of the climbing school in Phortse." Each peak in view is a possible destination that in the future, graduating students from the Khumbu Climbing School will lead exhibitions.

-- Adam Rouns

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Prayer flags mark a wall of Himalayan chortens, or memorials
Prayer flags mark a wall of Himalayan chortens, or memorials
Friday 12/04/09 -- Steady Yeti

It was one of those days that you wish you could bottle up and take with you wherever you go. Dawning in similar fashion to the rest of our days here, the cloudless azure blue sky pierced by shards of snow-capped granite peaks enticed us to keep climbing. After a quick scramble for Internet to let family and friends know that all was well, we were on our way.

Halfway through the morning the majesty of the scenery that surrounded us suddenly transformed into an interstate of helicopters. Back and forth they flew with the whir of their blades slicing through the ever-thinning air. Chhongba informed us that there was a government meeting taking place at Kala Patar. His view on the subject was that it maybe wasn't the best way to spend money.

The MSU team treks near Duglha, while waiting for the excavation of the Khumbu Climbing School.
The MSU team treks near Duglha, while waiting for the excavation of the Khumbu Climbing School.
While the display in the sky continued, down on the ground another kind of show was taking place. Today was the day of the Everest marathon. This is the race where the most ridiculous people in the world start running at 6 a.m. from Everest Base Camp to their destination in Namche Bazar, more than 30 miles away. Apparently climbing with almost no air isn't quite extreme enough for the natives of the Himalayas. The record time for completing this marathon is three hours.

We ate lunch in Duglha, in the shadow of the hill that would prove to be the most grueling part of the day's trek. This tiny village was a hub of trekkers and porters taking a short breather while there was still some (air) to take. Upon arrival, Adam, Chris, and I noticed a few Sherpa porters washing their hair in the outdoor "shower," and (we) decided to take full advantage. The 40 degree water from a hose and a little of Dean's Pantene shampoo made us feel like a thousand rupees.

Glacier fresh and smelling like bed of daises, we tackled our last obstacle. Ready or not, 16,000 feet here we come. At the top of the thousand foot climb we received the greatest reward of the day, a picture with Alex Lowe. As we gathered around his Chorten we were overcome with emotion. We had all seen his memorial in pictures, but to come full circle and actually be there in person was truly an experience of a lifetime. We would continue to climb up in altitude that day, but remembering Alex Lowe and being re-affirmed in our purpose here was the high point.

-- Elissa Jones

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The MSU group at the Alex Lowe memorial chorten at Thukla.
The MSU group at the Alex Lowe memorial chorten at Thukla.
Thursday, 12/3/09 -- 12,500 ft. to 14,300 ft. and rising

Barely awake, we look outside at the site already busy with masons chipping stone. No sooner do we take breakfast than the town begins to stir and people begin arriving on site to continue excavation. Even the elderly, not typically asked to perform manual labor, arrive eager to participate in this community undertaking. We previously set the building outline and depth so that excavation can begin. We must now wait for our steel brace frame (see images of porter carrying it), and gabion cages (to hold loose stone in the foundation) to arrive for a full scale, on-site prototyping of one of the seismic piers. Instead of simply waiting on site, we are going on a five-day hike while excavation takes place, hoping to return to Phortse as our equipment arrives, and to a fully excavated site.

A chorten on AmaDablam
A chorten on AmaDablam


Slowly, we hike out of Phortse with a temporary "Namaste" to the town so eager to see the project reach fruition. As we emerge above Phortse a once distant scene now fills the frame of our vision and envelopes us as we begin our excursion to Mount Everest Base Camp. We pass the tree line of the Khumbu Valley, watching the peripheral peaks that surround Everest slide into place at our side as we march up the valley. To fill the void in space, new peaks continuously reveal themselves. The wayside villages and lodges continue to shrink and settle into the barren surroundings. Each aspect of this environment serves to emphasize the true massiveness in scale of our adopted environment.

The ever increasing density of memorial chortens serves as a constant reminder of the weight and fragility of life in the Khumbu. Just as we begin to notice the hillside memorials, we emerge into a barren flat scattered with massive boulders around which weave more trails than we can count. But despite the number of trails, each is worn deep by those massive expeditions that have passed through the valley en masse over the last half century. This is an environment of constant compromise between man and nature. An environment where shear effort is required to climb the plethora of mountains, or to live in extreme cold and isolation.

Ama Dablam in the Himalayas at sunset
Ama Dablam in the Himalayas at sunset
Today, as we sit with our now regular evening tea, the stark beauty of the Khumbu begins to set in. With no other means than human energy and a collective will, we have transported ourselves up the valley to heights unrivaled in each of our lives. Most immediately are the heights of geography, but on a deeper level, heights of design, cross-cultural interaction, and heights of our individual views on the world. Climbing as a human endeavor is not much different in its beautiful marriage of man's strength [in body and spirit] with nature's grandeur and beauty.

But for us, as Robert Pirsig elegantly stated, "it is the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top."

The journey continues to take on more meaning than the destination. On this journey the collections of personal interactions begin to define the project and process more than any lines or image ever could. As we sit defiant to the cold, the tips of the peaks that surround us glow red with the fading sun and we prepare to reach new heights.

-- Dean Soderberg

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

The villagers of Phortse pitch in during the early building of the Khumbu Climbing School.
The villagers of Phortse pitch in during the early building of the Khumbu Climbing School.
Wednesday, 12/2/09 -- The Rhythm of Progress

The softly ringing clang of a yak's bell chimes as he ambles slowly by our window. The sharp clear light of another perfectly blue-sky day filters through the golden colored curtains. It is yet another beautiful winter's day in Phortse, and we have a checklist to finish before heading up on adventurous treks tomorrow. As we gather in the common room for some breakfast, a rhythmic "tink, tink, tink" works its way into our sleep-muddled heads. It is the sound of the stone masons, up at early light and continuing their seemingly unending task of chipping away masterfully at large stone pieces to create almost perfectly dimensioned building blocks.

The first major task of the day involves digging out the majority of our building footprint from the approximately 10-foot rise in elevation on the site. However, a colossal pile of neatly stacked stone sits squarely in our way, at least 20-by-20-by-4 feet tall. As we sit down as a group to organize the day's tasks and contemplate the enormity of our task, a group of around 15 Sherpas, porters and locals are already in action, relocating stones that I can barely lift with my foot as if they weigh nothing. There is a beautiful efficiency to their process, done at a mind-boggling pace. Several of us attempt to hop in and assist, while being careful not to get in the way or injure ourselves.

As we split up to accomplish our separate tasks for the day: a detail model and drawings of the site excavation, material and cost estimate calculations, finalizing legal site drawings and verifying site and building dimensions (better to measure multiple times and dig once), the procession of stone relocation continues. Engrossed in our individual tasks, each brief break causes a moment of shock as we glance up… it was almost as we were watching a time-lapse photography sequence. The rate of progress on the site was astounding. By the early afternoon, the rocks were all neatly relocated and an impressive dent made in the building excavation. A consistent stream of freshly quarried stone arrived from the nearby quarry; the constant "tink, tink, tink" beat on.

Sunny windows in the lodge double as make-shift light tables for copying site plans onto the finely textured Nepal paper. We cross check from plans, to site, to sketches, to technical drawings completed back in Montana. Three separate compasses are utilized to minimize mistakes. We re-verify calculations and quantities that we previously gathered, incorporating the increased knowledge gained by visits with the actual manufacturers in Kathmandu. We clarify our way to convey information with the locals who will be constructing the building. We check everything three times, then check again. This is such an amazing opportunity to be able to make adjustments and decisions on site and with the local people's input. We try and take full advantage.

As the sun slips behind the mountains between 3:30 and 4, the predictable afternoon clouds glide into the valley crevices, slowly filling our views with a misty grey glow. The steady "tink, tink, tink" continues, undeterred by cloud cover or the evening's approach. Only the enticing aroma of cooking draws them in. We settle into the lodge to wrap up the days' activities, enjoy our own meals, and prepare for new adventures tomorrow.

The soft lowing of a meandering yak filters through the dense clouds into our cozy enclosure.

-- Marit Jensen

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Above Phortse at night
Above Phortse at night
Tuesday, 12/1/09 -- First day of construction

The earth pick flips up small potatoes as we score the building line into the terraced fields of Phortse, giving us pause. We reflect on the changes that the village of Phortse is experiencing, the excitement and anticipation that a small remote village nestled at 13,000 ft. in the Himalayas has for a new building to teach climbing and have community gatherings. This moment also reveals the constant rhythm of three stone chisels. Although we knew the masons have been cutting stones for the building, we hadn't realized how intensely focused and continuous they were. It is about 11 a.m. and they have been swinging the hammer for three hours straight, no pause.

The main task today is to finalize the boundaries of the land donation and start moving earth. Two potato fields step down between the lodges of Panuru Sherpa and Lhakpa Dorgi Sherpa, the two land donors. They have each agreed to donate portions of their land to the Khumbu Climbing School, approximately 700 square meters total. The existing land boundaries, which we are about to reconfigure, are a networked series of sinuous stacked stone walls. We have inked an official plat, which shows these property lines, on Nepalese paper (required for submittal to the government agency in Kathmandu) and are now negotiating the location of yak easements and the extent of the donation so that it is equitably distributed between Panuru and Lhakpa. While we are doing this, the porters are shoveling dirt. We have staked out a rough plan of the building so that earth can be moved.

Construction has started!

-- Michael Everts

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The lama of Phortse blesses the site of the Khumbu Climbing School
The lama of Phortse blesses the site of the Khumbu Climbing School
Monday, 11/30/09 -- Blessings

We awoke this morning to the echoing of cowbells off in the distance as long-haired yaks wandered alone through the village, their silhouettes barely distinguishable through the fog and the mist on this dusty and barren plateau. As the sun broke through the empty and moss-covered trees on the ridge to the east of the site, the rest of the village begins to stir. Plumes of juniper smoke rise from chimneys all around, as households offer blessings for the day to come.

Moments later we convened on the site for the first time, and suddenly this project took on a whole new life. We gathered on the very spot where our building will soon stand; a building we designed from the other side of the world, but just for this very site. Working together as a studio, and in collaboration with the Sherpa who live here (who will soon be using it to its full potential), we have now arrived at the next phase of this amazing process; the construction. It is now that we have truly realized that this project (which we have only known on paper, hand-built models, and in various computer programs) would soon become a reality. Something physical and palpable… something we could come back and visit many years from now. For those of us who have been on the project from the very beginning, this moment is almost surreal.

It has now been one year since the local lama and a small crowd of townspeople gathered in this very spot to bless the site for the groundbreaking of this Khumbu Climbing School. At that same time, Mike and eight students (including some of us here today) gathered in a small design studio back in Bozeman, diligently working on the concept and design of this innovative building in the most conservative village in the Khumbu Valley.

Sherpa stone masons begin the painstaking work in preparation for building the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse
Sherpa stone masons begin the painstaking work in preparation for building the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse
Now, today there was another small gathering on this pivotal site. A small crowd of townspeople, the landowners, and the local lama stood and waited… eager and excited. We, too, stood and shared in the excitement, as today marks the first day of onsite construction. With the landowners anxious to break ground, our excitement gave way to Mike orchestrating our moves and calling out orders for laying out the footprint of the building. Simultaneously the lama, perched in the middle of the site, chanting a ritual blessing, while we raced around him with our gear. By mid-morning, we gathered together with the townspeople and the lama and participated in blessing the site with rice and the beginning of construction.

At the base of the tree on our site, and amidst all of the commotion and running around with string-lines, measuring tapes, and levels, a syncopated rhythm of stone masons (chiseling blocks for the walls of our building) could be heard ringing in the background. Meanwhile, the 1/4" scale model we've portered half-way around the world is now sitting in the dirt, near the site of the lama‘s earlier blessing. As we work around the site to plot out the building, there is a small crowd of smiling and eager faces kneeling down on the ground studying the scale model; an encouraging sight.

Excavation begins for the project nearly two years in the planning.
Excavation begins for the project nearly two years in the planning.
By mid-day we have the rough layout out the building footprint. This is a small feat in the grand scope of things, but is received as a major accomplishment for us and for the rest of the town. This signifies the beginning of a great opportunity for not only the village, but the entire region. This is the first physical sign of the implications of our design, hard work, and intent. Today stands as definite proof for the need of our presence here on site for this portion of the project. Just by the nature of the project there are inherently many variables that cannot be determined by working in a design studio on the other side of the world. Everything we did today required us to be here on site and in person; meeting with the people here, discussing the variables, making changes on the fly, and re-evaluating our decisions. There was a lot reworking and recalculating, but it was all completely necessary to make sure everything is correct, that the landowners and the rest of the village are getting exactly what they want, and that we stay true to the intentions of the project and our design.

This entire process merely reaffirmed our responsibilities not only to the project but also to the people here. Today was proof of how much we need to be here, but more importantly, how much we want to be here. It is an invaluable experience for our academic and professional careers, and obliges us to step up and take responsibility for our actions. As students of a profession so multifaceted and integrated, it is important for us to be here in the field and take an active part in building what we have designed. Today, we were able to truly see how much all of us, from both sides of the world, are benefiting from this amazing project.

-- Jaron Mickolio

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The Sherpa villagers of Phortse welcome the MSU team.
The Sherpa villagers of Phortse welcome the MSU team.
Sunday, 11/29/09 -- A Himalayan Welcome

Under the watchful eye of Everest and Ama Dablam - which means the "Goddess who gives good blessings," we made our final day of trekking. Our goal, the village of Phortse , which was clearly in sight most of the day, almost hanging off the mountains that surround it. As the mystical afternoon mist rose up the Khumbu valley, we ascended our final approach to the village. This surreal moment in time surpassed all of our expectations. We were greeted by many of the villagers and each of us, in turn, were welcomed with Kari scarves and a water blessing that left many of us in tears of gratitude to be so openly received.

For many of us, this reception was a culmination of three semesters of research and design. We have studied the village of Phortse intensively -- its people, culture, buildings, geography, climate and ecosystem -- for so long that it hardly seems possible that we have finally arrived at the real place. Until now, Phortse was nothing but a series of computer simulations, weather files, and a collection of photographs. We knew for sure that we had arrived as we witnessed the project site, the very land and contours that we had so vigorously mapped and analyzed for the past year and a half.

As we all gathered in Panuru Sherpa's lodge, we were received again many of the villagers and their elders. We shared tea and mutual excitement for the days to come. Although exhausted and hungry from the long days hike, we understood their anticipation to see our work and the design for their new building. So, the six of us huddled into one of the tiny rooms, big enough for only two small beds, and proceeded to repair and finish the construction of the 1/4" scale model we brought with us all the way from Bozeman. Considering the long trip and the many hands it has passed through, the model was unboxed in fairly good condition, but it needed some work for an impromptu presentation. Meanwhile, Chhongba acted as translator, as Mike worked with the landowners - Panuru Sherpa and Lhakpa Dorjee Sherpa - to work out the legal documentation of the site and the official land donation for the project.

After an hour or so, we unveiled the model to the village committee that waited patiently around the yak-dung fire burning in Panuru's cozy gathering space. Their eyes lit up as we presented the model and its removable roofs and floors. Their animated response was very encouraging. Although we could not understand their excited conversation, it was easy to infer that they were pleased with the design. They would point and interject themselves into the functional spaces within the model; the climbing walls, kitchen, bathroom, shower, and the stairwells. When we introduced the movie screen as a component in the model the response was overwhelmingly positive. The villagers then began to point out the seating areas - downstairs, around the balcony, and along the stairs - with which they could gather as a community to watch the movies. Chhongba said, "It is a fabulous idea." It was amazing to see how easily they could begin to experience the space.

We were not expecting, nor were we particularly ready, to present the project in a formal manner after the long day, but we continued to break out all of the tricks of the trade. We showed them rendered images of the building, inside and out; a complete map of the town, with which the elder women were particularly excited about; and then we showed them a video animation that demonstrated the passive solar heating within the design.

Watching the joyous reactions of the people to whom the building will belong was more than rewarding to all of us. It was a clear reflection and a fulfillment of our high-spirited determination and deep devotion to the project. Now, the real work can begin, but only after a hard earned rest for the night.

-- Christopher Hancock

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Namche Bazaar
Namche Bazaar
Not dated -- Namche Bazaar

Is it true? Can it be? Finally, a day of rest is here.

To become acclimatized to the elevation, we are spending a day in Namche Bazaar. The morning began the same as it has since we reached the higher elevations: wake up around 4 in the morning; spend a good three hours rolling around in bed pretending to sleep, but, really wewait for the sun to come up. After we get dressed, or, should I say, put four layers of clothing on, breakfast in the lodge is a treat. Pancakes, omelets, oatmeal, toast, fresh coffee, are just some of the delicious foods we eat. But, we all were still distracted by the local market outside the windows where thousands of various items are available for sale, or, should I say, for barter.

Hats, gloves, blankets, trinkets, jewelry are on display, all hand-crafted and made with hours of sweat. At first, we are all just overwhelmed walking around, casually looking at all the items. With shy shakes of the head, we nod that we don't want anything when asked if we like an item. But it doesn'tt take long though before that turns into intense bartering.

Tibetan Merchant
Tibetan Merchant
Buying something does't just take place with one vender, but with sometimes up to 10, as more than one offers up the same product or something similar. Some don't even speak English, yet they will yell at the top of their lungs to get our attention and then they punch their price into a calculator so we can understand what they were offering. They would then have us punch in the amount we want to pay for the item and give it back to them. Even though your offer would be only a few American dollars less than what they wanted, they would look at us as if we were crazy. But it would only take a slight shake of the head and a slow walk away, before we would have them run after us with a new price punched into the calculator. And to believe that all of this was taking place at a trading post, some 11,400 feet above sea level. This intense bartering filled our entire morning until we were taken up to the top of the town.

Only maybe another 300 feet higher in elevation would present a whole new perspective on unbelievable. Four gorgeous mountain peaks rose in the background. We were face to face with Ama-Dablam, Lhotse-shor, Lhotse, and the master of all mountains, Everest. This of course was everything we could see to the north, but in the south was the deep valley from which we hiked the last two days. Once again, our eyes and imagination are blown away by an unbelievable sight.

We also had the privilege to visit two small museums. The first seemed generic, as we had spent countless hours researching the basic background information on the area, primarily focusing on the Sherpa's culture. The second museum we visited also had much information on the Sherpas, but it also included a separate room that can only be described as, "The Walls of Fame." Several hundred pictures of Sherpa's who made the treacherous journey to the top of Everest filled the room. These were truly the elite of the elite climbers, not only in the region, but in the world.

Yak on bridge
Yak on bridge
Walking back down the hill towards our rooms, we once again began to understand the importance of our presence here and the Khumbu Climbing School. In time, the training provided by the Khumbu Climbing School may one day result not only in a room, but an entire building full of Sherpa Everest summiteers.

-- Adam Rouns

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Namche Bazaar
Namche Bazaar
Not dated -- Namche Bazaar

Today we hiked from Phakding to Namche Bazaar. As we climbed, several realities came into view, along with Mt. Everest. It's amazing what you think of during an 8-hour hike and a 2,300 foot change in altitude. If I had to venture a guess, I would say the thoughts of the group went something like this:

Adam: God I wish I could remember all the words to just one song....Jaron: Carrying two packs and running uphill isn't so bad..... Mike: Life is so fragile, may we cherish every day, and the obvious, these are by far the best students I've ever had, A's all around....Merit: It's so indescribable to be here, I hope Colin had a great birthday....Dean: Car wreck my ass, nothing could keep me from this...Chris: If I had a thousand years I'd never be able to explain this to Gypsy. I wish she was here.

Occasionally we would pass the young Sherpa boy carrying the 75 kilo (165 lb.) brace frame. I can only imagine one thought was going through his brain: Murder, murder for the seven Americans that, by their design, put him in this absurd position.

MSU architecture students look to Mount Everest.
MSU architecture students look to Mount Everest.

As we all walked lost in thought, some unique, some much the same (God, I wish I could catch just ONE breath) we entered a world of extremes, juxtapositions and contradictions. This is a place that at peaks distance seems frozen in time, but at a human scale is a convergence of extremes. Extremes that are mainly a product of the changes the climbing culture has brought to the region. Here, complete cultural preservation and modern technology are not blended but miraculously co-exist. As we hike through the most pristine mountains in the world, trash litters the sides of the trail. This is a constant reminder that this is not just another national park, but home to hundreds of people. Hundreds of people that have no efficient system of removing waste. It's insane to witness sewage running down stacked-stone building-lined streets that advertise access to the most advanced forms of technology in the world, from the most precise climbing and trekking gear to wireless Internet. I can't get cell phone service at my house, but our first view of the tallest mountain in the world was interrupted by Chhongba's cheerful ring-tone. The Sherpa women cover their traditional long skirts and aprons with down North Face and Marmot jackets.

So what does this environment of extremes mean for the Khumbu Climbing School? Is the project destined to be a high tech garment that covers up tradition, leaving only glimpses of the past behind? Or, do we try to blend technology and tradition with the hope that neither will be compromised? These are the questions that have been debated throughout the duration of the project. People have formed opinions on either side of the debate, but I don't think until someone has experienced this place can judgment calls be made. Maybe we should ask the young Sherpa boy what he thinks.

-- Elissa Jones

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

If you would like to respond to this blog, send an e-mail to: cschmidt@montana.edu

To read an MSU news story about MSU's work on the Khumbu Climbing School, see MSU architecture students help design school at the top of the world.

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