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

Thursday, 12/3/09 (update) -- Everest Base Camp

We are in Pangboche right now on our way up to Everest Base Camp. Hopefully will get their on Saturday. We paid to have Internet in Phortse, but it would not work. For all of you who are folllowing this blog and have wondered why we have been out of contact, we are all fine. The work is going great. Excavation has started and should be almost be complete when we return from Everest Base Camp.

-- Michael Everts

(Editor's note: Michael Everts mailed several student blogs at the time he sent this post. They will be posted in the coming days.)

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

Sherpa porter
Sherpa porter
Thursday, 11/26/09 -- Thanksgiving

Chhongba Sherpa, our superstar guide, informed us that "It isn't Nepal without the up and down". There could not have been a better way to put it.

Seven groggy travelers throw their duffel bags into a van waiting to take them to the airport. Kathmandu is breaking out of the stillness of the night. Small shops open their doors, men on their way to work stop at the roadside shrines, fires burn trash, and the streets have only a hint of the chaos that will soon consume them. We are pulled further from our morning daze by the hoards of men waiting to snatch our bags and porter them to the airport check-in counter in hopes of payment [of which no amount is ever enough].

We wait in the airport lobby beside our bags waiting to check-in and waiting for the delivery of our recently manufactured 200-pound steel brace frame. This brace frame arrives with a bang. Literally. For some odd reason the over eager men waiting to carry luggage from outside had sent the roughly 2 ft x 4 ft steel assembly through the x-ray, as if the steel angle iron concealed some hidden contraband. The frame emerged from the x-ray to drop on the outfeed with a smash that echoed through out the airport lobby.

After twice being momentarily segregated by sex for full pat-downs, we boarded a bus to our plane. The plane itself has a seat on either side of the cabin per row and holds 18 people altogether. Our pilots look like they have just gotten their licenses as they couldn't have been older than 19. The humor of this is compounded by the fact that the flight's navigation instrument is a hand held TomTom attached to the dash of the plane, as if "fly East along the Himalaya's for 100 miles, then plummet into the Khumbu Valley, land on the glorified patio to reach your destination" was programmed into the device. Nevertheless, we take off in this tiny two-propeller plane to emerge from the depths of mist and smog that envelope Kathmandu and are immediately confronted with the hundreds of Himalayan peaks. The pilot makes no attempt to rise above the height of the peaks as if it would be an affront to their massive presence. As we pass over valley after valley, all filled with a river of mist that cloaks their secrets, I look to the south to see nothing but a flat horizon. In this place on earth the mountains literally rise from nothing to explode into the sky, even the clouds look as though they can't compete with the mountain's vertical prowess. As we pass peak after peak , all of great magnificence, the porthole windows are filled increasingly by the massiveness of these peaks, compounded by our proximity to the Khumbu valley, reigned over by Everest itself. No sooner do we see Everest, then we notice that we pass frighteningly close over a minor peak or ridge. This threshold marks our transition to turbulence that no theme park could challenge. The plane begins to fishtail, drop, and twitch side to side. The pilot, as calm as could be, stops using his hand as a sun visor and jams a sheet of paper into the windshield as an indication that he now will need both hands to maneuver the technical landing in Lukla.

Boarding the plane to Lukla
Boarding the plane to Lukla
We descend below the clouds to see our destination. The whole town of Lukla from the air looks no larger than a couple of city blocks. Our descent and landing makes the turbulence we just encountered seem tame. Our plummeting trajectory is very abruptly met with the tarmac of the Lukla landing strip. The runway itself pitches up towards the mountain to help slow the fast moving plane to a stop, because anywhere else it would be considered way too short. Terra firma has never meant more than after we stepped off the plane.

We gathered our bags and made our way to the Paradise Lodge to rest and have our fill of lemon tea as we wait to embark on our trek. While we wait, Chhongba, our fearless leader, is busy finding porters for our bags, and one Super Sherpa to attempt the trek to Phortse with our 200-pound brace frame. After nearly two hours, it appeared that no one would be able to porter the frame. As we finished our lunch, Chhongba informed us that he had finally found a porter willing to make the arduous journey with our frame. All of us were expecting a Sherpa built like Thor to take on the task. We could not have been more wrong. The Super Sherpa was little taller than 5'4" and couldn't weigh more than 140 pounds. Yet despite his small build, he strapped up the frame and took off down the trail with speed that rivaled most western hikers without packs. Little did we know how impressive this feat would seem as we progressed along the trail.

Mountains from Lukla
Mountains from Lukla
We leave the Paradise Lodge fully hydrated and well fed to begin our journey into the Himalayas on foot. Lukla has one main street that seems medieval despite the fact that boasts not only a movie theater but a Starbucks as well. The intersection of the modern world with the third world is becoming more apparent as we travel. Much of what we see being portered is a combination of luxuries for westerners coupled with staples for villages further up the valley. These foods unable to grow at high altitudes must be portered, the price of these goods, much of which can be bought from the porters themselves, increases the further up the valley they are.

During our ascent we realize even more how well-connected our guide, Chhongba, truly is. We hardly make it more than 10 minutes without one person or another shouting salutations to our leader. An impressive network for an impressive man.

The day's hike was short, but remarkable with fantastic scenery and impressive people. Our brace frame was making progress as quickly as we were, and our group was healthy and intact.

We ended the day with a nod to Thanksgiving, making conversation with our own personal memories of Thanksgiving and giving thanks for what we have and thanks for being in a location of such grandeur with companions to accompany us through the whole process. All in all a great way to mark the first day of our travel by foot into the Himalayas, with good food and good people.

Symbolically, this day is a pivotal point in the progress of the project. We begin to encounter first hand the decisions we make as they affect other people. The lines we put on paper have a weight that is transferred to a porter's back as he navigates the trail. Just as the progress of our project begins its ascent to fruition, our view of the people of the Khumbu region begins its ascent to understanding and complete respect. The up and down of the process is one of progress. Understanding the factors of the project is a constant feedback loop the fortifies the end product. As we go up and down the trail, so does our understanding.

-- Dean Soderberg

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Flying along the HimalayasFrame on the trail Portering the gear
Frame on its wayLula landing Jaron at Lukla

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

Dean modeling a roof
Dean modeling a roof
Wednesday, 11/25/09
Transitioning from one extreme to the next

It is mind-boggling to realize that we have been in Nepal for almost a week. That which was utterly overwhelming and chaotic only six days ago is now familiar to us. While we are far from experts in navigating the labyrinthine grid system of the city of Kathmandu, we are no longer staggered by the twisting streets, the clash of colors, and the incessant honking of vehicles. We have transitioned, I believe, surprisingly successfully to a foreign country's rhythms in a short time period. This would not have been such an natural evolution if not for the nature of our challenges and goals in the last week.

Our trusty guide has taken us from one end of the city to the other, though the sprawling edges to the claustrophobic center, in our mission to organize as many building contacts as possible. Through the process of searching for experts in particular building aspects, or specific materials or supplies, we have navigated this city, from the touristy to the real. We have gotten to see the true landscape and architecture of Kathmandu and begin to understand the complexity of this dynamic city. But the strongest aspect of our comfort and understanding of Kathmandu has come through the people. Without the excitement, creativity, and expertise of each contact we have met in this city, this project would not be possible. We have been welcomed with open arm, and excessive coffee and mango juice, everywhere we travel. The enthusiasm for the Khumbu Climbing School and the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation is contagious. The building is transitioning from an idea to a truly tangible project.

Today, our last day in Kathmandu, was spent continuing this coordination and collaboration. A trip to the truss manufacturer showed incredible progress with the design and detail of one of the most vital building components. The original design was altered, adjusted, and in the end bettered through discussions with the manufacturer and his craftsman. We also caught up with the window frame manufacturer and saw a nearly completed mock-up of one of the more complicated window sections. Seeing a piece of our building standing in the yard was a shock, and a pleasant one. Another idea becomes real as another piece of the building puzzle falls beautifully into place. The physical model was wrapped up, drawings completed in ink, and last minute essentials for the mountains obtained.

Truss Detail
Truss Detail
It is now that we have our bearings, even the most directionally challenged of us can finally make it back to the hotel with a sense of confidence and no wrong turns, we must transition again. It is the next natural step, one that will once again take us outside our comfort zone. It will also be the next step for the Khumbu Climbing School as we fly into the Khumbu Valley and begin our multi-day trek up into the Himalayas. We will travel away from the incessant honking and dense incense smoke, away from the weaving street navigation and press of crowds hocking their wares, and away from all that we have known for the last six days. Instead, we will be overwhelmed by the silence, the clean air, the cold, and of course, the Himalayas. We will also be finally face to face with the village of Phortse. We will finally stand on the site we have been modeling, adjusting, and envisioning since we each began on the project. We will meet the people who this building is designed with and for. We will finally be at the heart of this project, all of its aspects, complexities, and reasons. It will be real. We cannot wait to get on that plane. Let the transition begin.

-- Marit Jensen

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

Tek at the metalshop
Tek at the metalshop
Tuesday, 11/24/09 -- Shangri-La Garden

Over an expanse of scallions, peppers, shallots, torn fresh lettuce, bean paste and rice, the flush-mounted table stove spit sizzling soy sauce as we raised our shots of soju for several toasts: Jiban and Chhongba (our gracious hosts), the Khumbu Climbing School (the breadth of its educational influence) and Katie Ossa (an inspiring life spirit for all who know her). We have had many of these reflective moments, savoring and appreciating our adventures, even though now we were a bit out of breath. In a fit of silliness, we had jogged conga-style behind Chhongba on his motorcycle, pacing through the streets from our hotel to this new Korean restaurant: Shangri-La Garden on Amrit street.

Experiencing the same space in different ways deepens our friendship with the city in the same way that you learn new things about friends when you have different adventures together. Yesterday ended on the back of a motorcycle, hugging our metal fabricator, Tek, as we arrowed through traffic to find cable for the building's trusses. Kathmandu has distinct districts for metals, woods, automotive parts, and other products, so once you are in a district, you can go door to door for the best deal. However, these districts, even for related parts, can be on opposite sides of the city. And so here Tek and I were trying to get to the metal district, on the far west side, before they closed. Once there, we spent an hour shining headlamps into small shops that had varying size spools of steel cable, turnbuckles and cable clamps.

It seems absolutely crazy to be driving around on the back of a motorcycle in traffic jams and dangerously chaotic highways…but, given our goals, it is necessary. Many pieces that we have designed need to be substituted for in some way, it is a consequence and advantage of doing it local. This process of substitution and selection is dynamic. It also means that it is critical to be there when the decision is made, which follows that it is even more important to be a part of what the choices will be. Tek and I find 5/8" diameter steel cable and arrange for it to be delivered to his shop on Tuesday.

Toast at Shangri-La Garden
Toast at Shangri-La Garden
On Tuesday the students and I divide up, several students camp out in the hotel lobby to finish the model, a couple students go with Chhongba to get shovels, picks, axes, and tape measures (we will work with the community in Phortse to start earth excavation for the building) and I meet again with contractors.

The 1/4" scale model of the building can be (when it is done) disassembled, showing the individual floors, walls and roofs. Although the intent is to communicate with contractors and material suppliers, the model and the students seem to generate more curiosity among the hotel staff and steady stream of Nepal trekkers. The unexpected and odd juxtaposition of students building a model in the main lobby (normally reserved for guests waiting for a ride), combined with the fascination that architectural building models seem to generate, gives the students an opportunity to hear and further develop their points of view with interesting people from all over the world. The lobby has become a social mixing space focused on the opportunities and excitement of the project.

And so our final toast at Shangri-La Garden is thanks to the experience of Kathmandu through a project that engages us with it on such a personal level.

-- Michael Everts

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Cable ShoppingChhongba dai

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

On foot through a more industrial side of town
On foot through a more industrial side of town
Monday, 11/23/09 -- Industrial Walk

Run down an alley. Pile into a taxi. Speed through the narrow streets. Weave to miss pedestrians and rickshaws. Horns blasting, cameras flashing, heads bobbing, hearts pounding, and knuckles clenched. Jump out, and hurry down the street; snapping a few blurry photos along the way. Catch a long breath or two and check the map to find your bearings before you rush to make the meeting.

This type of intensity is what we have come to expect of our days here in the city. Even the most benign tasks become a series of crazy trips through the city to get one or two materials we seem to be missing. It is now a race against time to round up materials, tweak and re-sketch detail drawings, and meet with contractors and fabricators before we leave the city and head up into the valley to begin construction. Out of necessity, we've silently adopted a code of "shoot now; ask questions later." Until today, that is.

Little did we know that today would be a pleasant contrast to the planned chaos to which we have become accustomed recently. It would challenge our senses, broaden our impressions, and redefine our expectations of the pace and operations of this magnificent city. We were on a wild-goose-chase, hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood and shop to shop to find the materials needed for our roof system, trusses, and gabion-wall wire cages; lead by non-other than our dearly trusted guide, Chhongba.

Today's trek through the more industrial side of the city mimicked the previous days events in many ways except for one very important detail: today we walked. No rushing around wildly. No cramming into tiny taxis. No dodging pedestrians. No, today was a day to truly take in the quieter nature of the city. By mid-day, Chhongba had led us to the outskirts of the densely populated labyrinth with which we were more familiar. Because we were on foot, we were now part of something we normally only witnessed through the little windows of a refrigerator-sized taxi cab. We were now out there and in the mix; getting our hands dirty, immersed in the chaos, and loving every minute of it. We began to notice all the little parts and pieces that make up this tangled web. At first this was a small and subtle discovery but quickly morphed into an awareness of every little detail. It was all so very different than before, and was constantly changing block by block, vendor by vendor, and we all noticed how different and multifaceted this place really was.

As Mike would say, "sometimes actions speak louder than words," or in this case models are better than sketches. Lesson learned.
As Mike would say, "sometimes actions speak louder than words," or in this case models are better than sketches. Lesson learned.

Even though we were on foot all day meandering through a more industrial side of town, we were still quite productive and successful at completing our mission. We did manage to find a metal supplier with the right type of corrugated roofing we needed and he even had the wire needed to make our gabion cages. (Two birds with one stone.) But not so fast. Maybe it was the language barrier, or perhaps the design, but apparently our wire cage concept was trickier to understand than we'd initially hoped. So, Mike (Everts) proceeded to sketch out the design right in front of the Nepali supplier. But, it wasn't getting through. Not until he very quickly ripped up a piece of notebook paper and fashioned a 3-D model of a wire cage, that he was then able to get his point across. As Mike would say, "sometimes actions speak louder than words," or in this case models are better than sketches. Lesson learned.

As Mike and Chhongba did all the talking, we were right there for moral support… and entertaining distractions. Every time we stopped to check out a shop or supplier, we used the break to analyze our surroundings. We had become people watchers, fashion critics, traffic pattern analyzers, and even sponges to the various odors and smells we were never able to experience before. This was a whole new experience.

Truss Manufacturer, Tek
Truss Manufacturer, Tek

The next stop was a lumber yard to gather wood for our truss mock-up. Here is where our heightened senses really took a jolt. Even at first sight we could tell that this wasn't quite the same as a typical lumberyard we were used to seeing back in The States. As Mike negotiated with the salesman the size and cost of the wood we would need, just a few yards away two men were ripping down large logs into smaller boards. It was a true example of the difference in standards and regulations from which we were used to back home. Between the two sawyers stood a very large and rapidly spinning band saw blade. Dozens of moving pieces and pulleys, no safety guards, no push-sticks, no safety glasses, and nothing between them and the blade. We all stood in awe at the speed an agility of these two men working in tandem, seamlessly and effortlessly to do their job. One little slip… and it would be all over for either one of them. What an incredible sight.

After collecting our lumber, we head off to our truss manufacturer, Tek, to square away our design and get a mock-up built. Once again, 3-D models proved to be the way to go. Using a laptop, Elissa showed Tek a digital model of the truss she drew up the night before and suddenly everything seemed to make sense. Seems like we've found the break in the language barrier after all. This is a welcoming discovery, as we head back to the hotel to finish up work on a physical model of the building we've been working on for the past several weeks. We now have great hope that this model will convey our ideas to the people of Phortse.

As we wind down from our long and busy day, we now are able to see just how important it is for us to be here in person, and getting our hands dirty. Our experiences in the city today will surely help us in the days to come. We now have a better understanding of this place and how things are done. We are now well versed in presenting this building and it's various components to the people here. The better our understanding of the processes here and the better we can convey our ideas… the better chance of success we have in completing this project and truly making a difference for the people of the Khumbu Valley.

-- Jaron Mickolio

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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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