Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Khumbu Climbing School November 24, 2009 by Anne Pettinger Cantrell • Published 11/24/09

MSU helps build a school at the top of the world
Photo by C. J. CarterMembers of the Sherpa tribe who live in the Himalayas including Phortse, above, are well-known as porters. While the work can bring financial opportunity, it has also brought loss. Until recently, one-third of the people who died on Mount Everest were Sherpas.
Photo by C. J. Carter
Frayed prayer flags, the small, colorful rectangular bits of cloth strung together in a visual blessing, whip in the breeze from the fronts of the stone houses in the tiny village of Phortse.

There are no roads into the village, which is located in the Khumbu region of Nepal, just off the path leading to Mount Everest's base camp on the south, or Nepalese, side of the world's highest peak. And because nearly every necessity for life must be carried into the area on someone's back or on a yak, the people of Phortse are accustomed to doing a lot of walking.

Known for their stamina and cheerful dispositions, the Sherpa people who inhabit the village nestled at 13,000 ft. in the Himalayan foothills have built a reputation as strong and loyal porters for the mountaineering expeditions to Everest.

And yet, as the Everest porter trade has brought financial opportunity to the 300 people of Phortse, it has also brought loss. While Sherpas are known for their endurance and courage, they traditionally are not trained in mountaineering. That lack of skills had resulted in death and injuries to many porters. Until recently, one-third of the deaths on Everest were Sherpas.

"The best way to help families of deceased climbers is to help them learn how to be safe," said Jennifer Lowe-Anker. A Montana State University graduate and noted artist, she is the widow of Alex Lowe, the MSU graduate who was widely regarded as the world's best climber when he was killed by an avalanche in Tibet in 1999. "They're going to (climb) anyway. It's the best money, the best opportunity they have."

In a tribute to Lowe and his long-held dream to teach technical climbing skills to the Sherpa people and other high altitude workers of the Himalayas, Lowe-Anker and her husband, climber Conrad Anker, and the Bozeman-based Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation launched the Khumbu Climbing School in 2003 to teach basic mountaineering and climbing skills to high-altitude workers in the Khumbu region.

This fall, a team from the MSU School of Architecture will work with the people of Phortse to begin work on a 3,000 square foot building that will house the Khumbu Climbing School. MSU students and professors have traveled to Phortse three times in the last two years to work with the Lowe foundation and the people of Phortse to design the facility, which will also be a community center for the village.

"Students in school rarely get an opportunity to work with real clients, much less in a setting or project that's as significant as this," said Michael Everts, an MSU professor of architecture who is leading the MSU team. "By significant, I mean culturally relevant, technologically challenging, and it is actually going to be built."

Photo courtesy of MSU School of ArchitectureThis fall, MSU students and villagers began construction on a building, seen in this rendering, that will house the Khumbu Climbing School. The building will also include space to teach English, a library, a clean room for seed potatoes, a medical center, a place to congregate and a center to promote tourism.
Photo courtesy of Montana State University School of Architecture

"The mountains are gorgeous, but the people in the Himalayas are spectacular," said Justina Hohmann, an MSU graduate architecture student from Pittsburgh, Penn., who traveled to Phortse last year. "They seem to have these golden hearts."

For that and other reasons, Phortse is sometimes compared to the mystical and mythical Shangri-la. The houses that dot the area are mostly made of stone, the only material readily available for building in the region since logging is restricted on surrounding national forest and national park lands.

Despite its elevation, the wet and temperate summers in the area lead to a lush growing season, where clouds and fog often obscure the surrounding peaks. In the winter, arctic-like cold with lots of snow and ice is the norm. And, travelers say that the Sherpa people who live in Phortse are some of the kindest and most welcoming people they've ever met.

"Alex had told me how dear the Sherpa people were," Lowe-Anker said. She and Anker, who was one of Alex Lowe's close friends, visited the region in 2002 because he had worked with some of the villagers in 1999. It was Lowe-Anker's first trip to the Himalayas, and Anker's first trip back since Alex Lowe had died. It was then that they decided a way to give back to the people who are so integral to Everest expeditions.

"Conrad and I went ice climbing (there) one day after we found frozen waterfalls," Lowe-Anker said. "Some Sherpas went with us, and they were dying to try it."

She explained that they helped the Sherpas with ice climbing skills on the falls, and "They (the Sherpas) loved it."

Seeing the Sherpas' enthusiasm for learning inspired the couple to found the school.

"Conrad and I just got the wheels rolling," Lowe-Anker said. "We thought ice climbing would be a neat way to teach them technical skills."

"Students in school rarely get an opportunity to work with real clients, much less in a setting or project that's as significant as this. By significant, I mean culturally relevant, technologically challenging, and it is actually going to be built."

-Michael Everts, MSU architecture professor
Since it began, the Khumbu Climbing School has mostly been conducted on ice near the village, with classroom instruction in tea houses and other private residences. Lowe-Anker said it has been effective in teaching climbing skills, such as how to belay, tie knots and build anchors.

More than 350 people have been trained at the school since its inception, and it has grown over the years. About 55 to 60 people go through the climbing school every year, which is held as a seminar at the end of January.

"It is very popular," said Phunuru Sherpa, who went through the climbing school and now is a paid instructor there. Many more people apply to the Khumbu Climbing School than they are able to accept, he said.

Some of the world's best climbers are committed to the school, volunteering their time to help teach the Sherpa people. Companies like The North Face are also supporting the project. The company recently launched a Khumbu Climbing School line of clothing. Proceeds from the sale of the clothing help fund the school.

Photo courtesy of MSU School of Architecture
Jennifer Lowe-Anker, left, and her husband, Conrad Anker, right, helped launch the Khumbu Climbing School in 2003 as a tribute to Alex Lowe. The school teaches technical climbing
skills to the people of the Himalayas. Also shown is Michael Everts, middle, an MSU
architecture professor working with MSU
students on the design.
Photo courtesy of Montana State University School of Architecture

In addition to the school, the Lowe foundation has long planned a building that would provide space for the school as well as serve as a cultural center for the Phortse community.

"We want the building to be a place where grandmas know they can get warm on a super cold day, and where nursing mothers can get away from the smoking yak dung that they heat their homes with," Lowe-Anker said.

Bozeman architect Bob Mechels, a friend of Lowe-Anker's, recommended that she consider bringing the MSU School of Architecture in to help design the building. Mechels was Everts' roommate while they both attended MSU, and Mechels said he thought the project could benefit both the foundation and MSU. Lowe-Anker said she liked the idea of involving MSU's students in the project.

"They had tons of energy and excitement," Lowe-Anker said of the students. "I have nothing but good things to say about them and their work."

Heather Archer was the first MSU student to make the long trip to Phortse, traveling there in spring 2008 to survey the community and begin site research. In August 2008, Everts and four graduate students returned to share Archer's assessment as well as preliminary designs and models of the school. The students studied the proposed school site and conducted a design charrette with the community. A charrette is an architectural term to describe a collaborative feedback session in the design process. They used feedback from the villagers to refine their ideas, and then constructed new models from materials they had carried in with them.

"We built little study models," Everts said. "Villagers would come in, review the models, and then we would get their comments translated."

The villagers were enthusiastic about the designs and the students, according to Phunuru Sherpa, who traveled to the U.S. earlier this year to learn high-altitude medical and rescue skills on a scholarship from the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

"Everybody liked the students," he said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime project for any architect. To be able to do it as a student is unheard of."

-Justina Hohmann, MSU graduate architecture student
When they returned to MSU, the students worked with more MSU students to refine the designs. By the end of the semester, they had five different designs, which another student presented to the villagers in Phortse last winter. Their feedback helped in the final design.

In addition to space for the climbing school and a cutting-edge climbing wall, the building will be used as a place to teach English to the villagers. It will also include a library, a clean room for seed potatoes, one of the main crops villagers grow (MSU's College of Agriculture is helping with that component), a medical center, a place to congregate in cold winters and a center to promote healthy tourism. Weddings and funerals also may be held there.

Eventually, Lowe-Anker hopes that the people of Phortse will run the Khumbu Climbing School themselves and use the building to help sustain the village.

Photo courtesy of MSU School of ArchitectureMSU students discuss their design ideas for the Khumbu Climbing School.
Photo courtesy of Montana State University School of Architecture

Constructing a building in Phortse has a unique set of challenges.

"All of the materials we'll use have to be trekked in by porter or yak," said 24-year-old Dylan McQuinn from Missoula, who traveled to Phortse as an architecture student twice for the project. "It's a huge consideration. Obviously you can't be using heavy steel. Since the Khumbu valley is in national forest, another challenge is that all the wood has to be brought in, as well."

Another consideration is that Phortse is in a high seismic zone. Most of the existing structures in the village are seismically weak, McQuinn said, adding that it obviously is important that the new building is designed to be structurally safe.

Everts explained that in addition to the mission of the school, the three main priorities of the design work are to respect the culture of the village with the building, improve the seismic safety of the building, and heat the building in a way that is sustainable and healthy.

The first goal was easy because the villagers were open-minded and interested in the students' work, Everts said.

"They wanted to know what was going on so that they could weigh pros and cons and make decisions themselves," Everts said.

"It was amazing to see how excited the villagers were, even though we couldn't understand what they were saying without a translator," Hohmann said.

Students in MSU's College of Engineering have also been working on the project for several semesters and designed innovative trusses for the building, which must be portered in. The team is also using engineering strategies to make the building seismically safe -- and these same techniques can be adopted at other buildings in the area, too.

Everts said the building will be heated entirely by passive heat, which is remarkable given the extreme outdoor temperatures in the region. He said it's also a healthy alternative to burning yak dung for heat.

"The noxious fumes from burning yak dung cause a cough that has become almost a cultural attribute in the rural villages," he said.

The school "is kind of the ultimate green building," Everts said.

Phunuru Sherpa added that many of the villagers are looking forward to helping to build the school.

"We intend to help," he said. "Everybody is happy about this." Six MSU students and Everts traveled to Phortse in November to help with the beginning of construction, which is expected to take about two years to complete. By then, nearly 20 MSU students will have traveled to Phortse or been involved in the project in some way.

The MSU students say the project is giving them unparalleled experience as they prepare to enter the architecture profession.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime project for any architect," said Hohmann, 24. "To be able to do it as a student is unheard of."

Hohmann said while she has enjoyed giving her talents to the project, she, too, has been enriched by the experience.

"I think it's really hard to understand yourself when you're in your own environment," said Hohmann, who added that Khumbu provided her the first opportunity to travel outside of the U.S. "Seeing another culture helps you value what you have and appreciate what you can do to help people. I think I'm able to help people all the more here in the U.S. now because I've gone somewhere completely different."

Yet Hohmann thinks the Sherpa people she met weren't as different as others might originally think.

"At first glance, they seem to have a different set of cares and concerns," she said. "They're living so much in the present.

"Yet they're not so different from us either," she concluded. "People really are people no matter where you are 
on this planet."