Montana State University

MSU architecture students help design school at the top of the world

October 13, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

Phortse, seen from above. The Nepalese community of Phortse is at 13,000 ft. elevation and on the way to Mt. Everest (18,000 ft. elevation for its base camp), which can be seen on the horizon on nice days. Photo courtesy of Mike Everts.   High-Res Available

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Perhaps most architects go into a building project with high expectations, but none higher than a group of Montana State University architecture students and their professor. The group is planning to build a school at 13,000 ft. elevation in the Himalayas in one of the most remote locations on earth.

A group of student architects, led by MSU architecture professor Michael Everts, is working on the design of the Khumbu Climbing School in the Nepalese village of Phortse in cooperation with the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. Located in the shadow of Mt. Everest, the school is being built in honor of MSU graduate Alex Lowe, who was widely regarded as the world's best climber when he was killed by an avalanche in Pakistan in 1999.

Lowe's widow, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, said the school honors Lowe's long-held dream to teach technical climbing skills to the Sherpa people of the Himalayas. Sherpas serve as porters to many of the famed mountain expeditions and while known for their endurance and courage, they traditionally are not trained in mountaineering skills. Lowe-Anker said until recently, one-third of the people who died on Everest were Sherpas. So five years ago she and her husband Conrad Anker, also a world-class climber who was one of Alex Lowe's dear friends, developed the school that teaches technical climbing skills to the Sherpa.

So far, the Khumbu Climbing School has mostly been conducted in tea houses and other private residences, and has been effective in teaching climbing skills, Lowe-Anker said. But the 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.

Lowe-Anker met Everts through Bob Mechels, a Bozeman architect who was working with her. Mechels was also Evert's roommate while both attended MSU. Lowe-Anker said she liked the idea of involving MSU's School of Architecture and students in the project.

MSU's actual involvement in the school began last spring when architecture student Heather Archer of Bozeman was awarded a scholarship by the School of Architecture to travel to travel to Phortse to survey the community and begin site research. Archer, who traveled with MSU architecture graduate Marie Wilson who received a scholarship from the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, wrote a book about the community and its needs as a starting point for the design team.

Everts said that in addition to the climbing school, which will include a cutting-edge climbing wall, the school will also be used as school to teach English to the villagers. It will also include a library, a clean room for seed potatoes (MSU's College of Agriculture is helping with that component) as well as a medical center, a place to congregate in cold winters and a center to promote healthy tourism. All of those aspects will be included in the final design.

Last month Everts and four graduate students traveled to the village, where they shared Archer's book as well as preliminary designs and models of the school and studied the proposed school site. They stayed for a week, conducting 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. Even though the village is so isolated that it takes a week to get there, and every brick, stone and board must be carried in on backs or yak-like cattle, the villagers showed their excitement with 21st century technology.

"The people are great. They took out their cell phones and took pictures of our models," said Nick Molinaro, a graduate student from Gig Harbor, Wash. "They were really excited about it."

Joining Molinaro on the epic trek were Sarah Mohland of Great Falls, Justina Hohmann of Pittsburgh, Penn. and Dylan McQuinn of Missoula. The quartet said they were somewhat surprised to learn that the villagers wanted a progressive plan, somewhat different from the traditional buildings in the community.

"They appreciated the introduction of new technologies in the building," McQuinn said.

"The people there are salt of the earth, very hospitable and very open, "Hohmann said. "Everyone was so excited about the project. Definitely, the memorable part is the strength of the people."

The students also studied building techniques used in the area and are now researching materials that can be used to construct the school as they look at everything from sanitation systems to power, light, air quality and heating. Since every element of the building, from nails to concrete, must be carried in, materials that are both light but tough enough to stand the harsh climate are important.

Lowe -Anker said she is excited about the design, "but ultimately, the biggest consideration is to respect the desire of the villagers."

The students said they will have more advanced plans and models by the end of the semester that they will send with Lowe-Anker on her next trip to Phortse, probably in January. The villagers will vote on the ultimate design.

Lowe-Anker said the foundation continues to raise money to build the school. One of those fundraisers will be a lecture sponsored by the MSU Leadership Institute that Lowe-Anker and Anker will present Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the SUB Ballrooms in connection with the showing of the film, "The Endless Knot." The award-winning documentary by adventure filmmaker Michael Brown tells the story of the Lowes, Anker, the bond developed through world-class climbing, as well as the story of the Khumbu Climbing School. Tickets for the event are $3 for students, $5 for the general public, with all proceeds to benefit the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

Lowe-Anker said the foundation is also working with sponsors and partners, such as North Face, to help build the school.

While the building schedule will be set by the people of Phortse in consultation with their local lama on religious considerations, another MSU building and design team expects to return to Phortse next summer to continue work on the project. Everts expects the actual building of the school to take two years.

The students say that they will likely never be involved in a project quite like the Khumbu Climbing School, and that working on the project has been a life-changing experience.

And Lowe-Anker said that she was thrilled that the students went to Nepal. It meant a lot to her that they were welcomed and worked so well with the people of Phortse.

"These people have become like family to me," Lowe-Anker said.

To learn more about the Khumbu Climbing School, go to For more information about the Oct. 14 Bozeman premiere of "The Endless Knot," call the MSU Leadership Institute at 994-7275.

To read more about the MSU School of Architecture go to:

Michael Everts (406) 994-3392,