Oct 17, 2012

The People You Meet: Building the Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC) Community Building

High in the Himalaya and deep in the heart of the Khumbu valley near the beaten track to Everest, there is a quiet pastoral village called Phortse that is perched among the clouds and overlooked by the stunning west face pyramid of Ama Dablam. Phortse was a key stop on our route to Ama Dablam base camp allowing us to visit the home of many of our team of Sherpas. Hiking up to Phortse in the warm afternoon sunshine from the gaping gorge of the Dud Kosi river, we were immediately treated with spectacular views and our first glimpse of the terraced fields, yak dung drying in the sun, humble stone houses, a rolling birch forest, grazing yak and seemingly endless views of the Khumbu in the shadow of the holy peak, Khumbila..

A ‘foreign’ sound soon reached our ears as the ‘tap-tap-tap’ of hammers on nails and the faint rumble of a drill broke through the air and mixed with the grunts of the yaks roaming in the terraced fields. The sounds grew closer as Chad, Valdez and I settled into our lodge – our home away from home for the evening before our final stop, Ama Dablam Base Camp.

The source of the foreign sound was quickly revealed as we looked out of the window of our lodge – a group of builders thoroughly absorbed in their trade huddled over a large plank of wood laid on an impressive foundation of a building which looked to be in early stages of construction – The Khumbu Climbing Centre (KCC) school – a project that I’d heard about from our team of Sherpa from the village. 

Background…. (from the website: http://www.alexlowe.org/kcs_building.shtml)

In the spring of 2002, Jennie Lowe-Anker and her husband Conrad Anker envisioned a project for the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. They noticed the proximity of Phortse to abundant ice and rock climbing. They realized a need for better technical training for High Altitude Porters. Statistics showed that a staggering one third of all deaths on Everest were Sherpa. Few had the skills that most Western climbers accept as foundation. The Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC) was launched in 2003 and over the past eight years has become a successful vocational program for indigenous people. Each winter for two weeks, technical climbing skills are taught along with English language, mountain safety, rescue, and wilderness first aid. 

Over four hundred Nepali men and women have attended KCC but due to limited time and space, hundreds more have been turned away. In 2007, the Nepali KCC board expressed a desire for a building to house the Khumbu Climbing Center, allowing for year round classes in Phortse. Land was donated by two local families and legally secured. ALCF collaborated with Montana State University's School of Architecture (SoA) to design the structure. Ongoing creative support of the project is part of the SoA service learning curriculum of "Mountains and Minds". 

Men at work…

As we stood fascinated by the flurry of activity taking place, we were approached by one of the builders, Tim Harrington, the founder of Harrington-Stanko Construction (http://www.harringtonhomesboulder.com/) with over 35 years of experience in specialised building projects in the Boulder, Colorado area. He and his team of builders also from Boulder were intrigued by the KCC project, inspired by the cause and volunteered to travel to Phortse and donate 3 weeks of their time to help work on the foundation of the building and oversee some of its construction. Tim’s daughter who has spent considerable time in the region told her father that it would be a project that would capture his heart – and she was not mistaken. With a warm smile in his eyes, Tim confirmed that he hasn’t looked back since..! 

We were given a quick overview of some of the key features of the building – the solid, stone walls (traditional dry-stack stone construction) encased by wire-mesh (handmade from a spool of wire on the construction site) are earthquake proof. Even more remarkable is the fact that the bricks for the walls are hand-chipped on-site from stone quarried just outside of the village by locals involved in the project. Additional insulation - passive energy harvesting – will replace the burning of Yak dung, currently the main source of heat. (National afforestation programs and conservation severely limit the use of wood.) This will dramatically improve Nepalese health.

Another example of the local ingenuity involved in the project is the way that the long cedar (?) planks are meticulously cut. Using a string that served as a ‘level’ and one very long saw set perpendicularly between two beams, two locals were hard at work cutting the large planks.

The building will be the first earthquake resistant and passive solar structure in the region. It is open-source to encourage building in safer and more sustainable ways. Once completed, it will house climbing gear, educational materials, an indoor training wall, library, solar showers and community centre, providing the capacity to generate income for the KCC program to continue and thrive.

That evening we sat with Tim and his team and shared travel stories and jokes whilst being entertained by Mingma, one of the boys from the community who had developed his skills as a card-shark and discovered the rather explosive properties of a can of Coke when shaken…

Making bricks from stone

Tools of the trade for brick making

Earthquake proof wall with insulation

Wire mesh made on-site to encase the walls

Hard at work ensuring all is level...

Image of what the final building will look like and overview of foundations

About Alex Lowe and the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (ALCF)

Alex Lowe was not only one of the great alpinists of his time, he was also a man who had a remarkable impact on many of the people indigenous to the high mountain regions where his expeditions took him. Alex was blessed with many unique gifts including the ability to climb the world's most challenging peaks, and the capability to connect with, and love, the people he met in some of the most remote areas of the world. His sheer enthusiasm for adventure and compassion for the difficult lives led by these people stands as a continuing inspiration for those who knew and admired Alex.

The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (ALCF) is dedicated to preserving his legacy by providing direction and financial support to sustainable, community-based humanitarian programs designed to help the people who live in remote regions of the world. This foundation carries on Alex's spirit of adventure.

For more information or to contribute please visit the ALCF website, http://www.alexlowe.org/


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