Everybody knows the stories of the great climbers that manage to put their flags on the peaks, and also of the Sherpas who guide these people through their treacherous and sacred land. Of course their actions are worth of praise, but as always there are some people of great importance who get forgotten along the way, the people who carry most of the weight for these mountaineers to be able to succeed: the porters!
In my trip to the Everest base camp I befriended one of these unappreciated mountain persons, Asta Rai, and he let me ask him some questions. He didn’t really speak English, but thanks to a couple guides who helped translate at the lodge, this interview was possible.
I’ve seen the bags you carry on your back, it looks massive. How many kilos do you usually carry?
Usually for tourists I carry between 20 and 30 kilos. This time I’m carrying a bit more, around 35. But when I bring goods up the mountain sometimes I have up to 90 kilos!
And how comes you take it with a strap to your head? Is it more comfortable than a big backpack?
Definitely! I only use a backpack when I carry really few kilos. The head and the neck are much stronger than the shoulders; you can carry much more weight.
Can you tell me how long have you been doing this job? How and why did you start?
Right now I’m 40 years old and I’ve been a porter since I was 18, so … 22 years! I have 15 more years, then I will have to quit. I started because it’s the easiest job to get into. My parents had a farm, which I still tend to when I’m not on a trek, but that alone doesn’t give enough money for my family … Schools are expensive, clothes …
Usually, how many treks do you do a year? Which one do you like better? And your least favorite?
More or less I work on 8 treks a year, each one of 2 weeks, and always around this region, Khumbu. Now it’s offseason, so there is not so much work. In spring and fall are the busiest moments. My favorite trek is up to the EBC (Everest Base Camp) … it’s the easiest! And the Everest is my favorite mountain. I don’t like to do the 3 passes trail during winter, it can be dangerous sometimes.
This means that you are away from your family at least one third of the year. Is it hard?
It really is! But this is what I need to do for them. This year things are getting better, because I finally got a self phone. So now I talk to them almost every day … when there is signal! But it’s not easy to be away from my wife and children.
Is it a popular job? I mean … people look up to you when they see you carry so much weight?
No, I’m not a Sherpa! I just carry weight. Nobody likes doing this. I only do it because the money is good and you don’t need any qualifications. The only thing you need to start is to know guides who might need your services. I’m a bit tired of hiking and of the Himalayas. At least it’s an easy job, but I really enjoy working on the farm and to be with my family. When
I finish this trek I have to harvest my potatoes!
What kind of job would you like to do instead of being a porter?
Since I was a kid I always wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately my family didn’t have enough money to send me, or my brothers, to school. I have only finished primary education. I had to help on the farm. Then I got married, and I have to take care of my family. I want to give my children the chances I never had.
There are many women around here carrying lots of weight as well. Isn’t it something for men, usually ?
Not in Nepal! Here men and women do the same jobs. I know it’s strange for westerners, but here women work as hard as men in physical jobs … sometimes even harder!
To finish, did you ever work with professional mountaineers? Or do you have any interesting stories?
I don’t work with professionals, only with tourists. I’ve never been passed the base camps. And in the mountains there are lots of funny stories … but I don’t think is the right place to tell them!