The trail builder of Everest

APasang Lama Sherpa with his donation box on the Everest Trail. All photos: DUSTYNEP

The name Sherpa has become synonymous all over the world with mountaineering guides, but here in the villages below Mt Everest Pasang Lama Sherpa is better known as someone who has dedicated his life not for fixing ropes on Mt Everest, but for maintaining the walking trails.

The 78-year-old Khumjung native is no engineer, but his lifelong work has made the Everest trail safer for thousands of trekkers and villagers below the world’s highest mountain.

Pasang Lama is a familiar face as he sits by the trail every day with a blue box for donations from trekkers, and a register to note down names and amounts. It is like a voluntary toll booth, and the money goes to the trail’s upkeep.

People here affectionately call him Lama Seru, and the man with the wizened face and glasses, began his career in the trekking industry at age 18. He was appalled by the dismal condition of the trails, and was determined to make them less dangerous for porters like himself.

He quit portering and in the 1960s started maintaining trails with his wife Lakpa Yangji around Dingboche village which is situated at an altitude of 4,410m. Eventually, he rallied a team to widen other paths along the steep slopes to connect villages in Upper Khumbu for the benefit of locals.

As trekking and mountaineering took off, footfalls on the trails grew, and with it the need to maintain the and repair the dangerous sections. For Pasang Lama and his wife, the only reward is a sense of personal fulfillment that comes from providing a public service.

“I have revived trails in two wards here,” says Pasang Lama with pride. “Everyone is happy to walk along these paths because we have cleared all the bushes and thorns.”

After the Sagarmatha National Park was established in 1976, Pasang Lama worked with it to streamline the paths. Finally in 2012, the Himalayan Trust set up by Edmund Hillary, recognised the couple for their years of service to the community.

The trail from Namche to Tengboche is now a wide two-way path easily navigable for trekkers and yak trains, despite dangerous cliff drops. During the pandemic lockdown, locals also laid down steps and railings along the steeper sections.

For now, Pasang Lama sits by the trail with his donation box and a sign (right) that reads: ‘Dear visitors, this man Pasang Lama Sherpa has been doing social work to build, mend and maintain the main trail to Everest Base Camp with high spirit and solemn determination. Visitors are requested to make a small donation to support and encourage this devoted man to continue his sacred work, so that all the inhabitants and visitors in this area will be befitted on the days ahead.'

North of the airfield at Lukla, most supplies reach the higher villages by porters carrying heavy loads, or on mule and yak trains. Namche is the largest town on the trekking route, but above the popular tourist hub there are only smaller seasonal settlements.

There are plans to extend the roadway from Phaplu to Lukla, which is currently only accessible through the Tenzing-Hillary Airport or on foot. While there is some support for the road, others have argued that the road might disrupt the local environment if it connects the national park.

The lack of a motorable road means that local people have to pay more for basic items. A Rs1,800 cooking gas cylinder in Kathmandu may cost up to Rs15,000 in Upper Khumbu due to the additional transport cost. Helicopters can reach the higher villages above Namche, but that makes the items even costlier.

In 2017, the construction of a new bridge over the Dudh Kosi River at Orlang Ghat raised hopes for easier vehicle access to the Solu Khumbu.

The road is being extended to Chaurikharka, a village at 2,800m in altitude, near Lukla, and a day’s walk down from Namche. For now, most locals including Pasang Lama Sherpa are in favour of the better connectivity that the motorable road will bring, and he sometimes walks down to watch the excavators in action.

He says, “With the new road, my family members from the city can visit me whenever they want.”