From Kathmandu to the Alpine Pasture Hut: A Nepalese Sherpa in Tirol
When the Earth Trembled
Kathmandu, April 25, 2015, 12:00 noon: It was an ordinary day in the almost one million city of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Until a severe earthquake struck, toppling buildings and creating landslides. People were dying. Thousands of people. 36-year-old Pemba Sherpa saw his neighbour’s house collapse. His own house withstood the shaking and remained standing with a few cracks.
Aldranser Alm, June 29, 2016, late in the afternoon. The earthquake is still present in Pemba’s mind. We sit together at Aldranser Alm Alpine Pasture Hut and have a chat. Pemba says things like: “If you break both legs at once, it’s an emergency. Compared to that, I only broke my finger.” Nevertheless, the earthquake’s destructive power was a terrifying experience for him, one that he will never forget.
„The earthquake’s destructive power was a terrifying experience for me, one that I will never forget.“
Pemba has been working at Aldranser Alm since early June, supporting hut owner Irmgard Wiener in everyday work. He cooks local food, handles supplies, cleans the parlours and the toilets, looks after food supplies, does the laundry, heats the stove, and much more. “We are like family up here,” he tells me. A few years ago, trekking guide Pemba met Tirolean mountaineer Wolfgang Nairz in Nepal. Wolfgang Nairz, who participated in the first Austrian expedition up Mount Everest in 1978, is chairman of the “Nepal Help Tirol” Association and runs a number of projects to help Nepalese get an education, medical care and a better life. One of these projects is the Western-style lodge management program for Nepalese Sherpas in Tirol.
Pemba Sherpa sammelt dank eines Projekts der Nepalhilfe Tirol alpintouristische Erfahrung auf der Aldranser Alm.
Pemba is one of 25 Nepalese Sherpas working in Tirolean mountain huts over the summer to earn some money and learn lodge management. He has been working at Aldranser Alm for the second summer in a row. During spring and fall, Pemba works as a trekking guide in the Himalayas. The trekking and mountaineering season in Nepal is limited to either before the monsoon in April/May (spring) or after the monsoon in October/November (autumn). In winter there is too much snow for trekking tours. Pemba makes good money while working in Tirol and that’s a good way to support his family. With the money he earns here in three or four months, a family in Nepal could live for two years—although living in Kathmandu is quite expensive compared to Nepal’s rural areas. Pemba hasn’t got a family of his own. His parents live in the Himalayas and during off-season, when he isn’t working as a trekking guide, he helps them to make a living from their land.
„I could as well be a pilote.“
Pemba explains me that “Sherpa” is his last name; at the same time, the word is used for one of the ethnic groups native to the most mountainous regions of Nepal and the Himalayas – and it is often used to describe Himalayan porters. “If I was a pilot, my last name would also be Sherpa. My name has got nothing to do with my profession.” And he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Nepalese caste system, the traditional system of social stratification of Nepal that broadly borrows the classical Hindu caste model.
A few after-work hikers and mountain bikers have arrived at the hut’s outdoor patio. Mountain bikes are leaning against the fence, a crucifix hangs over the door and right next to it, Tibetan prayer flags flap in the warm wind. Pemba has hung them.
„He makes me think.“
I ask Irmgard and Pemba to get outside to snap a picture of the two. Irmgard is much taller than her Nepalese helper. She lives down in the tiny village of Sistrans with a population of 2,200. The Alpine pasture hut is named after the neighbouring village, Aldrans. Each morning, she drives up a steep gravel road to the hut, where only two people reside during the summer, Pemba and Sebastian, the chef.
Three years ago, Irmgard and her husband heard about the Sherpa project launched by Wolfgang Nairz from her sister-in-law. It’s Pemba’s second season at Aldranser Alm. “He is a great employee and a wonderful support. Plus, I think it’s a good thing getting to know a different culture while giving the Nepal Help project our backing. He needs the money and I need his help. Apart from that, he makes me think.” I wonder what’s that supposed to mean.
Pemba has been working with Irmgard Wiener at Aldranser Alm for the second summer in a row.
Running an Alpine pasture hut has its idyllic moments, but above all requires hard work and dedication.
Pemba returns to the kitchen to peel potatoes together with Sebastian, the chef. They have a lively conversation. Today, Pemba will prepare potato dumplings for the first time. Irmgard explains that the Nepalese cuisine uses similar ingredients like the Tirolean one; however, it varies in preparation methods. Irmgard shows Pemba easy ways to preserve food, which would be useful in Nepal, too. Such as making fruit jam, for example.
The food storage list in the kitchen.
Pemba and Sebastian are peeling potatoes.
„Compared to Nepalese cuisine, Tirol’s fare varies in preparation methods“, says hut owner Irmgard Wiener. Pictured: Cheese dumplings with salad.
„We can learn a lot from him.“
Pemba is polite and courteous, with never a bad word to say about anybody. “His persona is an unassuming nature. We can learn a lot from him,” says Irmgard. Pemba once visited Irmgard and her husband at their home. He looked around the 110-quare meter space and asked who else lived here. I guess in Nepal some 50 people live in a place like this.” Now I know what made her think. Moreover, Pemba refuses to smoke or drink the hard stuff; he eats very little and has a beer every now and then. That’s because he has seen many a Sherpa in Kathmandu who has become an alcoholic, as Pemba told Irmgard.
When Irmgard arrives at the hut in the morning, Pemba has already been busy and welcomes them with coffee. “As we get here, he has cleaned all the rooms and we can first sit down and have coffee,” says Irmgard. Although Pemba is not working in a lodge in Nepal, he benefits a lot from his time in Tirol and takes home invaluable experience. While working in the trekking business, he can pass on his knowledge to lodge owners in Nepal. Lodges in the Himalayas are a world apart from a hygiene point of view and from the way they’re managed; running water and flush toilets are by no means standard practice there. Pemba stands in awe of the mountains: “I have guided treks up to an elevation of 6,100 meters above sea level, but that’s it for me really. I don’t want to reach higher grounds; I prefer to admire these mountains from the distance.”
In addition to lodge management, Pemba is also learning the German language in Tirol – and the locals’ dialect. He only knows a few words, he tells me with a cheery humility. I think he knows German quite well – and Irmgard later confirms my opinion. Upon returning to Kathmandu in September, Pemba can use his new language skills with his trekking guests, as most of them come from German-speaking countries. “Servus, grias Di,” Pemba says, smiling. He turns around and carries food supplies to the storage room. His memories of the earthquake and its aftermath remain vivid, but working up here at Aldranser Alm takes Pemba’s mind off his worries and gives him a new perspective.
Photo Credits: Michael Gams
To learn more about the Sherpa Project launched by Nepal Help Tirol you can read my interview with Wolfgang Nairz (in German only).
Aldranser Alm Alpine Pasture Hut is within easy reach from Innsbruck, on foot or by mountain bike from Aldrans. Learn More.