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Montana Western professors reflect on travel to Nepal

UMW News Bureau

two professors standing in the mountains of nepalFor University of Montana professors Steve Mock, an avid and well-accomplished climber, and Rob Thomas, a renowned geologist, a trip to the Himalayan country of Nepal presented a perfect opportunity for an educational adventure.

Mock and Thomas traveled to Nepal in January and February 2011 as volunteers with the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), a non-profit organization working with Nepalese climbers and high-altitude workers to increase responsible climbing practices within Nepal’s economically vital tourism and guiding industry.

The KCC volunteers gave a slideshow presentation entitled “Teaching at the Top of the World” on their recent travels to Nepal as part of a KCC fundraiser on Thursday, April 28 at 7 p.m. in the Swysgood Technology Center (STC) Great Room on the Montana Western campus in Dillon, Mont.

The two professors spent most of their time in the Khumbu region, which includes Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

Mountain connection

The KCC was founded to honor legendary climber and former Bozeman, Mont. resident Alex Lowe. Lowe died in 1999 while participating in an expedition attempting to be the first Americans to complete a ski descent of an 8,000-meter (26,247-foot) peak, Shishapangma, the 14th highest peak in the world. The KCC is funded and managed through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

The recent trip was Mock’s second visit to Nepal; he also volunteered his time and expertise with the KCC in 2008. Mock’s experience with Alex Lowe goes back to the 1980s when the two were friends in Bozeman.

“I knew Alex and climbed, skied, ran, worked out and socialized with him while I was in graduate school,” Mock said. “We were pretty good friends during that time and stayed in touch over the years.”

Lowe formed lasting relationships with Nepalis during his numerous climbing adventures, and the KCC is meant to honor that legacy while better preparing Nepalese for the opportunities and potential danger they are exposed to in their unique field of work.

“The Nepalese, especially those of the Sherpa culture in the Everest region, are going to work in the mountains for trekkers and climbers no matter what,” Mock explained. “Westerners, relatively speaking, are quite wealthy and pay extremely well, at least compared to the local standard of living before westerners started traveling into that part of the world. The money is simply too good to pass up. The Sherpas are quite fit and well-adapted to their environment so they tend to do exceptionally well at altitude and are quite strong and also very pleasant to get along with. However, they are not born with inherent skills for using basic climbing tools and techniques, especially those related to safety. As a result, they have historically died in the big mountains at disproportionate rates as wealthy westerners can easily pay them enough to do most of the hard work and assume extraordinary risks.”

Mock said the program’s pragmatic, hands-on approach has real and lasting effects on the guides.

“The goal of the school is to provide those working and aspiring guides with the basic skills necessary to earn a good living in the mountains while maintaining a safety margin for themselves and their clients,” Mock added. “What's more, as they gain more skills, more education and better English speaking skills, they simply become better guides and are better able to improve the overall experience of the clients. With the KCC training, guides are also able to earn more money.”

Teaching at the top of the world

Based in the village of Phortse, Mock and his fellow instructors trained the Nepalese students, working daily in the field teaching the basics of rope work, knots, harnesses, ice axes, crampons, belaying, rappelling and other important climbing techniques. Mock was also the director of the basic climbing portion of the program, organizing instructors and groups. He also was an instructor in a second, more advanced class for select students.

Mock also worked with the KCC to create an opportunity to teach the Nepalese more environmental interpretation to complement their guiding, which is where Rob Thomas came in.

Putting his geology expertise to use, Thomas gave himself a crash course in Himalayan geology and taught his students about the natural history of the Himalayas and how to teach their clients about the natural environment.

“We wanted to incorporate this type of instruction into the climbing school because many, if not most of the students go on to become trekking guides and so they need to understand the natural history of the region where they will be taking clients as much as they need climbing skills,” Thomas explained. “Educational tourism is very underdeveloped in the Khumbu, but it can be a real asset to any guide who can incorporate it into their business.”

Thomas said the approach was a first for the KCC, but he was very encouraged by how it was received.

“The response by the students and instructors was very positive,” Thomas said. “They seem to clearly understand that educational tourism is of value to them as mountain guides. Even the climbing instructors, most of whom have guiding businesses of their own, participated in the classes.”

Khumbu Climbing Center organizers seek to turn the program over to Nepalese as much as possible, meaning both Mock and Thomas were also training locals to take over the instruction of the basic climbing, ice climbing and environmental interpretation portions of the program.

2,000 feet of ice

With his responsibilities completed at the KCC, Thomas returned to the capital city of Kathmandu to sight-see before heading back to Montana while Mock set out to do some climbing of his own before the advanced course began.

Mock was joined by Steve Swenson, president of the American Alpine Club and also a KCC instructor. The two climbers attempted Losar, one of the longest continuous ice climbs in the world at over 2,000 feet of near-vertical ice. The two climbers got to within two rope-lengths of the top of the climb but were forced to make the difficult choice of turning around as night and darkness closed in. While he would have of course preferred to finish the climb, Mock said it was one of the better climbs of his life and, given the sheer immensity of Losar, felt good about their effort.

“The only real difference from climbing ice here or in Canada, etc., was that the route was exceptionally long, nearly overwhelmingly long,” Mock said of Losar. “It looks huge from Namche, but even then it turned out to be bigger than it looked.”

Not deterred by falling just shy of topping out on Losar, Mock plans to return to Nepal in May 2011 with his brother and several friends to climb Lobuche East, a "small" 20,000-foot peak.

All told, Thomas spent three and a half weeks in Nepal while Mock spent six weeks.

The April 28 fundraising event featured a silent auction, including a day of private instruction and guiding with Steve Mock; an original print by Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation Founder, author and painter Jenni Lowe-Anker; a framed photo from Nepal by Rob Thomas; gear from Dillon’s Patagonia outlet; and an original piece of artwork by local artist Cathy Weber.