I’m no super-athlete, but I do pride myself on being in reasonable shape for an old bloke.
However, any achievements I’ve ever made in the strength and endurance categories are nothing when compared to the feats I’ve seen in Nepal.
If the Buddhists turn out to be right and I get another life after this one, I hope I’m coming back as a Sherpa. I want their strength and endurance for my next heavenly hiking trip, though perhaps not their job, specifically.
Sherpa porters are expected to be able to carry twice their body weight. I feel comfortable with less than a quarter of my own bulk on my back. Sherpa Gopal is a head shorter than me, and I bet he’s only half my weight.
I’m carrying two litres of water, a rain jacket and a camera in my day pack. He’s carrying two folding tables, sandwiching six folding chairs. All are made of steel. Gopal tells me he’s forty years old.
I wear the best leather, Vibram-soled, Goretex-lined hiking boots available on the market. Gopal is wearing cheap canvas shoes.
My backpack has padded straps and a breathable hip-band to prevent chafing. Gopal’s load is tied up with nothing more than stout string, and attached to a strip of plastic across the top of his head.
I walk upright, but slouch when I sit at the computer to type. Gopal spends his day bent double under his burden, but when he walks without it, his back is ramrod straight.
While Gopal takes a break, leaving his load on one of the stone ledges which run along Nepal’s hiking trails, I have to try lifting his tables. Using all my strength, I can barely raise them an inch or two off of the platform before letting them clank back down. Gopal has been walking with them all day, climbing several hundred metres at a time without complaint. It’s his job to get to our night’s camp before I do, so that he can set up the tables and chairs and spread a tablecloth over them, ready for our dinner.
This basket contains four 20-litre fuel bottles, plus a few bits and pieces. Each of our porters is carrying two of our kits bags (each about 15kg) together with a tent (another 10-15kg, depending on whether is it wet, as it usually is). In addition to our supplies, they carry their own gear, plus water. Others carry a large dining tent, and the kitchen staff carry the utensils, stoves, fuel and food. They still manage to arrive at camp with energy miraculously remaining for a game of football with us, then for music, chatting and dancing into the night. At dawn they’re up and preparing to do it all again.
Trekking porters have more fun, I’m told. If they weren’t hiking with us, they’d be lugging bags of cement and loads of wood to building sites, being paid by the kilogram, and expected to find their own food and accommodation.
I was the guest of World Expeditions, who pay and treat their porters properly, feed them well and offer them a retainer in the non-trekking season. Quite right too. The porters are worth double their weight in any substance you could specify.