PANGBOCHE, Nepal – The spire of Ama Dablam was lost in clouds when Ang Dawa Sherpa found something even better to look at.
We’d been walking at 13,000 feet above sea level, listening to helicopters flying somewhere below us in a sea of fog, when he pointed out the band of Himalayan tahr grazing on a fall-colored mountainside.
Bigger than North American mountain goats with lush brown-black fur and curved horns, tahr are sacred animals in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal, homeland of the Sherpa people. For that matter, the whole Khumbu Valley below Mount Everest is a beyul, or sacred hidden valley, protecting a legacy of ancient Buddhist teachings.
Ang Dawa has been sharing that heritage with visitors from around the world for two decades. A professional guide, he strikes a delicate balance between cherishing a place and making a living from it.
The Sherpa people are the public face of Nepal. That's largely because while the Sherpa ethnic group makes up just 9 percent of Nepal's 30 million people, most of them live around the Everest trails that earn the country an estimated $340 million a year.
2015 is the 50th anniversary of Nepal’s plunge into the trekking industry.
Before 1965, professional mountain climbing and exploring teams had received limited permits to travel in the Himalayas. The official story tells of a retired Russian ballet dancer named Boris Lissanevich who ran a club in Calcutta and convinced the king of Nepal to allow paying tourists to wander the backcountry.
His first clients were a group of women who wanted to see the highest mountain in the world. The hotel he founded is now known as the Yak and Yeti – one of the most famous addresses in Kathmandu.
Half a century later, Sagarmatha National Park receives about 30,000 foreign visitors a year, mostly in the spring and fall when the weather’s sunny and dry.
Nepal gets about 10 percent of its national economy from tourism, which provides 8.3 percent of its employment, according to a 2014 World Travel and Tourism Council report. Its tourism sector growth rate is ranked 14th in the world, well above neighboring China and India.
“For people like the Sherpa to maintain that, they have to focus on the conservation of natural resources,” said Keith Bosak, associate professor of nature-based tourism and recreation at the University of Montana and a self-described “Himalayist.” “Keeping that attraction healthy can be a pretty tricky task. They obviously realize they have to keep the ecosystem and environment in good shape for tourism to keep coming.”
In Sherpa tradition, the Mother Goddess of the Earth, Miyo-Lungsangma, resides in Mount Everest, which is locally known as Chomolungma. They follow the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism, the oldest form brought by Guru Rinpoche when he traveled from India through Nepal to Tibet in the 8th century. That’s also the tradition followed by the Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee.
The Khumbu Valley, the northern part of the Sherpa’s Solukhumbu homeland, was one of the valleys where he’s said to have left secret, sacred teachings for posterity.
Another Buddhist figure, Lama Sangwa Dorje, founded the famous monasteries in Pangboche and Tengboche. Legend holds he tore out his long black hair and spread it about, where it turned into juniper trees that the Sherpas use for ritual incense.
Those religious and cultural traditions direct much of what happens in the Khumbu. Fires are sacred in Sherpa communities, and so are never used for burning trash or cooking meat. Animals like the tahr are revered, and hunting is prohibited in the park.
The closest thing Montanans might experience to traveling the Khumbu with a Sherpa is a guided big-game hunt or fishing trip with a professional outfitter.
But those American backcountry experts tend to be self-contained, using their own boats and campsites. Nepali guides rely on a huge network of villages and outposts that provides everything from trailside rest benches to guest lodges with solar-powered hot showers.
As Ang Dawa led us higher into the mountains, he had a seemingly limitless choice of tea houses available whenever we looked in need of a hot drink and a cookie. They ranged from elaborate stone resorts to plastic tarp-covered lean-tos.
Sagarmatha National Park has cooperated with local residents so they can continue to farm, raise livestock and work the tourist trade while protecting the landscape’s beauty.
Almost 6,000 people live in the park, which is about one-quarter the size of Glacier National Park. Their communities receive between 30 percent and 50 percent of Sagarmatha Park’s revenue for local development efforts.
Nevertheless, most of the population leaves during the cold winter and wet monsoon months for the lower and warmer Solu valleys to the west.
One road reaches the western edge of the Solukhumbu, and few tourists brave the bus ride to its border. Ang Dawa said most who do are following the historic route Edmund Hillary took when he and Tenzing Norgay were the first two climbers to reach Everest’s 29,029-foot summit in 1953.
The rest skip that four- to five-day introduction to the mountains in favor of a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. There, crowds of porters wait for a chance to sign on with a tourist party and carry loads of luggage for miles in a land with no wheels.
Guides like Ang Dawa have spent years, and often a lot of international travel, developing their expertise.
In addition to high-altitude climbing techniques, they master group leadership and logistics skills. Ang Dawa is qualified for everything from family sightseeing tours of Kathmandu to Everest summit bids, communicating in either English or French.
“On a small mountain, a European guide might be able to do it alone," Ang Dawa said. “But for a bigger Himalayan mountain, you need local climbing Sherpas fixing ropes, managing porters, arranging gear. There’s a lot to manage.”
Trekking porters are limited to 30 kilogram loads (about 60 pounds). Commercial porters – the freight haulers of the Solukhumbu – are supposed to carry no more than 60 kilos. But Ang Dawa pointed out numerous loads that looked oversized, including cases of beer and stacks of plywood.
Ang Dawa kept track of everything from how big a breakfast we ate in the morning to how sweaty we got in mid-afternoon (you don’t want to be clammy when the post-lunch fogs roll in). Two weeks ago, he was also testing a new phone app purported to track his treks on downloadable maps. (He wasn’t impressed, despite the Khumbu’s remarkable cell phone receptivity.)
Sherpas aren’t limited to the Sagarmatha area. Ang Dawa also leads trips in India’s Ladakh region, across the Nepali border into Tibet and east to the mountains of Bhutan. While he works with several trekking agencies, he also has his own website, www.NepalLadakh.com to book tours directly.
The guide-porter system developed in Sagarmatha National Park dates back to the mountain climbing days, and remains the most common way to see the Himalayas.
While Nepal allows “free independent trekkers” to travel unescorted, everyone who crosses into the national park has to have a Trekkers Information Management System card (complete with portrait photo) that gets checked regularly throughout the park.
A Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee was set up in 1991. From its office in Namche Bazar, it sends litter patrols along all the major trails and unloads dozens of stone-built, trail-side recycling boxes.
UM's Bosak said that follows a pattern seen around the world, where successful ecotourism programs pay close attention to the local people and their input.
“If anything’s working, it’s because local people initiated it or kept it up,” Bosak said. “When they do national park planning, they work a lot with the community, to develop plans and management strategies for the park that the community shares.”