NAMCHE BAZAR, Nepal -- The airport just above town has sprouted weeds in the runway.

An occasional helicopter touches down here, and planes can land if necessary. But mostly, it's a good place for the few families living nearby to dry blankets in the sun.

"The local people refused flights from Kathmandu," said Palden Sherpa, a member of Namche's town council and local representative to Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park. "We felt the development would just make problems, and we should stop that."

A similar attitude blocked plans to build a gondola up Mount Tsamserko, across the yawning chasm from Namche, to make it easier to reach a climbing base camp. It deterred construction of a road anywhere closer than a four-day walk from Lukla, which has Sagarmatha's only commercial airport. As it's the gateway to see Mount Everest, it bustles.

"These local villages have no other income than tourism," said Sherpa (who like most of the people in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal uses his ethnic heritage as his surname). "They only grow enough potatoes to feed themselves. Their main income is tourism."

And tourism means Everest Base Camp -- the 39-mile-long trail from Lukla to the starting point for climbing the world's highest mountain. While hundreds of people try to reach its 29,029-foot summit every spring, thousands make the thigh-busting trek to base camp or nearby scenic areas in Sagarmatha's 284,000-acre protected area.

Others explore the monasteries and communities of the Sherpa people, who make up about 90 percent of the population in the Solukhumbu.

Although "Sherpa" has become a generic English word for load-carrier, Sherpa people are a distinct ethnic group in Nepal with a deep connection to the Solukhumbu.

They make up about 9 percent of Nepal's 30 million people. And they are justly proud of their knowledge of how to travel and experience a homeland whose valley bottoms are farther above sea level than most of the highest mountain peaks in Montana.

Traditional way of life

Virtually anything available in this region arrived by foot.

The trails are too steep for wheeled carts or wagons. Really heavy loads come on the backs of horses, dzhos or yaks. But most everything, from Snickers bars to plywood sheeting, comes on the backs of Sherpa porters.

And so does the luggage of the tourists who flock here each spring and fall, when the weather is lovely and the peaks are lavishing. Walking is the traditional way to experience the Solukhumbu and Mount Everest, and the Sherpa intend to keep it that way.

For example, Namche merchants used to bring in bottled beer and soft drinks. But the cargo price for shipping back the empty glass was too high to be economical. So the town council banned bottles in favor of cans, and set up recycling spots throughout the area.

A similar decision reduced the amount of plastic in the local trash by half. That's important in a place where burning trash is considered both polluting and spiritually wrong.

"It's traditional in Sherpa culture," Palden said. "A long time ago, our parents told us don't burn garbage in the fire -- it makes the gods angry. Now it comes to us almost automatically."

The National Park Service's main task is patrolling for hunters illegally pursuing the rare musk deer, along with the occasional tree poacher.

"If they need trees to build a house, we give them three trees," Palden said. "House or lodge, it doesn't matter. They can have three trees, and they have to plant 20 new ones."

Those trees are hand-felled, hand-planed and hand-shaped into planks and beams that reinforce the stone construction style seen all over the Solukhumbu.

As for the airport, bare-knuckled economics played a factor as well.

It takes the average tourist nearly an hour to climb the 600 vertical feet from Namche's guest lodges to the runway. (Most people stay two nights in 11,286-foot Namche to acclimatize to the high altitude before heading farther up the Everest Base Camp trail).

There was a legitimate fear that no one would be willing to walk up and down to the airport, and a whole new town would replace the original one farther up the mountainside.

Guest lodge owners added there was probably some pressure from Lukla merchants, who saw the loss of their transportation hub if flights to Namche delivered tourists directly into Sagarmatha National Park.

That would make unnecessary the one- to two-day walk (and restaurant meals and guest beds) trekkers now undertake getting to Namche.

"We have to save the trekking trails and routes," Palden said. "After that, Sagarmatha will have a good life."

Rob Chaney can be reached at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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