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How to Save a Life: Lessons from the Mountains of Nepal

We made a rookie mistake. Maybe because we were tourists? Actually, it’s a mistake some locals make too. We’d underestimated the time and gear we’d need to ascend to the top of our Himalayan “day hike”. Neither us Canadians nor our our Nepali friends knew that it’d take so long or require so much to get there.

As the night fell, and the temperature dropped quickly and significantly, it was a tragedy waiting to happen. It had been a beautiful journey so far. Our starting point from the rural regions of Nepal, a few hours outside of Kathmandu, and a few thousand feet above sea level, was green, lush with vines and trees. It was hot, sweat inducing for sure, yet manageable. The initial inclines were steep, aided by what looked like ancient stone stairs. As the hours passed, we found ourselves occasionally overtaken by regional residents - heavy laden with loads two or three times the size of ours - and area women - climbing with caged chickens. With both groups apparently en route to the village we were set on, all seemed fine. Time though, as it does, continued to tick and we didn’t feel much closer. Good conversation turned to stoic concentration. No longer were there stairs, only paths worn by intrepid travelers and the water run off from above. Each new step, a new altitude.

The sun set as we broke the treeline. The air thinned. Our traveling companions had literally left us in the shadows. Turning back was not an option: the jungle below would be too dark and dangerous. Cold, exposed rock faces were our foreboding protection from the alpine winds as we continued the ascent. My mind raced, concerned about the ashen sky, where and when we’d sleep, how we’d stay warm, and what we’d eat. At approximately 3,000m, we rounded a corner on a pass with a steep precipe to our right. It was a moment of mercy as the moon broke through the clouds, illuminating Everest nearby in the north, and reuniting us with fellow climbers who’d stopped before what was to be the last push up.

But it was not the proximity to our destination, or the wonder of the world’s tallest land mass, that redeemed our trek; it was the hospitality we received when we arrived. The village was a few, small wooden dwellings. Yet, it was respite for us and the others - who turned out to be pilgrims - travelling even higher to a prayer flag draped, incense laden temple on the summit (the final resting place for the passing poultry). Indeed, despite the very limited resources at hand, the villagers ensured we were treated like royalty. We lived to see another day thanks in large part to the warmth and accommodation of strangers. Strangers who, I recognize with humility, in almost any other circumstance would have had far less than us.

Not only was this a blessing to my group, it was indicative of the warmth that Nepali people generally and Sherpas particularly have extended to Westerners in the mountains for a century. Indeed, the transition of the indigenous populations from potato agriculture to guiding is well documented. Throughout it all, before and after Norgay and Hillary, through the trekking boom of the 1990s and 2000s, the guides have given of themselves for visitors, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice. The ability to make the most of a new market while continuing a culture of care is testament to the adaptability of the people and their hearty, hardy entrepreneurial spirit. Through them, our would-be tragedy embodied a very important lesson in love and service: welcome the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry.

And when you do, you just might save a life.


Robert Kiley writes for small businesses and non-profits. Based out of Kingston, Ontario, he has a background in education and politics and is a world traveller with a penchant for Asia. He tweets at @robert_kiley.


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