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Sherpas Learn the Ropes in Austria's Alps

Mountaineering: The Nepalese climbers are tutored in safety, environmental consciousness and modern inn-keeping.

September 15, 2002|GEORGE JAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HINTERSTODER, Austria — Nepal's Sherpas helped conquer Everest, but Hans Gapp remains convinced that the world's best mountaineers have something to learn at Austria's lower altitudes from alpinists like himself.

How to tie a knot, for instance.

"First you go over," Gapp says as his Nepalese students sit beneath a 7,218-foot sheer cliff in the Austrian Alps watching as he guides a rope into a pattern. "Then, you go under and you go through, making a figure eight -- a very important knot."

Important, Gapp says, because half a century after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay helped Sir Edmund Hillary scale Mt. Everest, the world's highest mountain, many Sherpas still don't know how to tie knots useful for climbing and other tricks that could save dozens of lives a year.

"They are very good climbers," said Gapp, one of a group of volunteers teaching this year's Nepalese visitors a three-month course on mountain safety, environmental consciousness and modern Alpine inn keeping. "But for the most part, they have no clue of climbing safely."

Chief organizer Gertrude Reinisch started bringing members of the Sherpa ethnic group and other Nepalese to Austria six years ago after she went trekking in the Himalayas and heard reports of needless deaths.

The Sherpas are training around the Prielschutzhaus Lodge above Hinterstoder, about 35 miles south of Linz.

Reinisch recalls a Sherpa who risked his life to save a friend of hers who had fallen into a glacier crack but then died himself months later by tumbling into another fissure. Both times he was not secured by a rope, she says.

"They say the gods are responsible for avalanches," she said while taking a break from videotaping the visitors practicing the figure-eight knot on a sun-drenched patio 5,250 feet above sea level. "Bad weather is also the gods' fault."

Still, the idea that Austrians can teach Himalayans anything about mountains might seem a bit strange.

After all, the Grossglockner, Austria's highest peak, is less than half the height of the Himalayan giants that include the 29,035-foot Everest, first scaled May 29, 1953, by Norgay and Hillary.

And while mountain climbing is at most a hobby in Austria, it is a way of life for the Sherpas. Nepal straddles the world's highest mountain chain, and tourism is the country's top foreign currency earner, bringing in about half a million visitors and $160 million a year.

But visitors also bring problems.

Booming tourism has led to deforestation as villagers cut down trees to cook, heat and build. Although village women think nothing of lining up for hours at a well, Westerners demand showers and flush toilets, contributing to chronic water shortages.

And many trekkers leave the mountains polluted with trash -- environmental critics call Everest the world's highest garbage dump, strewn with old tents, cans, plastic wrappers and empty oxygen cans.

The Nepalese themselves acknowledge that they need help.

"Sure, we have big mountains," said Kaji Sherpa, 27, one of those literally learning the ropes here. "But we don't have the technical expertise to climb those mountains, how to rescue those who fall."

Yogesh Ray Shahi, 23, says his main interest is environmental awareness.

"We don't have your technology," he said. "But we can learn to use other means -- for example, recycling, separating garbage, composting."

The Nepali visitors' concern for the environment grows as they help out with cooking, cleaning and repair work at high-altitude lodges in Austria. But first comes the hurdle of dealing with showers, flush toilets and light switches.

"Most of the women who come here have never left their villages; most have never even seen a car," Reinisch said. "Some don't know how to turn off a light. We've had cases where we had to forcibly take their dirty laundry away from them before they started washing in the nearest creek."

Gapp, 44, says fear of the unknown is a major obstacle for some of the visitors.

"They live in a different world," he said. "They say yes to everything because they're afraid to say no. But they're over that by the time they leave."

The real benefit to the Sherpas comes from learning the importance of washing vegetables, cleaning with the minimum amount of detergent, and avoiding plastic and metal containers that have to be lugged down from the heights.

"Their education starts with the bus ride from Vienna, when we explain to them that throwing that candy wrapper out the window contributes to pollution," said Reinisch, a journalist and adventure filmmaker. "They look outside, see clean streams and meadows, and make the connection very quickly."

Both Reinisch and the visitors say the program has had a ripple effect, benefiting not only some 200 Nepalese -- mostly Sherpas -- who have taken the Austrian program, but Nepal itself. Once home, the graduates spread the word about what they've learned.

"All society is learning from us," said Ganga Bhadur Tamang, 30. "We hope to make our country clean and [more] beautiful one day."

Wangchau, a Nepalese who uses only one name and settled in the Alps nine years ago, says he sees the effects of the program whenever he goes home to visit.

"The young people are now cleaning the mountains, collecting the garbage," he said.

With their steady and uncomplaining approach to work, the Sherpas provide some lessons of their own to their lodge owner hosts, Reinisch says.

"Many say the Nepalese have taught them to deal better with pressure during high season," she said. "They've become less nervous -- and, as a result, more friendly to the tourists."

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