Author Archives: Mike Minson

2015 Rebuild Chhulemu Post #5 Chhulemu Trekking Interrupted

Monk blessing at Lhakputi's new house construction--photo credits to Kellie Simpson

Lama Mingmar and some young monks from Taksindu monatery blessing the Ruphuti house before construction began.

Monastary blessing

The traditional partaking of gifts at the end of the ceremony.

I found myself curled up in my tent with severe abdominal pain, and when things did not get better, our Sherpa guides called in a helicopter. I was taken to a Kathmandu hospital where doctors diagnosed me having a gallstone which was irritating and causing my gallbladder to complain. Ouch!

After a couple days in the hospital and with my conditioned improved, I flew home to see what Boulder docs had to say. They concurred with the diagnosis and, in concert with my Kathmandu surgeon, they agreed on the recommended treatment—surgical removal of both the gallstone and gallbladder. Surgery, which is a laparoscopic procedure done on an outpatient basis, will be performed Dec 7 in Boulder Community Hospital.

Marissa, Sonam, Edward, and Dawa

I hated to leave the project. We’d been able to accomplish much rebuilding, and I so enjoyed sharing the Sherpa life in Chhulemu with the volunteers. Edward Kean, my right hand man, had planned from the start to be with me in leading all three treks. He has taken over all aspects of the remainder of the trip and I feel confident he will be leading the rest of the project in a flawless manner.

Edward and Claudia

I have more blog posts to share with you when I’m feeling up to writing them, including a post recapping the status of the project when Trek #3 is completed and all have returned home. I’ve also told all the trekkers that I’d dearly love having them write their own posts to share their experiences. Many have told me the trip was life changing. So, I hope one or more of them will scratch the itch and write, telling all of you what it was like.

I’ll be back and until then—

Namaste,

Don

2015 Rebuild Chhulemu Post #4 A Day in the Life

We are being guided and supported by Sherpa Mountain Adventures, a trekking company owned by Karma and some of his Nepal based Sherpa brothers. They are always looking for ways to improve, but their game is first rate and we are in very good hands.

Chhring Ngima Don Kellie selfie

Ngima, Karma’s brother, our main guide, is supported by Chhiring, a cousin and another Chhiring, a nephew. Another brother, Ang Babu, is also one of our guides, with Krishna of no relation being our cook. The staff working with them include other Sherpas and Rai. The morning on the trail at a Ringmu teahouse, and using gray duct tape and a black marker, Edward made nametags for everyone. It was a great assist, especially for westerners learning odd spelling and pronunciation of Nepali names. I would guess it was equally helpful for them to learn our names.

Tent city

We sleep in two person tents, with SMA providing the tents and sleeping pads. Each morning at 7:00 a couple staff members will come to each tent providing our first of many daily cups of tea. Following that welcoming the staff will bring each of us a bowl of hot water to use to freshen up. Breakfast is at 7:30 and typically will consist of porridge, flat bread, eggs, and more tea.

Birthday boy, Don

We split into two groups with Edward leading one and I lead the other. By 8:30 we are on each of the two job sites ready to work alongside the carpenters who are already working.

Demonstrating new cordless toolsSquaring up rock with hammer drill and chisel bit

Sherpas do not eat a breakfast meal, substituting instead a brunch held at 10:00. The meal prepared for them by the homeowner most often is dal bhat, a favorite local dish of rice and lentil soup. On their plates you will find cooked greens, another vegetable, and potatoes. For drink they will have salt tea made with yak butter. The vegetarian diet, heavy in starches, follows Buddhist traditions of not harming a sentient being, plus on a practical level meat is expensive and there is no way to refrigerate it.

Dolma serving brunch to carpenters

While they eat their brunch, a crew member will come from our camp headquartered at the Karma Sherpa family’s home and from a hot kettle will give us cups of juice for our coffee break.

Dining tent

Lunchtime for us is noon and the two crews will meet back at camp. That meal may also consist of dal bhat, fresh vegetables, potatoes, coleslaw, and tea—either milk tea made with the morning’s milk (what we call chai) or black tea. As a nod to our western diet which includes meat, we will see a periodic addition of canned tuna or ham.

Lunchtime selfie

The afternoon takes in more work on the jobsite and ends about 5:00. On any given day shower orders will be taken and filled in one of two shower tents before a 6:30 dinner. For that the crew heats up water and loads it into a solar shower bag. It’s quite elementary, but it works and it feels so good.

Birthday cake

Often dinner starts with a soup course and may be followed by a noodles with mixed vegetables, a tomato sauce topping, Tibetan bread, and cauliflower. We had two birthdays occur on Trek #1 and for each of those, Krishna and his crew whipped up birthday cakes iced with birthday wishes and the name of the recipient. They added a lighted candle to the center of the cake which, in tradition, was blown out after we all sang “Happy Birthday”. On other occasions after dinner dessert included bowls of custard and an apple pie.

Edward Guitar lesson

Time following dinner might include card games, conversation, and Edward playing and singing songs on his guitar. The villagers held parties for us on the first and last nights of our time in Chhulemu which included traditional dance, music, and as much Raksi (alcohol distilled from corn and millet) as you cared to consume.

Going away party end of trek 1

Before going to bed, the crew will have boiled water which they pour into our water bottles. By morning the next day the purified water has cooled for use that day.

It’s bedtime whenever we choose and for many of us we are nestled in our sleeping bags by 8:00. We find a long sleep to come with ease.

2015 Rebuild Chhulemu Post #3 Cutting and Bending Rebar

Confusion is prominent in the first couple days. The carpenters are learning new methods from Ravi, the engineer construction supervisor from Miyamoto. He is giving instructions at two sites, and in his absence at one site assumptions are made and the resulting mistakes have to be undone and then redone. The bumps created by the confusion waste some time, but we work through them.

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Once the foundation has been raised to ground level, the next element of earthquake resistance is installed. It involves cutting, bending, and fabricating a rebar “ladder”. Two long 12mm “side” pieces of the rebar ladder are joined with smaller 7mm pieces of rebar “rungs” to be embedded in a four inch layer of concrete.

Rebar tying 2

In traditional Sherpa style of construction, the walls are two courses of rock, one outside and one inside. Two larger pieces of rebar are laid out about an inch from the edges of that double thick 24” wall. Those pieces of rebar bend around the corners of the foundation, making an entire loop around the house. The sides of this ladder are then joined together with small diameter rebar “rungs” which we cut and bend into shape using a makeshift jig created onsite. The rungs are spaced about six inches apart and tied to the larger rebar sides with galvanized wire which we twist into place.

Rebar tying

The rebar ladder wraps the entire perimeter of the foundation and before the concrete is added, we placed chips of rock under the joints where the smaller rebar is tied to the larger. These rock chips lift the rebar ladder reinforcement off the foundation. When concrete is added, the chips will cause the ladder to be suspended within the bed of concrete. Finally, vertical large bore rebar is bent at one end, which is then laced into the horizontal rebar ladder at each corner of the house.

Rebar spreadfoot forms

The carpenters take boards from the stockpile of the house’s lumber and use them to create a form on both sides of the foundation to hold the 4” layer of concrete in place once it is poured.

Bags of cement and sand are mixed together on a pallet of flat stones laid out on the ground. To that mix aggregate made from larger stones crushed into smaller ones is added. Then comes water. Our most industrious volunteers, including Mike, Michael, and Doug, join forces with the carpenters to do the mixing. It’s hard, difficult work—without a doubt the hardest work on the site.

Once the concrete is mixed, the fun begins. We form a “bucket brigade” to transfer the concrete from the mixing site into the forms. The concrete mixers put a shovel full of concrete into a metal pan the size and shape of a large wok which is then passed from person to person in the brigade until it arrives at the spot for pouring. Once poured at that delivery point two carpenters work to make sure the mix is evenly distributed and then smoothed at the top.

Rebar1

The brigade is ended with a cheer we all send up. Then more batches of concrete are mixed with each delivered until an entire band of concrete with embedded rebar ladder finds its way around the perimeter of the house. Similar bands will be installed at the tops of the door and windows of the first floor, then again between the first and second floors, and then at the roof line of this one and half story house.

Homeowner RhiputiIMG_2790

By the end of Trek #1 the foundation concrete bands have been completed and the carpenters have laid the door and windows in place on both houses. When volunteers from Trek #2 arrive the schedule calls for both houses to be complete up to the roof line. Thereafter, if all goes according to plan, six houses will be rebuilt by the end of Trek #3, with the final two to be finished by the carpenters in early January.

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And, as stated before, we need more donations to make this happen.

2015 Rebuild Chhulemu, Post #2 Bucket Brigade

The two houses selected to be rebuilt first are owned by widows of limited means who have children living at home. Rhiputi’s husband died eight years ago of natural causes. She has three girls, all married, and two boys living with her. Lhakpa’s husband died six years ago as a result of an accident. She has five children, two girls and three boys. We are constructing houses of one and a half stories for each of them. Edward heads up Team Rhiputi, and I Team Lhakpa.

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We find each site under construction by a total of 17 Sherpa carpenters. The houses have been disassembled down to the foundation, with all the blocks, door and window frames, timbers, stairs, roof, etc. stockpiled nearby. The top of the five foot deep existing rock foundation is exposed and that’s where work begins. What’s been uncovered is still below grade by 18-24”, and to it the carpenters add flat stone slabs.

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Customarily, mud mortar would be applied between the layers of rock, but our engineering firm, Miyamoto International, has specified mud mixed with cement as the first step in earthquake resistant design.

We have two primary jobs on this day, one is to crumble into a fine powder clay dug from the side of a hill. That powdered clay is then mixed with dry cement, and then water is added to make a cookie dough like paste. That mixing becomes our second job.

Const3

Then there’s hauling rocks, big rocks. We haul lots of them from point A to point B, just a few yards away, making them closer to the carpenters and handier for building walls. The crumbling is simple work—sitting in the shade and rubbing soft clods of clay between gloved hands into a rough powder. It’s kid kind of play and we have a good time. The other two jobs are more strenuous. I don’t need to say much about the workout earned from picking up large rocks and moving them around. It’s tough. Mixing dry ingredients with a shovel is also difficult, hard work, but when water is added the muscle toning/exhaustion factor is increased several times.

Linda mixing cement mud

Karma’s Story

I was born in a very small, isolated village in the Mount Everest region of Nepal. I grew up with very limited material resources and opportunity. I was born in a family of 9 children and had to go through a very difficult financial situation. One generation before us, our country was ruled by a dictatorship (RANA) from 1846 until 1951. During that period the Rana family had assessed the impact of education on the general populace and its potential threat to their rule. They determined that the populace should not be educated. So, everyone was illiterate during my parents’ generation because of this poor vision that was carried out by the dictator family. There wasn’t any single school in my region during that time. Somehow my father managed to self-study and learned how to read and write. He was the only literate person in the entire community. Soon after the freedom declaration from Rana, the people of the community needed much help with legal paper work such as property ownership titles and other documentations. My father was a great social worker and dedicated his whole time to the community without receiving any pay. My mother did not have a paying job and she had to raise all 9 children by herself working on a small farm.

Unfortunately, while my father was serving for the community, he suffered from a very serious illness. I was just 3 years old at that time. He couldn’t afford to go to the hospital for medical treatment in the city and there wasn’t any hospital in the region. Sadly, after being sick for about 4 months, he passed away, leaving the whole family without a father. After his death, our family had to go through many more challenging times. Even as a child, I was always dreaming of overcoming these challenges and making changes for my family and the community. I decided to leave my home town at age 17 and went to the city to find a job to support my mother. When I got to the city, I started to look for a job and finally found a job as a porter carrying gear for mountaineers in the mountains. I had to carry loads of 80 pounds on my back and cross over passes at 19,000 ft. This felt very challenging and was a risky job for me at that age but there was not any other choice for me. Fortunately I met a couple from Colorado when I was guiding and they invited me to come to Colorado in 1999. I have been living here permanently since 2001. During the civil war in Nepal (1998-2009) I could not travel to Nepal because of the political dangers. In 2009, after 9 years, I was finally able to visit my family. When I was there, I visited the school where I went to kindergarten. I had an opportunity to talk with the teacher about improving the quality of education. After a long conversation with the teacher, he told me that parents were not cooperating with the education system, which made it very difficult for them to improve education for children. We decided to have a meeting that evening with the parents and teachers at my family home. We had an open discussion about the situations. The parents, especially the mothers, responded and said they felt very shy to attend PTA meeting because all of them were illiterate. I believe that if the mothers were educated, the whole family would be educated, so we decided to find a way to educate the mothers. After I came back here from that trip, I started sharing this story with my Friends and was able to raise some money to start a literacy program to teach these women how to read and write. This program has been very successful and we opened 3 literacy schools since 2009.

Since Nepal is one of the poorest country in the world, people have been struggling for changes for a very long time. Meanwhile, we had a historic earthquake in our life. More than 10,000 people were killed and thousands of people were injured. Thousands of family and children were displaced. Many houses and schools were destroyed. This destructive earthquake put the entire country in darkness. During this tough situation, I immediately decided to coordinate an on the ground immediate disaster relief team. This relief team worked very effectively during such a tough and devastating time. We provided medical assistance, temporary shelter, food, water, blankets, mattresses, etc. With the generous donations from our donors and our hard working Sherpa teams on the ground, we were able to save thousands of lives. I am thankful to the Frasca family and all my wonderful friends who gave me full support during this hardship.

Moving forward for rebuilding community. First of all I believe, it is important to rebuild their lives to make a sustainable community. During this difficult time, people had to go through both mental and physical challenges. After living in temporary shelters for the whole monsoon season, their health conditions may have been negatively impacted. Therefore, I am planning to lead a team of 10 doctors and nurses from the USA and a team of 6 Nepalese doctors and nurses from Nepal. We will be setting up a free health camp in a remote village from October 4th to 13th. This camp will benefit thousands of locals who needs medical assistance.

I think it is very important to build structures using more effective methods so that people do not have to go through the same situation in the future. I thought it would be better to consult with knowledgeable architects and engineers on how to bring better building concepts to Nepal based on local materials. By reusing existing materials, it will be more cost effective, environmentally and culturally more friendly for the local community. Additionally, I am planning to coordinate to train the local community on how to build earthquake resistant homes through this project. If we are able to teach the local people how to build earthquake resistant homes, they can use these skills and will be capable to rebuild their own community. This project will not be only for one community, it will be the model for the whole country. This rebuilding school project will bring back hope of a brighter future for many children in Nepal. Thank you so much for supporting the school project.

Nepal needs political and economic changes and I believe that the change will come through better education. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and learn more about me.

Fall 2014, On the Trail

Post #3 On the Trail

 

Jay and I were up, showered and ready to go by 4:45–sleep was on hold for another time. Phurwa was already waiting at the front desk. The streets of Kathmandu were deserted at that time of morning as the van made its way to pick up the four others joining us. Their destination is Everest Base Camp, but first they will trek with us to Taksindu and Chhulemu.

 

Jesse is a videographer from Silverthorne and will be taking footage of our project in Chhulemu and then he and his cameras will follow on to Base Camp. He will be making a documentary for HDF and a separate one for Sherpa Mountain Adventures. John and Celia are veterinarians from Colorado Springs and Ilse is a psychologist friend of theirs from South Africa.

Arriving in Phaplu

The section of the airport for in-country flights is cacophony of sounds and presents itself as an impossible chaos of travelers, employees, security, and baggage. Navigating our way through this is the first test of our Sherpa guide. He succeeded. The plane ride lasted only 30 minutes, but provided the first breathtaking scenery of craggy snowcapped peaks that make up the world’s tallest mountain range.

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We arrived in Phaplu and gathered for tea at a lodge across the street from the airport, which served as our staging area before the trek began.

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Sherpa is a name of a tribe of people who migrated from Tibet more than four hundred years ago, settling in what’s now known as the Solukhumbu area of Nepal, that land south of and including Mt Everest. As a tribe, they all take on the last name of Sherpa. My friend from Boulder, Karma Sherpa, and his brothers living in Nepal, Phurwa, and Ngima own a trekking company, Sherpa Mountain Adventures. This is the third trek I’ve been on which they’ve organized and led.

Nepal

In my previous treks male porters have been employed to carry our gear and provisions. This time a breed of animal known as jopke, a cross between a type of domestic cow and a yak are being employed. Phurwa told me they are using these animals because not enough porters could be found.

Breakfast at camp

We took a tour of the town and came back to a picnic style early lunch made and served by our crew in the backyard of the lodge. The Sherpa are Buddhists and as we are in “Sherpa Land”, we are also in a Buddhist culture. All of our meals will be vegetarian, with the exception of occasional servings of canned tuna or processed meat. This outstanding meal included a hearty soup, fresh cut vegetables, a Sherpa stew with rice, flatbread, and a side of tuna.

 

The main trekking trail to Mt Everest begins at Phaplu, winding its way up and north to the great mountain. Measurements of distance are made in days walking, not miles or kilometers. It’s a seven day walk without rest from Phaplu to Base Camp.

Campsite first night

We walked on the main trail some distance out of Phaplu, then took a detour up a smaller trail for a couple hours, arriving at a mountain top monastery where a festival was going on. That night we made camp and slept in tents in a clearing just below the monastery. The local Sherpas made an all-night party out of the celebration, with lots of drinking, dancing, and music. Nevertheless, I got caught up with the sleep I’d missed the night before.

Don and Jay

Namaste,

Don

 

Fall 2014, On to Chhulemu

Post #2 Fall, 2014

 

I’m reminded of the story I’ve been told about what my father said to my mother on the morning I was conceived: “I’ve got to make this quick, Dear. I’ve got places to go.”

 

It’s November 6, 10:30 PM Nepal time and I’m writing this from a Kathmandu hotel room where Jay and I landed three hours ago after forty-one hours of traveling since we left Denver. I don’t know how many time zones we’ve passed through, but thanks to a long layover and plenty of sleep in Doha, Qatar, we’ve pretty well beaten the west-to-east jetlag thing.

 

We will be picked up by Phurwa Sherpa tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM. The van then will stop to pick up four other trekkers, Jesse, John, Celia, and Ilse from their hotel and then all of us, plus our gear, will head to the airport. At 7:00 AM we’ll take a thirty minute flight to Phaplu where our trek begins.

 

I’m excited. I look forward to breathing the fresh air of the Himalayas, those mountains that explode with mystic majesty. I’m anticipating the home cooked meals of fresh vegetables prepared in traditional Sherpa dishes that delight the senses. And, of course I’m eager to meet old friends and forge new relationships with people I’ve yet to meet.

 

For HDF this will be a new beginning as we build our first composting toilet. It goes without saying I look forward to representing many of you as we do good by improving the quality of lives for some of Asia’s poorest.

 

Most likely, I’ll be away from the Internet while I’m in Chhulemu, so it may be a while before I’m able to post again.

 

Namaste,

 

Fall 2014, Off to Nepal

Post #1 Fall, 2014

 

I’m off to Nepal tomorrow, November 4, 2014, and I invite you to come with me as I blog about my experiences. I am going on behalf of Himalayan Development Foundation, the nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization fellow trekker, Jay McMahon, and I founded after our first trek to the country in 2009. Jay and I will be traveling together on this trip. The third member of our team, Linda Sollars, has suffered a knee injury and, unfortunately, will not be able to come along.

 

We are very excited about this adventure, as we will be helping to build the first EcoSan composting toilet in Chhulemu, a small village in Taksindu, which is a district in the Solukhumbu Region of Nepal. In addition we will be finishing up our Skylights for Schools project.

 

Several people have expressed concern for me in light of the recent blizzard and avalanche in Nepal that killed several trekkers, all as reported in the media. That tragedy happened in the west of Nepal; we will be in the east. Those freak weather conditions and accompanying deaths occurred at or near a mountain pass at 17,500 feet. We’ll be in the foothills, at about 8,500 feet where snow only falls in January and February.

 

November is a perfect time to go to Solukhumbu, Nepal–the days are warm and sunny, rain hardly ever falls, and the mountain air is clean and pure. I’d like to share it all with you.

 

Namaste,