In the Himalayas there is a constant tension between the towering glory of the world’s highest mountains and the ever-present specter of loss. In 2014 an avalanche of ice tore down Mount Everest, killing 16 Nepalese mountain guides—most of them Sherpas, the native porters who have led and assisted climbing teams in these high mountains for more than a century. A year later one of the worst earthquakes in Nepal’s history leveled thousands of buildings and left thousands more dead. Against this backdrop builders have been working to complete the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), a sustainably designed mountaineering school in the mountain village of Phortse, Nepal.
Conceived and supported by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and designed by students from the Montana State University (MSU) School of Architecture under the guidance of Michael Everts, AIA, the KCC is designed to teach Nepalese climbers best practices, so that they can be safer in the mountains. By earning certification through the school, native climbers are better able to seek their livelihoods as hired guides on climbing destinations like Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. This is paramount considering the ongoing debate over whether Everest has grown too popular, with more-crowded climbing seasons reducing the safety margin for those attempting the summit.
As construction nears completion, the school has been instructive in other ways as well: combining sustainable design elements with seismic strengthening while incorporating vernacular building techniques that reflect the local culture. “We wanted to build a building that would support training Sherpas with technical climbing skills,” Everts says, “but we also wanted to make the process as educational an experience as possible for all involved: students, local people, and builders.”
It’s a process that began years ago, as the founders of the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation sought a way to give back to a community that has inspired them in both good times and bad.
A Vision for Phortse
Although the area around Everest seems impossibly remote and forbidding, the surrounding Khumbu Valley has been settled for hundreds of years by Sherpa people who originally migrated from Tibet. Historically, local villagers have relied primarily on subsistence farming centered on potato, millet, and root vegetables, which are cultivated over the course of a short growing season in an area that is 97 percent unsuitable for farming due to soil conditions and altitude.
In the last 50 years, mountaineering has become the driving aspect of the local economy. Ringed by snow-covered rocky peaks, pastoral villages in the valley are dotted with monasteries, temples, and lodges where local people host the increasing numbers of people drawn to the so-called “Roof of the World.”
One such traveler was mountaineer Alex Lowe, who honed his skills as an alpinist in the Khumbu region, climbing Everest and a half dozen other Himalayan giants. Once named the “world’s best climber” by Outside Magazine, Lowe died tragically in an avalanche on 8,000-meter Shishapangma in 1999, leaving behind his widow, Jenni Lowe-Anker, and three sons. Soon after her husband’s death, Jenni founded the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation to help the indigenous people Alex had loved. She later married Conrad Anker, Lowe’s best friend and climbing partner, who had survived the tragic avalanche. Together, they founded the KCC in 2003 after trekking through Phortse and noticing an abundance of water ice—perfect for climbing instruction.
A green terraced expanse nestled high above two cascading rivers and somewhat off the beaten track to Everest Base Camp, Phortse boasts a significant mountaineering tradition, with more Everest summiters hailing from this village of 350 residents than anywhere else in the world. “Phortse is an island in the sky, surrounded by paper birch forests. … It’s one of the more pastoral villages,” Lowe-Anker says. “We knew there was a huge need for more climbing instruction and a dearth of knowledge. Most of the families in Phortse have someone who has either worked on Everest or has summited Everest, and yet when we first went over there [to plan the KCC], no one knew how to do a basic figure-8 knot.”
For several years, climbing instruction took place in local lodges and homes, and outdoors on frozen waterfalls in the winter, when villagers were not farming. Initially, the instructors were primarily Western climbers and guides, but the KCC teaching staff are now mostly Nepali, although a team of Western climbing instructors and advisers still goes back every winter.
With the program up and running, the next step was to fund the construction of a permanent building in Phortse that would not only house the climbing center but also serve as a community meeting hall and program space. Local enthusiasm was great, evidenced by the fact that two local Phortse families donated the land for the center’s permanent location. From their home base in Bozeman, Mont., the Ankers soon connected with Everts and the architecture school to develop the design.
“We set up a graduate studio right away,” Everts says. “In addition to Jenni and Conrad, Bozeman has this incredible density of world-class climbers and adventurers, so we met with them and sussed out this mission of teaching climbing skills. But that wasn’t the only mission.”
It was quickly apparent to the foundation and the design team that the center would be designed with a multifaceted program, including a library about mountaineering and local history, a place to hold English classes, and even space for climbers to take a hot solar-powered shower and rest. The foundation is raising funds to put a state-of-the-art climbing gym in the building as well.
A Sustainable, Strong Design
Design work on the KCC took place both in Bozeman and in on-site charrettes in Phortse, with about 30 students in total (11 of whom made the trek to Nepal). The major design imperatives were that the building had to be warm and weatherproof, earthquake-resistant, and respectful of its historical context. When complete, the KCC building will be a two-story stone-and-glass structure of about 2,500 square feet based on local house typologies in Phortse and oriented toward Khumbiyula Mountain, a sacred peak at one end of the valley.
Traditionally, local buildings are heated by burning dried yak dung, which creates noxious fumes; burning wood is largely prohibited because of a Nepalese reforestation program. Based on modeling using Revit and Ecotect software and local weather data, the team found that it was conceivable to heat the building almost 100 percent through passive heating techniques—including a combination of building orientation, direct solar gain, and insulation—as well as Trombe walls that employ a glass skin over a stone wall. The building design has a series of “kinks” that minimize exterior skin exposure and maximize solar gain on the west wing in the morning and the east wing in the afternoon, according to Everts.
Seismic strengthening was also essential, and the team found that it could be accomplished in a way that honored local vernacular building techniques. After starting with dry stacked stone structures, common in Phortse, the designers used gabion caged stone and steel frames that are tensioned together with steel cables for lateral strength.
“The fact that the local people will have an earthquake-safe building is so important,” Lowe-Anker says. “When the earthquake happened last year, for months there were aftershocks and many people—including the elderly—just slept outside because they felt safer.”
In Phortse the students presented their ideas to village leaders and absorbed their feedback, which became an ongoing iterative process that some students later called “life-changing,” according to Everts. They also developed a website where both students and locals could keep tabs on the design as it evolved. The design process won an honorable mention in the 2011 National Council of Architectural Registration Boards annual awards. The jury recognized Montana State for teaching students leadership and communication skills, and for giving them the opportunity to research and work abroad.
“Architecture literally can make a difference,” Everts says, “but in order for it to make a difference there must be a redefinition of what architecture is. More and more it’s a process, and the virtual network that you create is integral to the physical building. As a result of this and other community experiences, our first-year architecture program is changing to be more about system thinking.”
A Building on the Rise
With the design in place, construction of the KCC building has been slow but steady—hindered by the sheer difficulty in transporting building materials to the remote site, not to mention the setbacks caused by the recent catastrophic avalanche and earthquake. (The foundation diverted resources and building materials from the KCC to local villagers with immediate needs.) To reach Phortse, one must fly materials to Lukla Airport—a dangerous airstrip that necessitates a multiday 16-mile trek by porter or yak—or to Syangboche, one long porter day from Phortse. The building site is perched at about 12,500 feet of elevation.
To oversee the construction team of local builders, the foundation hired Brandon Lampley, a craftsman-builder from Colorado who had experience climbing in the Khumbu. Lampley’s first task upon arrival was to assess damage from the earthquake; he was pleased to discover that the building had withstood the quake quite well. Construction continues apace, and Lampley estimates that the building will be structurally complete by the end of 2018, contingent on additional fundraising.
“This past spring, we often had 25 masons, four porters, and six laborers quarrying stone,” Lampley says. “All of our crew comes to Phortse to live for the work season. We are all builders, and working with tools and demonstrating techniques is a universal language.” The team has retained Tenzing Gyalzen, a Phortse resident who has summited Everest multiple times and serves in several community roles, as a local supervisor.
“Everything takes longer in Nepal, and especially way up high in the remote Himalaya,” Lampley says. “We trust in the skills of our local workers and craftsmen. My role is to enable their work, and utilize their expertise.”
To date, Lowe-Anker estimates that the KCC has educated well over 1,000 indigenous students. She is hoping that Phortse will become more of a destination not just for climbers but also photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, which would be a boon to a local economy that is seeing its young people move away to find work outside Nepal. Creating a safer mountaineering culture in the Himalayas is positive for both the local people and the climbers they seek to work with.
“Everest has been a boon to the country, with all the income and tourism, but also a bit of a cross to bear because of all the loss of life,” Lowe-Anker says. “There was a loss of autonomy of the native culture, with tourism flooding in. Things change beneath those mountains, and they’ve had to share those mountains with the rest of the world. We are hoping that our center is one that honors that culture and history, acknowledges the changes, increases safety, and pays homage to those who have gone before.”