Tibet Children Schooled in Climbing Out of Poverty
Wearing blue nylon safety harnesses, students scramble up the Tibet Guide School’s climbing rock, moving quickly and smoothly from one handhold to the next on the six-story concrete slab.
They are part of an unusual development effort, training Tibetan children from poor families to work as guides on Mt. Everest and other Himalayan peaks that draw thousands of climbers every year.
Tibet is one of China’s poorest areas, but it has some of the globe’s most challenging summits and spectacular scenery -- assets that communist authorities are trying to harness in order to develop the region.
“The children of peasants and herdsmen can train here and get a job later,” said Zhang Minxing, general secretary of the China Tibet Mountaineering Assn., which founded the school in 1999. He said it was the first of its kind in the country.
Graduates get jobs at the school’s Himalaya Expedition Co. Ltd., which serves climbers who hope to conquer the 29,035-foot summit of Everest via its northern slope in Tibet.
Critics say ethnic Tibetans lose out on jobs to workers from China’s dominant Han ethnic group. The school helps to even things out by boosting local incomes, Zhang said.
Even so, he said the school -- which has received $875,000 from Beijing -- plans to expand to admit students from outside Tibet once it is big enough.
The students live in a compound of three-story buildings minutes from the center of Lhasa and against a backdrop of mountain peaks.
The curriculum mixes outdoor training such as ice-climbing with classes on mountaineering theory and language skills in English and Mandarin.
“I’ve been climbing since I was a child,” said Awang, a deeply tanned 23-year-old graduate from the village of Nilang, near Tibet’s border with Nepal. “It’s great that this school can help our people.” He has scaled Everest three times.
Besides the Himalayas, Tibet has two other major mountain ranges, with five peaks over 26,000 feet and more than 200 over 23,000 feet.
That translates to brisk business for Himalaya Expedition, which charges clients from all over the world about $1,800 for each guided ascent to Everest.
Last year, guides from the Tibet Guide School helped a team of Chinese mountaineers reach the Everest summit during the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and his Nepalese sherpa, Tenzing Norgay.
The school has organized trips up Everest and other peaks to pick up trash left by mountaineers. A room at the school exhibits trophies from those jaunts -- a pile of empty oxygen tanks, ripped tents and worn-out climbing shoes. In 2002 alone, about a ton of refuse was brought down, Zhang said.
On a more gruesome note, the school is leaving corpses of dead climbers that are buried on the peaks because it can’t afford to retrieve them.
“Some of the bodies I’ve seen are intact,” said Rinchin Puntsok, an animated man who has scaled Everest and lost his fingertips to frostbite. “Their faces look like they passed away during their sleep. It’s so vivid.”
On one cloudy summer day, climbers gathered at the school’s climbing rock, taking turns while others held safety ropes below.
The exuberant group grew shy when foreign reporters approached.
Ludha, 23, raced up and down the rock. Then he said, grinning, “I do this for love.”