‘Super-Human’ ‘Sherpas’?

OK first off, before we get started, a matter of definition that grates every time a newscaster reading their script gets it wrong…. The word ‘Sherpa’ (big ‘S’) does not actually mean someone who carries stuff or any Nepali who happens to be up a mountain.

Just to clear up any confusion, the name ‘Sherpa’ refers to an ethnic group, hence the capital ‘S’. It is derived from “sher-wa” meaning “people from the East”, because the Sherpa ethnic group originally crossed from Tibet which is East of their now traditional homeland of the Khumbu area of Nepal. The Sherpa also have their own language, culture, and they are slotted into the mainly Hindu-Nepali caste system, en-mass. Almost all Sherpas have the last name “Sherpa” too. So if a Nepali, up a mountain, introduces themselves as Pasang Rai or Nima Tamang, they will be from the Rai or Tamang ethnic group rather than Sherpa. There are many Nepali mountaineers, guides and high altitude porters who are not Sherpas.

So, next time you hear someone say ‘Sherpa’, you can ask them if that is what they mean, or if they actually mean Nepali porter or Nepali mountain guide. When they stare at you blankly, you can educate them!

So, that’s the ‘Sherpa’ bit dealt with, now on to the ‘Super-Human’ bit.

For anyone who has been trekking in Nepal, the most immediately obvious example  of this notion will have been seening local Nepali porters (not necessarily Sherpas!) achieving apparently unbelievable feats of strength and endurance by carrying extremely heavy, and sometimes extremely awkward, loads up steep and rough terrain. All of this at altitudes of up to perhaps five thousand metres, where the available oxygen in the air is down to 50% of that at sea level.

When stopping to catch their breath, half way up a moderate slope, weighed down by the grand total of a few kilos of camera, water and a few spare clothes, many a trekker can be heard to exclaim….

“Wow, look at that, that is really impressive, they are superhuman”

….or words to that effect. Perhaps taking a photo to preserve the moment and jovially applauding the feat.

This is a common reaction and made innocently enough. But let’s look a bit closer….

Fundamentally; No, that porter is not super-human – he or she is very much human.

This may seem like semantics, but it is an important distinction. They are often very highly conditioned through a lifetime of being physically active and probably many years of carrying heavy loads. Plus, most of the people from communities who have lived at altitude for many generations have physiologically adapted to altitude, and of course they are probably well acclimitised in any case.

But they are made of the same stuff as you or I.

There is a limit to what force a muscle of a given size can produce. There is a limit to what stress a bone or ligament can sustain. Pain and injury are universal. By labeling them as super-human, perhaps we are creating that ‘otherness’ that excuses us the empathy of imagining ourselves in their position. Instead of marveling, maybe we should be asking ourselves:

  • What damage is being done to their body by carrying such huge loads?
  • What pain are they in after a day of carrying that load?
  • What pain will they be in every day as they age?
  • What is the average life expectancy of a porter?

These are the same questions that would almost certainly have come to mind more readily had it been a mule or a yak carrying an apparently unreasonable load. Perhaps under the argument that an animal had no choice in the matter.

In the same vein, on one level it is impressive that they are moving that huge load over such difficult terrain, and usually with such tight-lipped resolve and lack of drama. But on another level, perhaps we should be asking why they are doing so:

  • To what extent was porter-ing actually a decision of their own wider free will?
  • What are their other employment options?
  • What level of education did they have access to them as a child?
  • How much are they being paid to carrying those two full sized sheets of half inch, 8 by 4 foot plywood weighing up to 35kg up a mountainside? How much would I expect to be paid for that?
  • Why aren’t they carrying one 17kg sheet instead of two?
  • Why are they wearing flip-flops?
  • Do they have spare clothing? – What happens if the weather changes?
  • Where are they going to sleep tonight? – Do they have a sleeping bag or blanket?
  • Do they get enough calories and nutrition to sustain and repair their bodies?

Super Human Sherpas?

Maybe next time we see a porter struggling under an unreasonable load, instead of remarking….

“wow, look at that, that is really impressive, they are superhuman”

Perhaps we should instead be asking ourselves all the questions above and saying….

“wow, look at that, why are they having to carry such an unreasonable load, I wonder what pain they are in and what damage it is doing”

Then instead of applauding and congratulating what you are seeing, find out about them and take an interest (perhaps through your guide) and make it clear that it you are interested in their well-being. And if it is a porter carrying excessive luggage or gear for a trekking or climbing group, ask them who they are working for then get in contact, ask some difficult questions and let them know that their organization appears to be working in an unethical and irresponsible manner.

As a paying client, you have the power to influence this.

To find out more about Adventure Alternative‘s policies on porters’ rights please see – http://www.adventurealternative.com/trips/page/940/porters_rights – and please do speak to us directly for any other information.

How fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro?

This is the most commonly asked question I’ve received in the last fourteen years of organising Adventure Alternative climbs of Kilimanjaro. And the answer – well it depends more on your approach to the climb as a whole, rather than just your fitness.

Glacier kiliIMG_1884

A long standing client of Adventure Alternative has done numerous triathlons, marathons, duathlons, ultra marathons and any other thon that you can think of, yet he felt climbing Kilimanjaro was one of his toughest achievements to date! Saying that, another client, who again has been on many different trips with us, found it challenging, tough at times but very achievable and rewarding. And her training? Well she’s a working mum of two who escapes for a few hours at the weekend and once or twice during the week when she’d hit the hills with a light pack, go for a jog or jump in the pool for a few lengths. So it isn’t just physical fitness that gets you to the top.

My advice is to prepare as much as you can within the possibilities of your lifestyle and don’t let worry or stress enter that regime! You don’t need a hardcore training schedule and for most people some lifestyle changes such as escaping to the countryside, beach or hills at the weekend or even walking to work will be a great step in the right direction. You really don’t need to be a super fit, highly tuned athlete but you should work on stamina, general well being and be comfortable with living outdoors for prolonged periods of time.

AA Kilimanjaro (2)IMG_1662

Rather than asking how fit do I need to be to climb Kilimanjaro it would be better to ask ‘How should I prepare for climbing Kili?’ That’s a better and more holistic approach to summiting the roof of Africa. You can’t train for altitude, well not on UK or Irish hills, but you can work on all other aspects of the climb. Read up and learn about the route, weather and living conditions on (for example) the Machame Route, then how you can best prepare in terms of health and altitude on Kilimanjaro, also look at kit and the right gear for the climb: Kilimanjaro kit list and of course consider your training for Kilimanjaro!

KathKilimanClimb 143

Remember climbing Kilimanjaro is a holiday, an adventure and not a forced march! The secret of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is to go slow, enjoy the scenery, drink well, eat well and sleep well – it’s better than any exercise or diet book! A regular, consistent and slow pace will ensure proper acclimatisation and in terms of training; well it should include regular hill walking with a small pack of around 10 kgs, or regular visits to the gym for the final two months before departure. Work on strengthening calf and thigh muscles and exercise your cardio-vascular stamina on a step machine or cross trainer. If you do all of the above you’ll be well prepared mentally and physically for a climb of Kilimanjaro.

Race me to the Pole – the last push

Ahead of relaying the final instalment on Gavin’s trip, we want to thank all supporters of Gavin and Moving Mountains Trust throughout this expedition on behalf of Gavin himself and all of the Moving Mountains staff and beneficiaries. 100% of the donations will go towards projects in Kenya, Nepal and Borneo so make sure you follow Moving Mountains in the near future to see the fantastic projects that these funds will help support like the Rescue Centre in Embu, seen below.

RMTTP_Embu Rescue Centre_LoRes

The last re-supply checkpoint was at Cator Harbour on Sherard Osborn Island, right at the Northern Tip of Bathurst Island and at the 310km mark of the journey. Gavin and the team made it here on the 21st April. The re-supply plane picked up one of the guides, Steve, who unfortunately suffered from frostbitten fingers. As a precaution he was flown back to Resolute to have it checked out and we since hear he is doing fine.

The re-supply plane brought extra food and fresh sat-phone batteries. These phones have been one of the only links between Gavin and the outside world, allowing us to exchange brief conversations, and relay information by text. In addition, the Yellow Brick GPS tracker unit has allowed us view his position at hourly intervals on the interactive map and also extract accurate Lat/Long coordinates. In temperatures often reaching -40 degrees Celsius there’s only place for the hardiest electronics, meaning Gavin was not able to relay digital files, videos or photos since leaving Resolute Bay.

From Gav_2013_04_xx Moody Skies Above (2)After Sherard Osborn Island, Gavin and the team continued North West over relatively smooth sea ice that had ‘freshly’ frozen this year. This offered a little respite from skiing over older, broken and re-frozen ice rubble and also the areas where they were forced onto the land at Airstrip Point and Cape lady Franklin; testing work!

During the penultimate week of the expedition, with temperatures still extremely low, a lot of Gavin’s insulating down gear had become wet through condensation from sweating and cooking and then frozen solid. The team had therefore been hoping for slightly higher temperatures and some direct sunlight to afford the opportunity to try and melt and dry out some of their essential kit. Soon after, we received news that conditions had improved dramatically. However, a new concern was raised; the team feared that they might not make it to the Pole in time for their pick-up. After losing ground to the Arctic snow storm the week before, it was looking like the team would have to spend 10-12 hours skiing every day for a week, that’s said to be akin to doing a marathon every day of the week!

On the night of the 27th of April the team had a near miss with a polar bear. The team

polar bear in snow stormhad managed to stay way out of reach of these Arctic giants right through the ususal danger zone close to ‘Polar Bear Pass’ on Bathurst Island, but just days from the pole, the team had a 1am polar bear visit. The curious bear sniffed around, leaving 8 inch wide paw prints circling the tents. Luckily, the creature didn’t commit any breaking and entering, but rather sent one of the team into a mild panic; the dilemma of being the only member of the crew to be awake and hearing the deep breathing of a polar bear...

On May the 29th, at around 03:30 GMT (9:30pm local time) Gavin and the rest of the team made it to the North Pole after a mammoth 35km push over the course of more than 13 hours. Not long after arriving at the pole last night and setting up their camp, a tired and emotional Gavin, called in to leave the message they had been looking forward to uttering for weeks, “We are at the Pole”. To listen to the final audio message, plus earlier stories from the expedition, visit Flickr .

The race may have finished, but the team still have to ski approximately 28km today (30th April) to get to the airstrip at Isachsen. The strip is on the land, considered much safer than landing on the sea ice, although it will of course be covered in snow. There is only one aircraft available to pick the team up tomorrow, meaning that the plane will have to do two trips to pick up all of the team and their kit. They will try and get as many people on the first plane as possible but will have to leave a few for the second trip, along with as much gear as they can. They may have to leave behind gear in the abandoned weather station buildings but this may well be of use to people in the future if they do.

HE DID IT

According to the Environment Canada Climate Severity Index, Isachsen and the surrounding area has the worst weather in Canada with a CSI severity value of 99 out of a possible 100. Trees and shrubs cannot survive this far north, restraining the wildlife to polar bears, Arctic Foxes, seals, muskoxen and a variety of migratory birds. The abandoned weather station will therefore prove to be a welcome shelter, though they will no doubt be praying that it is a very temporary one.

A huge thank you to everyone who has already joined the Donation Team by donating to the Moving Mountains Trust via the Race Me To The Pole campaign. So far we have raised a fantastic £14,278, 40, putting us at the 354km mark.

It is not too late to join the team or even re-affirm your membership with any donation, large or small.

To donate, visit the Race me to the Pole MyDonate page.

Or, to donate via text

send…. POLE13 £5

to…. 70070

On behalf of everyone who will benefit from the work of Moving Mountains, around the globe, we would like to say a huge THANK YOU for donating and supporting us so far.

An Unseasonably Cold Spring

As you may have heard, Adventure Alternative founder and Director, Gavin Bate, is currently ski-ing 550km to the magnetic North Pole to raise money for Moving Mountains Trust (@MMTrust). Thanks to unseasonably good weather and high pressure over the Arctic, Gavin is ahead of schedule at an impressive 88km after just four days of ski-ing.

HeaderWith indications that the spell of good weather may be changing, Gavin’s pace may well reduce significantly in the coming days and weeks. Along with the news of low pressure returning to the Arctic comes news of returning high pressure to Europe, about time!

Many parts of the Northern Hemisphere saw near record-breaking cool temperatures this Spring. The United Kingdom experienced its 4th coldest March since 1962.

280711721.thumbWhy? Scientists have been observing the Arctic Oscillation (AO) – a measure of pressure – and have found some interesting results. Pressure is always in flux as air masses of different temperatures/pressures move around the globe. When the AO index is in its ‘positive’ phase, air pressure over the Arctic is low, pressure over the mid-latitudes is high, and prevailing winds confine extremely cold air to the Arctic. But when the AO is in its ‘negative’ phase, the pressure gradient weakens. The pressure over the Arctic is not as low and pressure at mid-latitudes is not as high, seeing Arctic air flow to the south and warm air to move north.

In late March, the AO dropped as low as -5.6, one of the five lowest values ever recorded by meteorologists. It’s hard to link these changes to one phenomenon, but many scientists believe that it might be linked to the loss of Arctic sea ice. This happens naturally in Spring as temperatures warm, but the loss has been increasing dramatically year upon year.

How ironic that global warming may actually lead to a European climate similar to that of Canada and Siberia. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; good weather is on the way! Temperatures are set to reach up to 20°C by Sunday. Rejoice!

100413 TwitterLet’s hope that the low pressure heading to the Arctic doesn’t cause too many disruptions on the Race to the Pole. To follow Gavin’s progress, visit the Race me to the Pole website where his location is updated on a map every 4 hours.

Thanks to those of you who have already donated. You are now in the ‘Donation Team’ and have made 49.5km of progress! Thanks!

First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

Is this the first ever photograph of a New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild?

Photo from the trail, cropped to show dog

We had word of some very exciting wildlife news at Adventure Alternative HQ recently. It was of a potential sighting (and photo capture) of one of the rarest (if not the rarest) breeds of dog in the world – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD).

The sighting was made by Adventure Alternative Borneo director Tom Hewitt whilst on trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. These elusive dogs have most probably never been photographed in the wild before, so this is potentially huge in the NGSD world.

Tom, who has been living and working in SE Asia for the last ten years, is now based in Sabah and Sarawak from where he runs Adventure Alternative Borneo – the company that came into existence after a chance meeting 3 years ago with Adventure Alternative founder Gavin Bate. Along with a rainforest camp called Lupa Masa next to World Heritage Mt Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Adventure Alternative is also providing assistance to new community tourism and reforestation project based around 6 Penan villages in the remote interior of Sarawak. With financial support provided by Moving Mountains Trust, Adventure Alternative’s partner charity, the villages aim to plant 15,000-20,000 new hardwood saplings per year on previously logged and burnt forest.

Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between the independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian controlled West Papua.  New Guinea is a truly remarkable destination as these facts and figures testify:

  • It is the 2nd largest island on earth, covering 785,753 sq km.
  • Although this landmass covers less than 0.5% of the world’s surface, it is estimated to contain up to 8% of the world’s known land and sea species, with countless still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
  • In terms of size of continuous rainforest it is exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo.
  • And whilst only 1% of the world’s population call New Guinea home, the number of native languages spoken, account for over one sixth of all languages on earth – that is over 1,100 distinct dialects!

The Main Photo in Question

The photo taken from the trail of the dog on the hillside above

The same photo again (hence the slightly low resolution)
Now cropped closely to the dog its self

The details of the Sighting

We invited Tom to offer his own account of the trip and the sighting…

A client approached me at the end of 2011 requesting a bespoke trip that was ‘beyond any usual tourist or trek route, ideally mountainous and not hot and humid’. For a long time I had been looking at Mandala Mountain on the West Papua map. It is the 2nd highest free standing peak in Oceania with very little information available about it. It seemed to fit the requirements.

At an unconfirmed 4,760 m (no one is really sure) Mandala Mountain is the highest peak in the Star Mountain range – one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world and until 40 years ago Mandala mountain even had it’s own permanent glacier. Here the native flora and fauna species, including the secretive singing dogs have remained in virtual isolation and undisturbed for thousands of years.

The twelve day tour included myself and the client, plus a trusted cook and guide that I had used before and seven local porters and guides from the starting village, itself an expensive 1 hour chartered plane ride from the capital of West Papua, Jayapura.

At the time of the sighting we were in a dramatic, wide valley with 4,000m peaks and limestone walls with waterfalls on either side. We spent a total of 4 days camping in this valley and there was regular contact with a number of exciting animals: couscous, possums and even tree kangaroos were seen most days, as well as many unidentified ground nesting birds living in the swamp grass. One species of bird of paradise was heard in the lower forest, but not seen. There were a few highland flowers and grasses and occasional groves of an ancient cycad species – primordial in every respect.

The guide and cook were 10 minutes ahead of us on day 1 of the return the trek, they had stopped I presumed, for us to catch up. When we reached them the guide proclaimed ‘dog’. This took me quite by surprise and it took three explanations by him for me to understand. But sure enough above us on the rocky outcrop in the bush there was a dog – the guide seemed as bemused by it being there as we were. After initially being quite close to the guide, by the time we arrived it had taken position on the hillside above us; this is the position found in the photos. We watched it for around 15 minutes as it continued to watch us. It seemed as curious as we were but not particularly scared or nervous. What stood out was how healthy it looked upon closer examination with binoculars.

I had no in-depth knowledge of NGSD’s at the time of the expedition and the photos in question were merely one of a huge number taken. To my utmost regret I did not make any video footage, nor did I try to get any closer. But in the context of any trip to Papua at the time this was no stranger than other events that happen daily – such as waking up one morning to see one of the porters using a tree kangaroo as a neck scarf to keep him warm.

There have been no previous confirmed reports of Singers in that general area. This can be easily explained by the fact that it is not an area the locals would ever go to, or at least not very often. There is much better hunting in the lower forests and hills. It is also very rarely visited by any other visitors.

When we returned from the trek, I searched for more information on the Singing Dogs of Papua and realized that I had possibly the only ever photo of one in the wild. The photos have since been disseminated amongst various experts including the American based New Guinea Dog Conservation Society.

Here are some more photos that were captured on the trip:

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In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua, Mt Trikora, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. At 4,750 m Trikora is also in an area that the New Guinea Singing Dogs have been seen by the locals. The scheduled climb will either begin or end with the annual Baliem Valley tribal highlands festival – this is when all the various highlands tribes come together for a big party in Wamena. For all of the trip information, click here.

History of the New Guinea Singing Dog

The intense topography of Papua as a whole coupled with low scale political troubles in the Western side of Papua has meant that little research has been done into the existence of NGSG in the area. The dogs themselves are believed a close relative of ancient dogs that were domesticated from Asian Wolves between 10-15,000 years ago and are related to the dingo of Australia.

The first live ‘Singers’ were caught in the Eastern province of the island in the 1950s and taken to Australia – nearly all of the Singers outside Papua are now descended from these 4 dogs. More recent expeditions have failed to locate any singers, including a month long expedition to the Eastern province highlands in the mid-90s. In this case, the Singers were heard but never seen. The NGSD is considered an evolutionarily significant unit. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end.

The future and the ethical dilemma faced.

The latest consensus from the experts regarding the photos is that “all of the photos have been examined forensically and there is no indication that they have been tampered with or are fakes. No layering is present. We also have had these photos examined by a PHD in Tropical Biology who is currently involved in rainforest research and conservation in New Guinea and his conclusion of the photos are that the plant life is consistent with the Star Mountain Range of the New Guinea Highlands”.

There are some people that may well question why there is a need to capture a wild animal and take it from its natural habitat. We asked Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International to explain further:
There are a couple of reasons why actually capturing a Singer is important. You first need to know that the NGSD is genetically nearly identical to the AU Dingo and the first descendant of the wolf. Although it’s yet to be proven, I believe that before the end of the Ice Age (when PNG and AU were land locked) the AU and PNG Dingo/NGSD were the same being.

The first good reason follows the same theme as the Australian version. Hybridization of both versions threatens their survival in their pure form. There was a day when the NGSD lived everywhere on PNG in a pure form. It was us humans who started the decline of numbers by bringing in domestic dog breeds. The hybridized NGSD or Village Dogs are man-made. This is the main reason that the NGSD could only be found these days in the place where you found one.

Both halves of the island’s governments are in such disarray, there is virtually no interest in setting up and funding some type of sanctuary for the NGSD that would serve to keep it in it’s pure form.

The other threat to the NGSD’s survival is that the natives are known to kill and eat a ‘Singer’ before preserving it. This is especially true in the highlands as the unhybridized versions are supreme hunters. In AU most provinces encourage the hunting and elimination of Dingoes as they are a threat to livestock. The same holds true in PNG.

The goal is to have a healthy population of NGSD’s here available to go back into the wild or to a sanctuary or preserve designed to keep the Singers alive in their pure form. Until the day comes that sanctuaries can be setup in PNG to keep the Highland Wild Dog from going extinct, we are the best option for their survival. With the population here being from a very limited gene pool the fear is that inbreeding will render the captive NGSD’s defective.

The Basenji (Africa’s wild dog) went through some severe health issues years ago and actually got to the point where inbreeding defects had threatened their very survival here. It was a group of folks passionate about the breed (not the experts) who raised the funds for the expeditions that captured new bloodlines and saved the Basenji from going extinct”.

Options for following up this significant and rare sighting are still being considered. Including return expeditions subject to funding and permissions.

More Information:
YouTube video about New Guinea Singing Dogs
For updates on the story, follow us on our Facebook page.
Further photos from the expedition on the Adventure Alternative Borneo Facebook page.
In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua – Mt Trikora on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. For all of the trip information, click here.

Scientific American have written a great article on the sighting, with more extensive information on the NGSD to visit, click here.