Teaching taken to new ‘heights’ in Nepal

By AUTUMN TOENNIS/Montana State News

Cecilia Stanley is quiet with a wise smile on her face amid the chaos of the 24 first- and second-graders she teaches at Sacred Heart School.

“I’m so grateful that I came from a family that reads, draws, appreciates simple beauty, story tells, has a simple but strong faith and laughs a lot,” she said. “I feel that I should help in my own little way to pass on some of these attributes by teaching them. Maybe some of my students will have better lives by being more imaginative and comfortable with themselves.”

There are millions of teachers in the United States today, from those who’ve taught since before the plague, to those who are stepping out fresh from their Alma Mater, ready to change the world. Some teach in one-room schools in rural communities, some lecture at prestigious universities, and some take on the impossible nature of the phenomenon known as the teenager.

“What I most enjoy about the job is the successes of the kids, whether those successes are within the classroom or out in the real world that follows graduation,” says Roberta Horton, a high school English teacher at CCDHS in Miles City, Mont. She is in her 44th year of teaching. “I enjoy watching them hone their skills.”

There’s no end to the different kinds of education offered. Some teach skills at summer camps, and some teach fancy footwork in ballrooms. And then there are those who go the distance – literally.

Approximately 10,000 miles from Bozeman lies Phortse, a village in the rural Khumbu area of Nepal. Tucked away in the Himalayas, the village is home to the Khumbu Climbing Center once a month every year to bring another sort of learning to life.

The Khumbu Climbing Center, known as the KCC, is a program designed to train Nepali’s who would like to work as mountain guides and high altitude workers. Their mission statement is: “To increase the safety margin of Nepali climbers and high altitude workers by encouraging responsible climbing practices in a supportive and community based program” and the education offered includes many more components.

The KCC is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, a non-profit which was founded in 2003. Alex Lowe, who died on Mt. Shishapangma in 1999, was at the time of his death widely considered one of the best climbers in the world. The foundation was created in his memory by his wife, Jenni Lowe-Anker, and his best friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker. It was because of his love of the Nepali people and the region that the KCC was formed. This year, 2013, marks it’s 10th anniversary.

At the University of Montana Western, chemistry professor Steve Mock leaves every January to take part in the program. “I became involved as an instructor in 2008, but I was not able to return again until 2011 and I have been going since,” he said. “It was also in 2011 that Conrad and Jenni asked me if I would be a co-director focusing primarily on the Basic climbing curriculum.”

In 1979, Mock saw the Grand Teton for the first time and knew he was going to learn to climb. “It’s consumed me ever since and remains unabated to this very day,” he laughed. He was also a friend and climbing partner of Lowe –– both met while living in Bozeman; Mock was earning his Ph.D.

When in Phortse, he joins a cast of both Western and Nepali instructors who teach basic classes and advanced ones. “We all sort of teach all parts of the climbing curriculum. With the Basic course, we have a lead instructor and an assistant, both of whom are Nepalis. The Westerners like me will go with a group for a day and assist with the instruction, often taking over to make some key points,” he said. “So, some days I’ll teach basic ice climbing skills, other days anchors and ice screw placements, perhaps rock climbing, or fixed rope ascent and descent, rappelling, etc.”

But there is more to climbing and guiding than technical skills, he notes. Students receive an hour of English language instruction every day, and also take part in courses that specialize in medical training, map reading, compass use, climate change basics, and geological risk factors, to name a few.

Geology is where Rob Thomas comes in.

Also a professor at Western, Thomas joined the KCC group for the first time in 2011 and again this year in 2013. There was a want to add a “science” aspect to the curriculum, and Thomas developed a “naturalist program to help graduates to experientially engage clients in the natural history of the areas they are guiding.” He integrated issues such as weather, climate change, natural hazards, conservation issues and geology of the Khumbu region among other things. That portion of the program is now offically called “Mountain Environment Education.”

Through that part of the program, students also receive other skills to make them more marketable to potential clients. “Clients are curious about the natural and cultural history of the area in which they are trekking or climbing. The Nepali guides need these skills so they can improve their opportunities,” said Thomas. “Also, they are the best educators about climate change, because it is their backyard and they know better than anyone how climate change is changing the Himalayas.”

Thomas is proud of the KCC. “It is a highlight of my teaching career,” he said, “and I hope to continue to make contributions to their education.”

This past January was the program’s largest yet, boasting eighty students. It has grown significantly over the past 10 years.

Currently, a building is under construction in Phortse that, when finished, will be the official Center and the permanent home of KCC.

And as the students learn from the instructors, the Western instructors learn from the students. Phortse, and the people within it are not only co-workers in the KCC – they are a second family.

“It’s a culture of warmth and generosity and I simply love being with them,” said Mock. “I also like the Westerners I work with, the climbing is fun, the area spectacular, but it’s the people of Phortse and the Khumbu that draw me back over and over again. I simply love the people there and it’s my home away from home.”

For more information on the KCC and their mission, visit their website at http://www.alexlowe.org/kcs.shtml.

– Edited by John Kirk Vincent

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