Sunday, 10 January 2010

Trekking with Porters

On the Use of Porters

A walk, a hike, a trek and a climb. First of all lets try and figure out our terminology. I don’t like to use the word ‘climb’ unless it’s an activity that involves ropes and pitons and harnesses. If I’m walking up a mountain it’s not a climb. If I’m scrambling over some scree or boulders it’s not a climb. A hike is a long walk. Let’s say it takes longer than half a day or 4 hours. Anything shorter is a walk. A trek is series of hikes spread over several days. Some people like to factor in the type of accommodation into defining a trek but I think whether you are using a bivvy, or camping or using shelters makes no difference. Backpacking just means carrying all you stuff in a rucksack everyday on a trip. It may not involve any walking, hiking or trekking at all.

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Clear? It’s just my view but I think it reduces the risk of hyperbole. None of these definitions implies any measurement of effort. A stiff two hour walk can be more tiring than hiking along an easy trail all day.

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So, first off, lets describe the kind of trekking I was doing in India. We have porters. Lots of them. We also have mules. Seven started and six finished! I must add that one didn’t keel over because it was over-burdened but rather that one wandered off one night and couldn’t be found in the morning. The Muleteers however were confident of retrieving it on their long walk home after they had finished with us. It can be identified by the ribbons and things that it wears!

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Our team consist of a guide, a cook, a liaison, three muleteers and about fifteen porters. There are six of us. Each of us was instructed to bring no more than 20 kilos of stuff, including tents and sleeping bags. Each of us probably carries between 4 and 6 kilos in our day-packs. My day-pack is a little heavier as I’m carrying camera equipment and a tripod. As well as our stuff the porters and mules are carrying their own stuff, three tents, cooking apparatus, food and fuel. It’s a lot of stuff and a lot of people.

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I’m often questioned as to why we use porters. We don’t always. In Venezuela we used mules and in Mexico we used horses. On both trips to India we’ve used mules on the lower level parts of the trek. But we’ve also used porters on both trips too. Shouldn’t we be carrying all our own stuff through the mountains? I’d say no for two reasons a) it’s not an endurance test and b) we employ some of the locals. It’s a strange fact of life in the Himalayan villages that it seems that the women do most of the farm work. You only usually see women in the fields and the only time I can recall seeing a man working was a man driving an Ox and plough.

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Many of the villages have a long history of portering. I’ve seen old photographs of fathers and grandfathers that have ported before them, often on grand climbing expeditions rather than our little stroll among the hills. I sometimes wonder if the women of the village prefer it when the men and boys are away on a portering job!

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We didn’t measure how much the porters were carrying. Certainly they spent a lot of time ensuring the load was evenly distributed between them. Some of the loads were large and cumbersome. A big square tin box full of kitchen equipment comes to mind and the fellow who had to carry a large sloshing bottle of kerosene on his back. I would estimate that they are carrying between 16 and 20 kilos each. Our guide, the cook and our liaison only carry personal stuff.

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I am pleased that we use porters. It adds greatly to the expedition effect and feel of our time in the Himalayas and we get to know some of their personalities and idiosyncrasies as we travel together. Our original aim on this trip was to do a circular, and circuitous, route that would bring us back to where we had started and to bring our porters home (not counting those that we picked up halfway when we abandoned the mules and muleteers!). It’s a great pity that we were not able to do this in the end.

It’s worth noting that things are changing in India and in the future it may not be possible to hire porters in this way. It’s noticeable that many of the younger ones are not as keen as their elders to do this work and complain much more. Many of these younger men were carrying mobile phones which were completely absent five years ago on our last trip. The technological era is already creeping into the mountains. It;s astounding that they have mobile phones and yet are hardly well enough clothed to trek through the mountains. I wonder that if we came back in five years that we could do a trek in the same way.

I should add that I’ve never seen another western trekking group that hasn’t used porters. On this trip we did pass two groups who had guides but who were both carrying all their own gear. They were both Indian groups and both appeared to be on some kind of team building expedition. The first group we met were from an Indian Civil Service Academy. I’ve also heard it said that you are not allowed to trek in the India Himalayas without guides. I wouldn’t recommend it anyway as reliable maps are difficult to obtain as is information about where you could buy food and fuel. On our first trip we had to pay fees and register with the Park and Mountain Service.