The traveler who spent a month working as a porter on Mount Everest
(CNN) – It may not seem that way from reading harrowing accounts of climbers perishing on its treacherous slopes, but there is an easy way to climb Everest and there is a difficult way.
Nate Menninger, a young Boston adventurer, definitely went the hard way.
Instead of climbing the highest peak in the world with the help of an organized climbing outfit like most trekkers, the 26-year-old decided to take a job as one of the first non-native Everest porters.
That meant getting $ 15 a day to carry gigantic backpacks weighing up to 100 kilograms on craggy, high-altitude trails, to join other porters in freezer shacks at night, and to share their basic rations.
Along the way, he made a film about his experiences, which he hopes will shed some light on the largely unsung work of Everest porters and the precarious way they make a living in one of the harshest environments on the planet.
In 2019, Nate Menninger became one of the first foreign-born porters on Mount Everest.
Menninger came up with the idea of becoming a porter after working a season as a guide in Nepal, teaching himself Nepalese and being fascinated by the work and life of these human freight forwarders.
Equally intrigued by Everest, but unable to afford the tens of thousands of dollars required to cover the cost of the permit and assistance required to reach the summit, he hit upon the idea of climbing it for free.
“When I ran this summer, I saw porters live for the first time,” he tells CNN Travel. “I saw them sleeping on the floor. I saw how they ate and how strong they were.
“And I realized that if I were to climb Everest as a porter, I wouldn’t have to pay $ 65,000. I would actually be paid to climb Everest.
“That was the only possible way to try the mountain my age.”
Menninger eventually scaled back his original plan to reach the top of Everest and decided to make a movie about his time among the porters on the still arduous eleven-day hike from the town of Lukla at 9,400 feet above sea level to Everest Base Camp .
“My goal was to have the exact same experience as the wearer, no matter what,” he explains. “I wanted to see if I could handle what it is like to have this job and if I can be as strong as a doorman has to be.”
His strenuous experience is recorded in the one-hour documentary “The Porter”.
Physically demanding work
Porters have to carry packs, so-called Badis, to supply the region with essentials.
The physical and emotional toll of the job is exposed when Menninger is captured with the weight of a pack made up of several bags lashed together and tries to sleep in overcrowded porter’s houses at night.
He lived mainly on rice with lentils, lost over 20 pounds during the expedition and did not shower for more than three weeks.
Menninger says he tried to fully immerse himself in the lives of the wearer, but accept that his experiences only scratched the surface.
“It’s not a sight that you see often over there,” he explains. “Every time I tried to take the worst case scenario. When the other porters slept on the floor, I wanted to sleep on the floor.
“I just wanted to be a different guy in the room while people were doing their thing.”
It wasn’t just his looks – a muscular plus of two meters that towered over his Nepalese colleagues – that set him apart. It was also the temporary nature of his new job.
“I had a very different experience than a normal doorman because I only came in for one trip,” he says. “It was just a snapshot. I didn’t really rely on the money.
“And in relation to everything they go through, I only experience a fraction of the emotions and physical performance.”
A typical day would be to wake up around 7:30 am and go to the customer’s hotel to collect their bags before tying the bags and starting the hiking.
“A porter carries two customer bags, that’s how it works,” he says. “You move very quickly. You look down for most of the day.”
Menninger was hauling packs that consisted of several sacks lashed together.
Babin Dulal / “The Porter”
Porters have to pay for their own food and accommodation during expeditions, and Menninger says some regularly skip meals to keep costs down.
“If you want to survive, you have to try to save the money you spend on groceries,” he says. “A porter would cut his rations in half. He would eat half meals to save money.”
During an expedition, porters spend about $ 7 a day on food and accommodation, and fees increase the further up the mountain they go.
“In the end, your cost is over $ 20 so you actually lose money while you work,” he says. “So you really rely on tips.”
Since porters don’t tip until day 11, they have essentially no idea whether the expedition was financially worthwhile until they have more or less completed it.
Menninger earned $ 15 a day during his eleven-day expedition, and he and his porters, mostly from villages near base camp, were each given a $ 100 tip.
Menninger visibly struggled with his load during filming.
Babin Dulal / “The Porter”
“Some people tip well and some don’t,” he says. “At this point, it’s just the luck of the draw whether you make $ 500 or $ 50. It just depends on your expedition.”
They get their tip on the last evening of the expedition, but work “pro bono” on a 12th day to accompany the climbers to the airport.
“Then you will go on another expedition the next day or maybe a few days later,” he adds. “And you can do that five or six times in a row in a season.”
Since returning to the United States last year, Menninger has kept in touch with the porters he worked with during his time on Everest.
He admits that he is concerned about showing his former colleagues the finished film.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” he says. “I was very, very concerned about what they would say because it was [showing] their work on an international level. But they said it wasn’t hard enough. “
Gap between locals and foreigners
Menninger’s experiences on Everest are documented in the film “The Porter”.
Back on Everest, life doesn’t get any easier for the porters. The Covid-19 pandemic is having an impact on the mountaineering industry in the region, which generates around $ 300 million for Nepal every year.
The mountaineering industry surrounding Everest has been plagued by overcrowding after 2019. The climbers queued for the summit above the summit’s highest camp at 26,247 feet.
There were at least 11 deaths, making it one of Everest’s deadliest climbing seasons. A high death toll was mainly due to difficult weather conditions, lack of experience and the increasing commercialization of expeditions.
In addition to the problems, according to Menninger, there is a lack of communication between the porters and their mostly wealthy customers.
“The guides do speak a little, but porters don’t actually speak to their customers at all and customers don’t speak to their porters.
“So there is no cultural exchange. Usually when you travel you go somewhere to learn more. To meet other people and exchange ideas.”
He has seen firsthand the gap between locals and tourists and believes the lack of communication has caused many problems.
“There is this division between our mountain and your mountain,” he continues.
“Your trash and our trash. It’s a terrible way of handling the situation.”
While he doesn’t like to tell potential climbers what is a good tip or a bad tip, Menninger would like more people to know how much porters depend on the money because of their low salaries and how many workers contribute to the overall Everest experience.
“The people who live there make everything possible,” he says. “Even if you don’t have a porter and only carry your own bags.
“Everything you enjoy, the hotel, the restaurant. At some point everything was pretty much taken care of by a doorman.
“So, whether you use a doorman or not, you benefit from their work. So make sure you speak to your doorman. Find out how much they make. Ask and be curious.”
Menninger says he’s been “very humble” about his experience with the porters, especially as someone with a relatively wealthy background, and hopes his film will improve Everest porters by showing what they can take and how tough they work.
“Even if you go to Everest, you won’t see where your porters sleep. The film is the first time you would see this.
“I wanted to show that these people are strong, proud and powerful and that anyone can be proud of any job in the world,” he added.