Climb Every Mountain : by William Shaw

This article was previously published in The Observer Magazine

He couldn't live in a flat land. It was the mountains that drew him to Scotland as a teenager 32 years ago. He looks out of the window of the small building that serves as his office in Aberfeldy and sees Ben Lawers and Schiehallion.

It seems to Richard that he was born to climb mountains. His mother gave birth to him on the day Everest was conquered - 29 May 1953.

His father was a climber. Richard ascended his first peak, Snowdon, when he was five, sometimes carried on shoulders. Each weekend they would climb. As a child he would look through his dad's books about Everest, at the pictures of a different world. His father had always wanted to see it, but with five children he could never afford it.

It took Richard until his late thirties before he saw it himself. He was working on an estate in Scotland when 10 years of insurance contributions paid a dividend of 1,500.

'This is the money I'm going to Nepal with,' said Richard. His wife hummed and ha-ed. She wanted a fridge freezer, but in the end she went there with him.

Visiting Everest base camp, he thought back to all the stories of the great mountaineers he had read. Photographs can't capture the feeling you get there, looking at it in the thin air.

He once thought he'd like to climb the Big One. Now that's not so important. Partly that's because the most valuable thing he found there was not Everest itself, but the Buddhist Sherpa culture. He's changed his mind about what life is about.

He has been back every year. Once, trekking, he found himself at an isolated Sherpa village called Gankarka. The good nature of the people he found there affected him deeply. It is a place that is good for his soul.

Of the Tibetan Buddhists who arrived in the high valleys of Nepal in the 1500s, some settled in the Khumbu area, under Everest. Those Sherpas sustain their culture by helping visitors climb. The Sherpas of Gankarka village are in the more isolated Helambu district. They haven't been as fortunate. That first time in the village Richard found its only English speaker, Dorje Sherpa, who explained how young people were drifting away to Kathmandu.

As an estate worker, Richard understood their problems. Wild bears and deer were decimating their crops, and, as Buddhists, the villagers wouldn't kill them. Farms were failing.

Richard thought of the miles of deer fences he'd dug in back home.

After a frustrating time obtaining a visa, he managed to bring Dorje here to raise money. Dorje raffled a Tibetan rug; the Rotary Club helped, too. Together they raised 2,000; not much, but enough.

That winter, Richard returned to Nepal. They had two miles of chain-link fence hand made in Kathmandu. Sixty-five porters carried it into the mountains. It was an amazing sight, each man carrying a 60k load on his back. That Christmas, Richard taught them how to erect it, cutting posts from the rhododendron trees. They've started fundraising for a school there, now. People have started returning to the village.

Two years ago he quit his job. His back was worn out from digging and lifting. He can still walk well. So he set up his business, taking people up into the mountains of Scotland in the summer, and, in the winter, to Nepal.

In Scotland, he has lived a solitary life. Now he discovers he enjoys people, pushing them to go a little further, seeing them open up. Most are in their fifties. They are people like him, who've always had a dream to see Everest.

It doesn't pay much - less than his old job. But he wishes his back had gone 10 years ago.

William Shaw

© William Shaw – 2003
Reproduced with permission.