5 things I wish I'd known about porters

Mountaineer Andy Cave has climbed the highest mountains in the world. He explains why he couldn't have done it without the help of the unsung heroes of the peaks – porters

7 mins

Andy Cave has led mountain expeditions around the world. In the Himalayas, he made the first ascent of one of the 20th Century’s greatest climbs, and in the Alps he summited on ‘Divine Providence’, considered to be the hardest climb. In 2000, he travelled to Alaska to tackle Mount Kennedy’s North Face; his team succeeding where many others had failed.

Porters have played an essential part in his success; here, he lists the things he'd wished he'd known about them – and reveals how much they contribute to any successful expedition.

1. How much you need them

Obvious I suppose, but I don’t think I appreciated that without porters it would be difficult to climb anything, as you would never get your equipment to the base of the mountain. Even on the lightweight-style expeditions I do, the porters are vital for getting everything to base camp.

2. How poor they are

We always ensured the porters had decent footwear, sunglasses, etc, for the trek to base camp, but they often keep these things in the wrappers and sell them for cash when they get back to the city. That level of poverty is quite distressing and of course you don’t want porters becoming snow blind.

3. How skilled they are

Approaching Trango tower in Pakistan, I took out an ice axe to cut steps in the ice to help the porters cross the Boltoro glacier. One of the head porters placed an axe head on a long stick and rhythmically cut beautiful, spaced steps in the ice far quicker than I was doing. And he was carrying an enormous load too! He explained that they did this all the time to help the cattle get across glaciers to high summer pastures.

4. How strong they are

I witnessed a porter in the Khumbu carrying a 90kg load of timber. He was no more than five feet tall. It is humbling to see such displays of strength. Such work obviously has a huge impact on the life expectancy of local people.

5. They need looking after sometimes too

Porters can be extremely loyal, and go the extra mile when required to do so. However, they do need taking care of sometimes. I have seen them tweak knees and get minor burns from leaking kerosene. Porters who have been residing at lower altitudes in the off-season occasionally suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness when they return to work. It is good to keep a watchful eye on the whole team.

Andy will be giving a lecture about his mountaineering adventures at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Thursday November 6, 2014 at 7pm. The event is in aid of The Mount Everest Foundation and Porters’ Progress UK. Tickets are available online now.

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