This story about ‘sustainable Sherpa stairs’ is a great example of sustainable tourism development with benefits for everyone involved. And as in a real fairytale, it all started with a dream in the year 2000.
There was a time when Norway’s mountain paths would only see a handful of local visitors. But this has changed, especially in the past few years. Mainly as a result of social media Norway has seen a dramatic spike in overseas travellers who want to take their own selfies from Norway’s spectacular viewpoints. As in many other countries where outdoor tourism is increasing, the hiking trails in Norway were also suffering from heavy erosion from the many people who used them. Already before the ‘social media boom’ this was a problem that occupied the mind of Geirr Vetti, until one night. “I woke suddenly and thought they’d be perfect for the job,” said Vetti, excitedly, as if reflecting two decades later on now made the dream all the more fantastic. Geirr Vetti is a 60-year-old mountain farmer turned managing director of Stibyggjaren, an innovative trail building company based in the village of Skjolden. “I’d never been to Nepal at that time, but I remembered a Norwegian expedition to Mount Everest and some of the names of the guides had lodged themselves in my memory. With some detective work, I tracked them down and wrote letters to see if the Sherpas could help.”
Currently the amazing views from the steep 600 m high Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, near Stavanger in south-west Norway are among Norway’s most popular viewpoints. In 2019 around 331,000 visitors reached this exposed rocky top. Last year, despite Norway closing its international borders due to Covid, the viewpoint still managed to attract a credible 183,000 visitors. And Lysefjorden Utvikling, the area’s tourism development agency, is forecasting that the figure will reach 600,000 in a few years’ time. However, to some the location and the sublime views from Preikestolen are irrelevant, because what is important to them is the journey to get there. It is the hike up an expertly engineered and well-maintained stone staircase made by Sherpas that is as much of a marvel as the finale itself.
For Norwegians like the Lofoten Rangers, a voluntary project that raises awareness of fjellvettreglene (the country’s deep-rooted respect for the environment), the Sherpa stairs are great news. According to chairperson Christina Svanstrøm they’re an aspect of the country that is becoming increasingly embedded into Norway’s national psyche. “Path erosion is a real problem in many regions with stand-out views,” Svanstrøm said. “At the smallest level, the Sherpa stairs teach hikers to follow the path in pressure areas, so the ground to the top remains available and solid in the long run. But another positive effect is how the structural limitations of the staircases have also become a shorthand for passing on good hiker advice and the ethics of mountaineering to visiting hikers.”
“We do know that foreign tourists are overrepresented in rescue operations in Norwegian nature,” added Nergaard Berg (trail advisor for the Norwegian Trekking Association). “There are many reasons for that, but there are at least many organizations and governmental agencies working to communicate knowledge about nature to visitors. This trails made by Sherpas are key.”
More than twenty years after Vetti’s dream, the Sherpas and Vetti have built hundreds stone trails all across Norway. An accomplishment they can be proud of and a great example that makes their story worth telling and sharing.
“The Sherpas are among the world’s most robust ethnic groups. They have amazing stamina and can work at the same fast pace for months. As a rule-of-thumb, they can carry their own body weight for days without experiencing fatigue. That the ethnic Sherpas are elite mountaineers and experts at working in difficult mountains conditions makes them the perfect trail builders. But according to Geirr Vetti it isn’t only their strength that makes the Sherpas amazing trail builders. He believes the Sherpas’ intimate awareness of their surroundings makes them great at their work in the outdoors. “Every mountain and every path is different and has its own challenges,” Vetti said. “But the Sherpas are almost superhuman, having evolved to master working at altitude with respect for nature. They have immense respect for nature and life on Earth. If the rest of the world had a fraction of this respect, we would not have problems with the climate and pollution.” Although the Sherpas are making an invaluable, ongoing contribution to Norway’s mountain heritage, Vetti does believe there is one thing they might learn from us: “Organizing.” And this is also why it is great when people from different cultures like Norway and Nepal are now working together and learn from each other!
What began as a source of income in the Sherpas’ climbing off-season is now an almost year-round operation. At the time of writing, organizer-in-chief Nima Nuri Sherpa, from the roadless and tight-knit community of Khunde in Nepal’s Solukhumbu District, was working in the Lyngen Alps east of Tromsø to inaugurate a new mountain trail with seven others from the same village. Over the course of a month, his team were creating more than 400 steps, made from up to 500 tonnes of local stone, and manoeuvring each one-tonne slab by hand after they had been airdropped into the wilds by helicopter.
“Our communities have always transported everything in and out of our region by ourselves or by yak, and these lessons have been passed down by every generation,” said Nuri Sherpa, matter-of-factly. “Traditionally, we found our calling as climbing guides, but building mountain stairways is less risky and of more benefit to the people of what is now our second home. This is good karma.”
Their work has even greater impact for the Sherpas at home in Solukhumbu: since the project’s inception, schools and a hospital were able to be built in Khunde and neighbouring Khumjung, while income is continuously funneled into the wider community to improve health and social welfare.
But it is not just the potential for earning a wage several times larger than would be earned at home, according to the Sherpas themselves, who spend between seven months and a year working on the Norwegian paths. “Money comes and goes. The things we have learnt in Norway will be with us for the rest of our lives. I feel like we are creating history. One day, my grandchildren will be able to come to Norway and see what we have built,” says Sherpa Nima. Fittingly, the Sherpas, so inspired by their Norwegian projects, have undertaken similar work on the pathways that bind their mountain kingdom together.
Even today Vetti relies on a pool of some 120 hardy Sherpas every year. It is telling that his business is thriving despite the coronavirus pandemic. This summer, 39 builders arrived to work on 20 projects across the country. Calls to build similar projects have also come in from around the world namely, Sweden, the Faroe Islands and the Middle East. Together with 80 staircase developments and maintenance contracts cancelled over the past 18 months because of Covid, 2022 is ramping up to be Stibyggjaren’s busiest year yet.
When you visit Norway’s attractive outdoors, it is likely that you will find yourself hiking along one of its Sherpa trails. Remember to pause a minute to admire their hard work and skills. Remember also to respect these trails, and all other hiking trails around the world. Don’t go seeking alternative paths, preserve and protect the habitats you’re exploring, leave no trace and stick to the Sherpa Stairs!