“The idea came to me as a dream whilst I was leading a trek two years previously in Limi, a time-static valley nudged up into the far west region of Nepal. It had been a tough trip and a heady mixture of relief and caffeine gave me a sleepless night - my head filled with ideas. As that saying goes, be careful of what you dream of…. Yep, be very careful.”
Since 2003 Rob has guided more than 30 treks across the Himalayas and has used local porters on many of those journeys. He had always admired their tenacity and their ability to lug loads whose sheer size sometimes defied belief. But he also knew that they were not superhuman, and many times during those trips Rob had to bring out his first aid kit and patch them up.
When it came to working as a porter himself, Rob was employed as one of the crew for a commercial trek to Everest Base Camp run by KE Adventure Travel, a company that Rob has guided many treks for.
“My porter colleagues didn’t quite know what to make of me at the beginning;
to them I was ‘a strange tourist who wanted to carry big bags’.
But as the days rolled on, and I gradually adapted to my role and found my own rhythm, they began to warm to me, and I got to know them, walking alongside them, sleeping in the lodges, and eating with them at the end of each day. “I wanted to shine a light on the hard work that the porters do to support trekkers to get high into the Himalayas. I also wanted to see if, as a relatively fit 51-year-old bloke, I could cope with the rigours of the work.
“The bottom line is that it was tough ... very tough, probably the hardest physical challenge I have ever undertaken. I had down days and I had days when I felt like jacking it in. I did become sick at one point, and even with a great pair of boots my feet got battered: the pressure of carrying a heavy load goes straight down to your feet. And I developed a nagging sore spot on the base of my spine where the load rubbed my sweat-soaked back. This is what it is like to be a porter.”
Rob walked for up to eight hours each day, in hot dusty conditions lower down on the trail and in sub-zero temperatures higher up. He used a rucksack specially adapted by his good friends at Millican so that he could carry a full porter load of 35 kilograms. All the kit was good, but already by the second day his body felt the strain. Rob walked for eight days to reach Gorak Shep, which sits in the shadows of giant peaks and is the highest settlement along the route to Everest Base Camp. The job was made harder by the thin air – at the highest point the trail is at 5000 metres; every upward step can be hard work. The return journey took another four days.
Not content with just carrying out his porter work, Rob also took a large format film camera with him to make portraits of porters along the way. He also made a short film of the experience which premiered at Kendal Mountain Festival in 2015 – to watch it, search for iporter on Vimeo.
“Initially I was carried along by a fear of failure, but it was seeing the other porters on the trail,
some who had legs thinner than my arms, that really pushed me to complete the job”.
After his porter experience, Rob was eight kilograms lighter, had spent three times what he earned (mostly to buy extra food), and announced his immediate retirement as a porter. He returned with a greater respect for the men and women who are the backbone of the mountain economy, and work very hard to make the dreams of mountaineers and trekkers come true.
Rob's Meindl Boots have also been retired and are currently on display in our window here at George Fisher
Rob works with his partner Harriet, a writer, through their collaborative arts practice somewhere-nowhere, which uses exploration, discovery and creativity to build connections between people and nature. They are driven to explore land through walking and wild camping, and immerse themselves in places off the beaten track. They combine this with research into issues of land management and environmental sustainability, and spending time with people whose lives are intimately connected to particular areas of land is integral to their own understanding and appreciation of place.
Their latest project is Sense of Here, which explores the knowing and feeling of place through a series of walks, camps, meetings and discussions. It begins in the Lake District, and extends far beyond, with the understanding that the local and the global are always connected. The Frasers have developed an interactive map and would love you to add your voice about your own ‘sense of here’.
Please add your Blue Dot by following the link: www.senseofhere.com/map-your-sense-of-here