Trekking in Nepal is big business, with tourism bringing in more foreign money than any other industry in the country, but it’s one fraught with ethical dilemmas.
Guides that work for a big company often take home a fraction of what they deserve to be paid; those that work for themselves rarely have the luxury of insurance. Few sectors of tourism are as high risk as Himalayan trekking and guides often find themselves injured and out of work, or worse. Anyone who has seen the fantastic 2015 Australian documentary Sherpa can attest to the exploitation of labour and lack of cultural awareness from western visitors that occur on the mountains. But for many (predominately male) Nepalese, the industry has provided a way out of abject poverty.
High profile incidents on Mount Everest in recent years have seen many call for a boycott of trekking in the region, but to do so would be to deprive a country battling to recover from natural disaster, political instability and nationwide corruption from a key source of income. While I fail to see the need to climb a mountain that people keep dying on, trekking through the Annapurna Conservation Area was one of the most special experiences of my life.
So, how can travellers wanting to trek in the region and support Nepal’s rebounding economy do so without simultaneously supporting a patriarchal system that often exploits its workers? Enter Three Sisters, a trekking company with a difference. Since 1994, the company has been combatting the male-centric industry by training more than 2000 Nepalese women to become trekking guides. The organisation breaks down the social barriers placed on women in Nepal by taking no heed from a caste system that would otherwise exclude many. Through their training programs, ongoing employment and health education, Three Sisters have provided financial independence and empowerment for women from around the country.
The route to Annapurna Base Camp, one of the many routes that Three Sisters offer, is well trodden. A guide isn’t a necessity, but it is a blessing. Our guide, Indra Debi, came from the Everest region and could have out climbed us in her pyjamas. She filled in the gaps that would have left us confused and in turn taught us about local traditions, Himalayan flowers and how to get a second round of dal bhat before bed. She took us away from the main path to discover tea plantations, hot springs and abandoned mountain huts.
We trekked during Dashain, Nepal’s lengthiest and most anticipated annual festival. The kids of Nepal are among the most enthused by its traditions, which isn’t surprising when you learn that building a gigantic bamboo swing with your family is one of the cornerstones of the 15-day celebration. Having the chance to experience the festival with Indra allowed us to learn about its customs and the importance it holds throughout the country.
Unlike other trekking companies, Three Sisters encourage carrying your own pack but when this isn’t an option they will carry a reasonable amount of your weight. Meanwhile, we saw teenagers carrying bags that were literally larger than themselves up the world’s tenth tallest mountain, led by middle-aged French tourists wearing Rolexes. Tourism can be weird.
Trekking ethically isn’t restricted to using Three Sisters, and Pokhara, Nepal’s rapidly developing second-largest city, is quickly becoming a hub for tourists with a moral compass. But in trekking with a female guide comes the piece of mind that you’re not going find yourself alone on the side of a mountain with a man you’ve just met is a comfort for women travelling through the region.
Click through the gallery below for a look at what it’s like to trek with Three Sisters:
To find out more about Three Sisters Adventure Trekking, head here.
(All images: author’s own)[qantas_widget code=KTM]Check out Qantas flights to Nepal here.[/qantas_widget]
Samuel Davison is a writer, photographer and editor with a penchant for travel. He is a regular contributor to Swiss magazine, Zweikommasieben, the Berlin-based Fireflies and a number of Australian publications. He publishes an annual journal of photography, This is the Same Ocean, and has published a collection of photographs with Los Angeles publisher Deadbeat Club.