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Mules carry goods up along the treacherous paths of the Everest region. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

Daunting Work at the Third Pole

The Growing Burden of Climate Change on Himalayan Laborers

“Haaa…. Haaa… Haaaa… Gorey!... Ganga!…. Bhalu!!”

Limping on his right leg, with a long and sturdy stick in his right hand, a hollow backpack, a blue mask on his face, and a white cap, Jit Bahadur Rana Magar, a mule herder and a porter in his early forties, was guiding his herd of mules, through the Tenzing-Hillary Suspension Bridge, named after the first climbers confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

He was making his way downwards after the successful delivery of goods to some local business owners at Namche Bazaar (11,290 feet/ 3,340 meters above sea level) in rural Northeastern Nepal, an altitude acclimatization stop for trekkers making their way to the Mount Everest Base Camp.

The views looking down the river gorge may be disorienting, and the drop certainly fatal, but Magar has been going on this exact same breathtaking route for years, if not decades. He whistled and howled at the mules every time they tried to mess up their lane. The mules shuffled into alignment — the bridge could only fit two people walking shoulder-to-shoulder — bells jingling against the fluttering lines of traditional prayer flags draped against the modern brick-and-steel structure.

“Do you have names for each of your mules?” I asked him casually.

Magar seemed hesitant to respond to an unknown face.“Oh. Yeah, each mule has a unique name and they are familiar with me,” he finally replied. He seemed more open once I introduced myself as a journalist.

Magar, a local of a neighboring district, Okhaldhunga, has been a mule herder in the Everest region for the last twelve years. The mules that he takes care of are owned by local businessmen where he works as a staff herder. The herders, like him, know each of the mule's name, their habits, disconformities, and potential medical emergencies.

But the last two pandemic years were tough, he said. “We were basically jobless during the period. I had to go back to farming in my village but it was barely enough to run the family. So, I had to return.”

But as he returned – things were not quite the same. Many of the mules that he took care of had died. And it was a pattern consistent among all the herders. “Altogether, in the last two years we may have lost 100-150 mules in the Everest region only,” he pondered.
One of the aged porters working deep within the Nepalese Himalayas. (Saugat Bolakhe for The Xylom)

There hasn’t been a proper scientific study to point to a definite cause for the death of the mules but Magar suspects that it’s closely linked with a trough in the tourism business. Local businessmen buy mules mainly from India with an individual costing nearly NPR. 90,000 (850 USD). They also hire herders and mule caretakers like Magar. But as the pandemic halted the flow of tourists, the local business owners couldn’t afford to keep herders. The mules that were regularly fed with powdered maize and chickpea flour were left to eat meadow grasses. In the absence of herders, the mules weren’t cared for, fed, and nourished well. The owners may have ignored their medical emergencies as well, resulting in the death of many weak and vulnerable mules.