Meet the Sherpa bringing Wi-Fi to Everest

A Nepali entrepreneur has a monopoly on internet access at the foot of the world's tallest mountain.Thursday, 23 May 2019

photo by Freddie Wilkinson

Climbers arriving at Everest base camp each spring prepare to face myriad dangers—from high altitude sickness and avalanches to infectious diseases—for a chance to stand on the world’s highest summit. And yet, once at base camp, a pressing, though less-deadly concern, presents itself: how do you get on the internet?

There are the mundane desires of climbers and their outfitters to broadcast their experiences in real time to audiences around the globe, but it's not a completely trivial problem when you're spending upwards of six weeks in base camp, relying on crucial weather forecasts and emergency medical advice from afar.

A few years ago, a cellular company tried to address this need by introducing 3G coverage to Everest base camp, but the coverage remains weak and spotty at best, forcing the denizens of base camp to clamber up tall boulders and wave their cell phones hoping to latch on to a viable signal.

Before Everest Link brought wireless internet to base camp, climbers had to rely on expensive satellite phones for communication. The financial benefits of Everest Link compared to satellite modems are debatable: a sat modem and unlimited data package cost $5,000; a 10 gigabyte Everest Link card costs $200.
Before Everest Link brought wireless internet to base camp, climbers had to rely on expensive satellite phones for communication. The financial benefits of Everest Link compared to satellite modems are debatable: a sat modem and unlimited data package cost $5,000; a 10 gigabyte Everest Link card costs $200.
photo by Freddie Wilkinson

To the great relief of the Everest community, those days are over, and reliable(ish) wi-fi has arrived at base camp, and dozens of expeditions now sport their own exclusive signal, courtesy of the most extreme telecommunications provider on the planet. It's all the brainchild of Tsering Gyaltsen Sherpa, a super-charged Nepali entrepreneur who, while leading his native Khumbu Valley into the 21st century, just happened to become the most powerful person in base camp, even if he's practically never there.

No Change Provided

A few weeks ago, I climbed up a steep rubble hill in the middle of the Khumbu Glacier base camp, pausing to catch my breath and double check my directions: past the Madison Mountaineering camp, up to Everest E.R., look for a blue faded tent on the left.

There’s nary a sign, but a tall antennae anchored to sheets of solar panels and a hunched figure clad in a down jacket holding several USB-tethered devices suggests this must be a place.

I approached the faded blue tent and offered a convivial “Namaste!” before pulling up the zipper and crawling inside. Several Nepali faces smiled in greeting through cigarette smoke. I seemed to have interrupted a poker game: a few hundred rupee notes lie on the floor among lighters and cell phones; a tin cup serves as an ashtray.

My presence requires no real explanation. “We offer four service packages,” one of the guys to my right, Suresh Lama, tells me, as a spirited debate breaks out over the last hand of cards. “1 GB–5,000 rupees; 2 GB–7,500; 5 GB–14,500; and 10 GB–20,000.”

That’s a minimum of £40 to get online, but when you’re the only game in town, you can charge a premium.

In fact, it’s a relatively good deal. For most of this century, satellite communications have been the only option. A satellite phone typically cost $600-1,000; plus one to two dollars a minute for global service; teams can spend up to $10,000 for hardware rental and a data package for the season.

I hand Suresh a wad of several hundred dollars for me and a couple of friends. He prints out a small paper receipt with user names and passwords. With an apologetic shrug, he adds, “Sorry, we can’t provide any change.”

MacGyver Sherpa

Tsering Gyaltsen Sherpa grew up in Namche Bazar, the central trading town for Nepal's Khumbu region and a popular hub for climbers and trekkers. That's where the idea for Everest Link began back in 2000, he says, when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“We flew her down to Kathmandu for a check-up and found she had a little time left—a year or two,” he says. His sister, who ran a lodge in Tengbouche, was so worried that she shut down her businesses and ran to be with her mother. “My sister, she luckily could survive a season of business loss, but I don’t think all Sherpas could. I came away with this concept that communication was needed in the Khumbu.”

The next year, Maoist rebels tore down a government-owned communications tower in Namche, leaving the town without telephones for more than a year. Despite having no technical training, Gyaltsen figured out how to restore service in his home town, then he went on to link 13 villages via radio phone and open one of the first cyber cafes in the Khumbu. The rebels arrived again in 2004 and personal threats and attacks shut Gyaltsen down for a decade.

Everest Link, founded in late 2014, is the culmination of his efforts to bring connectivity to his home valley. It provides fixed-wireless access by establishing 36 towers at high points all the way up the Khumbu Valley, allowing for line-of-sight wireless transmissions to base camp. Everest Link also provides wireless routers to 166 individual village lodges, linked to the main tower to serve the whole settlement.

“It’s a community-based business,” Gyaltsen says. “We provide for the installation and revenue-sharing on the sale of data cards. Everyone is benefiting.”

Lodge owners and certified guides get free internet access themselves, and last November, Everest Link launched “Hello, Doctor,” a program providing free medical consultations to anyone in the Khumbu. But the biggest benefit, in Gyaltsen’s view, is the accessible education the internet provides. “With social media, first you post a photo, then you have to write a caption,” he says. “For many Nepalis, this is how they can learn to read and write.”

Technically speaking, the tower that gives Gyaltsen the biggest headaches is not in the high mountains but down south in the hills. “You have only one entrance into Khumbu, and to go through that stretch you have to go to a particular place where lightning is real common. It’s been hit more than 10 times. We’ve been trying all kinds of arresters, but none work.”

Everybody Wants to Talk

The poker game has long ceased and the ashtray has been flipped over, depositing a small cone of cigarette butts on the tent floor. Suresh, Gyaltsen’s certified wireless engineer at base camp, lies alone in his sleeping bag, monitoring bandwidth on a laptop.

“Everyone wants to talk their wife and family,” he says. “That’s the most important thing. When people come to buy cards, I tell them to use the wi-fi for communication, not for fun.”

The chaotic environment of the Khumbu Glacier means Suresh and his partner, Pasang Wongde, must work overtime to keep the system running. “Everywhere’s a problem,” he explains. “We try hard to minimise the downtimes, but it happens.”

Everest Link provides about 30 local wi-fi modems to individual expeditions, each broadcasting its own password-protected signal. When functioning properly, the system can transmit a total of about 50 megabytes per second from base camp. The biggest issue is power; each tower relies on solar panels for electricity, and if there’s a few days of cloudy weather, batteries are quickly drained. “If there’s no sun, we’re done,” Suresh explains.

Other major issues are the melting glaciers the towers are anchored to and high winds. “Down valley, if you fix a tower, it’s fixed, but here, we have to visit all the towers daily. If I put a tower straight, the next day, it will be like this,” he says, tilting his hand diagonally.

Suresh and Pasang are posted at base camp for the two-month climbing season, and their job keeps them away from home nine months of the year.

“I have a wife and son, he’s 22 months old. I miss him so much. No one can live without internet these days,” Suresh muses. “It’s just like an addiction, I think. Even Nepalis are using the internet at a very high rate. If I want to take a break, even for a day, I still have to see my phone.”

Nevertheless, Suresh Lama is proud of his work. “I can make people meet online, so I feel very happy. Sometimes it all goes wrong and people get angry, but overall I feel like I’ve done something good. It’s a good thing to talk to your family.”

Editor's Note: Writer Freddie Wilkinson is currently reporting from Nepal's Everest base camp and the surrounding region. Check back for more dispatches from the 2019 climbing season.
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