ORLAND, Maine — The mountains of Nepal tower high above even the highest peaks in the United States and dwarf the eastern mountains in New England, but a climber from Orland is using the experience he has gained on American peaks to train Himalayan guides.
Gerry Brache recently returned from a five-week stay in Nepal where he worked with his Nepali partner Chandra Ale to teach the first wilderness first aid certification course offered in the country.
Brache is a longtime climber who over the years has built a resume that includes certifications in several levels of wilderness medicine, first responder and mountain rescue. A member of MDI Search and Rescue, he is an instructor with Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities, or SOLO, one of the premier wilderness medicine programs in the country.
Backed by SOLO, the two men developed a SOLO-certified wilderness medicine course for Nepali guides, which they offered through Ale’s business, Initiative Outdoor based in Katmandu, a guide service that primarily trains professional outdoor guides and also introduces the guiding profession to other groups including children.
“It’s all about building a thriving Nepal,” Brache said. “Chandra wants Nepal to be self-sufficient. He wants the guides to become better trained.”
The two men met at the Blue Hill Co-op and last year Brache and his family, wife Merrill and son Merin, traveled to Nepal. After trekking in the Himalayas, Brache and Ale began to discuss the possibility of bringing the wilderness training courses to Nepal.
“[Ale] started the school for guides [in Nepal] to help them get the international certifications and leadership skills that will help them to keep their clients safe,” he said. “It benefits everyone. And it’s a benefit to their wallets.”
With the certifications in hand, he said, the guides can charge more for their services, which is a big help in a country where there is deep, widespread poverty, Brache said.
The courses were set in Katmandu Valley and lowland jungle areas in the southern part of the country. They are based on the courses taught in the United States with some adaptations to allow for differences in language and terrain.
“We have a section, ‘American bites and stings,’ that we had to change,” Brache said. “I had to brush up on how to deal with cobra, krait and tiger bites to teach that section.”
The courses focus on wilderness safety and first aid, preparing the guides to deal with emergencies in remote areas. The certifications they offer include Wilderness First Aid, Advanced Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder. All take place in the field in realistic trekking situations. The leaders take the roles of clients during the day and then lead more formal courses during the evening.
“We’re giving them the tools to find and fix immediate life threats, and if they can’t, to know how to get help, how to develop an evacuation plan and arrange a rescue, and how to prepare a shelter if they’re going to have to wait overnight,” Brache said. “They just don’t have the skills to deal with some of these things.”
In most cases the guides are employed by guiding services, and their employers paid for their training. There were 18 students in the first session taught in August and similar numbers in the three other modules they taught while Brache was there.
During the courses, the students are forced to deal with some of their own cultural prejudices. Most of the guides were Buddhist or Hindu, the two major religions in Nepal. The courses also put together members of many different castes, who otherwise might not associate with each other.
“We do a lot of trust games that involve a lot of working together, chain-of-command types of things,” Brache said. “With the different castes, that was a difficult experience. It was hard for some of them. But we told them, ‘as far as we’re concerned, this is a level playing field for all of you.”’
One of the challenges in the course is to get the Nepalis to talk more about their country and its traditions and cultural features and to incorporate that into their trips for their clients, Brache said.
There are many different ethnic groups in Nepal including the better known Sherpas who inhabit the area near Mount Everest. But guides come from all of the tribal areas throughout the Himalayas and from the lowland jungle areas in the south.
“They are very proud of their tribal heritage, but they want to be proper in front of their clients,” Brache said. “We tell them that it’s OK to tell us about the temple, what happened there, to talk about the flora and the fauna. Clients will appreciate that.”
All of the courses incorporate the concepts of Leave No Trace, which emphasizes minimizing the impact of human activities on the environment with specific measures such as carrying out trash and burying human waste along the way. This is an important component, Brache said, because of the way the entire Himalayan area has been treated by trekkers in the past.
“There’s so much plastic in Nepal,” Brache said. “And with the glaciers melting, more and more trash is being uncovered. Through [Leave No Trace], we can make an environmental statement and use it as an educational tool as well.”
The concept, however, is difficult for Nepalis to grasp, he said.
“It’s very difficult for them to understand it,” he said. “They are a very clean people. Their personal hygiene is second to none. But something as simple as burying poop is something they just don’t understand.”
For Brache, the venture in Nepal has been a dream come true and a chance for him to give back something of what he has learned over the years.
“I like to try to make a difference,” he said. “I’m incredibly blessed to live here in Orland, to have a healthy kid and a dog, and a very supportive wife. I figure I have a duty to give something back. If we all did that, the world would be a better place.”
Brache and Ale are seeking to expand the SOLO presence in Nepal. With the backing of SOLO founder Frank Hubbell, they have developed curriculum for a disaster response course that could be offered to train teams and individuals in rural and remote areas to respond to the natural disasters that regularly occur in the region.
They’ve submitted proposals for the training to the U.S. Embassy, the United Nations, UNICEF and the Nepali government. Although the initial response has been positive, the men still are waiting for funding before they move ahead with any plans.
Meanwhile, Brache is planning to return to Nepal in February — this time with the whole family — to teach another round of wilderness courses.
“It just tickles me to be able to do something like this,” he said.