Josh Udesen '94: SOLE searching

Through SOLE, Josh Udesen ’94 leads high school students on a trek to Everest base camp—and deep into life among the Sherpa people

As told to Andy Dappen

Josh Udesen values both the sights and insights of experiencing other cultures. If more Americans traveled, he believes, we’d be less self-absorbed, more understanding, and more, well, worldly. After graduating with a B.A. in history, Udesen traveled the world and spent two months in Nepal. He was touched by the country’s cultural richness and nature’s raw edge. Several years later, Udesen received a master’s degree in education and soon found himself in central Oregon with his wife, Anne McDonald ’94, teaching social studies, current events, world religion, and history at Redmond High School. The teaching was fulfilling, yet he hoped to explore learning opportunities outside of the classroom. Most of all he hoped to give students travel and cultural experiences.

Travel takes you out of your comfort zone, and this is where accelerated learning occurs. With so many different languages, cultures, religions, superstitions, economies, and histories, traveling can be mind expanding to the point of being mind numbing. It exposes you to the complexity, diversity, and mystery of the world.

And to paradoxes. For example, impoverished people are not always downtrodden. Such people may build amazing family and community bonds. They may be spiritually rich. Their living conditions may be abysmal, yet they may be happy. I’m blessed by the opportunities the U.S. has given me, but traveling shows me that the American way is not always the best way … or even the right way. Take our pursuit of wealth in our search of happiness—American phone books are full of affluent folks who are emotionally miserable.

Nepal was a country I particularly loved when I traveled there in 1995. It’s a country dominated by nature, and that attracted me. But the people were equally compelling. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world [the average citizen earns under $400 per year] but the culture is rich and the people are happy. Once I started teaching, I thought Nepal was a place students should see. Between the dramatic landscape, the elemental nature of life, and the people who are possession poor but community rich, I thought such a place could challenge beliefs and alter priorities. Of course I doubted that I’d get the opportunity to take students there.

Then opportunity fell in my lap with Nurbu Sherpa, a Nepalese man who went to college at the University of Oregon before moving to Bend, Ore., where he established a trekking company guiding travelers in Nepal and Bhutan. A student saw a slide show that Nurbu gave and suggested I book him for a guest talk in some of my classes. I did, and that was followed by a meeting at a local pub where Nurbu and I used cocktail napkins to outline what became the Sherpa Outdoor Learning Expedition or SOLE.

None of the existing programs offered what we envisioned. Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) focused their international programming around outdoor adventure. Many study-abroad programs with family stays revolved around formal academic curriculums. And some programs were strictly bus tours connecting tourist sites. The program we envisioned offered a significant adventure component with a trek to and from Everest Base Camp and an ascent of Kala Patar, an 18,200-foot peak.

We also envisioned a significant cultural emphasis, with students spending a week in one village, Khumjung, situated at 13,000 feet. We wanted students to see the monastery near the town, attend the community school, experience how the Sherpa people live. It would be impossible to offer this cultural component without a native like Nurbu who has family and friends sprinkled throughout the Nepalese highlands.

SOLE runs from late July to late August, is open to high school students throughout Central Oregon, and costs $3,500 [airfare consumes half of the fee]. We fly to Kathmandu and then to Lukla before trekking to Everest Base Camp. We’re not specifically targeting athletic kids, so trekking 65 miles, climbing and losing 70,000 vertical feet, and bagging an 18,000-foot peak makes the journey physically grueling for many. It’s a significant achievement for kids who have rarely walked more than a few miles to be 20 days worth of walking from the nearest road and accomplish everything through muscle power. And it is an awesome sense of smallness students feel that morning when we reach the top of Kala Patar, stare smack into the looming face of Mt. Everest, and watch sunrise light up the Himalayas. The combination of exertion and splendor moves some kids to tears.

Despite the power of this experience, for most it’s the week living in Khumjung that hits hardest. Most Sherpa families live in one-room stone houses built over their stables. During the day, women cook in their homes over fire pits lacking chimneys. The fumes exit a hole in the ceiling, but smoke permeates everything and the walls of homes and the lungs of inhabitants are blackened. At night, mats are rolled out on the floor and the entire family sleeps in the same room. Our students experience the spotty nature of local electricity, the toil of carrying water from streams to houses. They see patients at the local hospital who were carried for 10 days to receive medical care. Poverty assaults students through every sense—they see it in the structures of the town, taste it in the foods the locals eat, smell it in the smoky air, feel it in the soot coating their skin which cannot be showered away at will.

And despite this they see how vigorous the Sherpas are, how interwoven the people of the village are, how every member of the community is cared for, how spiritually centered the individuals are. You can imagine how eye opening this is for kids fresh from the strip malls of plenty, where gang warfare rages.

We’ve run this program twice now and have taken 20 students to Nepal. We cancelled the program this year because of the war but plan to run our third expedition in 2004. Sure, a few kids have returned wearing the same shade of American superiority they brandished when we left.

But at least half of the students have had a staggering experience that rocked their view of the world. They’ve seen children hiking at 20,000 feet wearing holey tennis shoes. They’ve lived with people who own only one set of clothes. They’ve given Sherpa youths the running shoes they brought to Nepal and received the gratitude that might be expected of someone who had been given a car. They’ve given away pencils and watched children go ballistic with gratitude. It promotes a sense of giving when, as one of my students said, “people are so grateful for receiving so little.”

Students have told me how much the experience changed them. Some have said that rather than chasing dollars they are now considering careers in teaching or service. That makes me smile— it’s exactly what Nurbu and I hoped for when we created SOLE.