Participatory Tourism: Climber Adopts Village

Seth Sicroff's picture

In my previous column, Trekker Sponsors Orphans, I wrote about Marc Osborn's transformative decision to sponsor three Nepali orphans. By facilitating the work of Goma Dhakal and her Rainbow Children Home, this trekker will have given a second chance to some kids who got off to a really bad start in life. Predictably, Marc's choice has already had a ripple effect, as it inspired a friend to visit Nepal and sponsor three more children. The publication of his story in Wandering Educators may motivate some readers to make similar decisions, and the article is likely to serve RCH's fundraising efforts for years to come.

Tourism planners in Nepal and other developing countries might consider how they can promote "orphan tourism" as a key variety of participatory tourism, one with the potential of not only motivating multiple return visits and foreign currency transfers over long periods of time, but also of helping salvage critical human resources which could otherwise be a drag on the economy for generations.

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An even more extreme variety of participatory tourism is exemplified in the story of British national Anthony John Freake. For more than twenty years, "Papa Tony" has been a sort of fairy godfather, helping transform Phortse from a holdover medieval village into a modern community (by Nepali standards).


Tony Freake Photse Border



Phortse is a community of about 400 Sherpas in the Khumbu District of Nepal, about a dozen miles from Mt. Everest. Perched on an isolated terrace approximately 3800m/12,500ft above sea level, Phortse was for years ignored by nearly all of the thousands of trekkers on their way to and from Mt. Everest, just a few days' walk away. It didn't matter that Phortse is probably the oldest Sherpa settlement, and one of the more beautiful, with a glorious southern exposure that catches several hours more sunlight every day than most Khumbu settlements. The problem was simply that Phortse is situated across the Dudh River valley from Tengboche, which happens to be one of the most charismatic trekker destinations in the world. Faced with that kind of competition, Phortse stagnated while those villages directly on the main tourist trail prospered. With no electricity, no running water, and -- due to seasonal and permanent outmigration of young men working in the tourism and mountaineering sector -- not enough labor to manage the fields, Phortse was in danger of becoming a ghost town.

I met Papa Tony at the Namche Conference ("People, Park, and Mountain Tourism") in May 2003. Namche Bazar (3400m/11,500ft) is the gateway Sagarmatha [Everest] National Park, and despite the fact that Namche is a week to ten days from the nearest road, the tourist trade has brought modern conveniences ranging from electric lights to Internet cafes and bakeries selling cappuccino and chocolate croissants.  At the conference, Tony presented a talk about his work in Phortse. Most of the fifty-five participants were professionals, working for aid and development organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations; they were openly shocked to hear what a single determined individual could accomplish.


Tony and Sheila Freake

Tony and Sheila Freake


I'll let Tony describe his Phortse Community Project himself. The following account is edited from Tony's candidate statement for the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, an award presented every few years by the Nepalese non-profit Mountain Legacy "for remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions." (My wife Empar and I were the initiators of the Namche Conference, Mountain Legacy, and the Hillary Medal, and I am a member of the Hillary Medal Selection Committee in charge of reviewing nominations.)



I first went to Nepal in 1989, having taken early retirement from the London University, where I was a Departmental Superintendent in Physics, Kings College. I bumped into a couple of colleagues from my climbing club, the UK section of the Austrian Alpine Club, and together we joined an expedition to climb Mt. Mera -- a so-called "trekking peak" that does not require a lot of technical expertise. Still, at 6,475m/21,246ft Mera is more than a mile higher than Mont Blanc (4,810 m/15,781 ft), the tallest peak in the Alps.

One of my colleagues and I went out a week earlier than the main group to get more acclimatised. Our sirdar (expedition leader) invited us to visit his home in Phortse.  My first impression was, "Yes, these people could do with some help!" and I have been helping ever since. I went to climb a mountain and fell in love with a village.

First things first!

I thought the top priority ought to be the rehabilitation of the dilapidated primary school. However, the community urged me to help build a residence for the teachers, as they were then sleeping on the schoolhouse floor. What good would it do to have a first-rate schoolhouse if the teachers couldn't be retained due to lack of accommodations? So I knocked up a drawing and raised some money; in 1992 the community purchased the material and built the house.

I learned some important lessons from that first project. Although the Teachers' House was an improvement, the materials purchased by the villagers and the quality of construction work left a lot to be desired. On future projects I would take a more active management role and keep a close check on the finances. I would design the structure, raise the necessary funds, purchase the materials (transporting many of them from Kathmandu), and appoint and pay the builders.

Tony Freake

  Flying in material from Kathmandu


My second project was a small medical centre. The village had a health worker who was paid by the Himalayan Trust, but had no clinic to practice in. The nearest Western-style facility was the Himalayan Trust hospital at Khunde, four hours away; it had been built by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1966. Dr. Liz Hawley, the New Zealand medic in charge at that time, felt a Phortse clinic would be splendid; it would allow her to perform surgery there rather than oblige patients to negotiate the arduous trek to Kunde.

Soon after completing the design for the clinic, in 1994, I was approached by a Master at Eton College, the most prestigious boarding school in England. A group of his boys were  planning to go to Nepal on trek and he was very keen that the boys should do some community work whilst in the field. He proposed that they join the Phortse project, and I accepted wholeheartedly.


"So, what are you going to do?"

Meanwhile I received a letter from the Phortse elders requesting me to replace their Health Worker. This appointment is normally the responsibility of the Himalayan Trust, so I felt leery of intruding. On arriving in the Khumbu I was quite surprised when Doctor Hawley told me that she wanted to get rid of him as well. Apparently the man appointed by the Trust had got fed up with the job and simply handed it over to his brother, a local pastoralist who not only was unhappy at having to neglect his yaks due to clinic duties, but actually had no notion of how to perform those duties. The matter came to a head when two babies in the village died unnecessarily. "So," I said to the doctor, "what are you going to do?"

I was taken aback by her answer: "It is not a question of what I am going to do, but what you will do."

Despite my own lack of expertise, we were able to find a bright young Sherpa from Phortse village for the job. After training by the Kunde doctor, Sodam Doma Sherpa served creditably for a number of years.

As crew foreman we were fortunate to recruit Pasang Lama, a master carpenter who had done a lot of work on the Khunde Hospital. The project went smoothly, although spirits were dampened by an accident that occurred in England prior to our departure. Gordon Daniels, one of the Eton boys, died while paragliding in a fundraising event. A plaque in his memory can now be seen on the wall of the clinic. A couple of years later, the boy's father and two other children came out to Phortse on pilgrimage.

Tony Freake

New clinic


In 1996, I was approached by the Headman of the village and a senior monk from Tengboche. They requested my help in building a gomba (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) in Phortse. The gomba at Tengboche had only recently been rebuilt after a devastating fire, so I acquired the plans and prepared a scaled-down design for Phortse.


Tony Freake


I again appointed Pasang Lama to direct construction, and the final cost amounted to 30,000 pounds sterling, much of which came from Eton College. His Holiness the Abbot of Tengboche blessed the building and all the villagers were delighted.

Since then we have added a courtyard, a residence for the monks, and other facilities. Phortse Abbot Nima Rita told me that every year on my birthday he would light a butter lamp in  my honor "to give me good life."


Tony Freake - new Phortse Monastery

New Phortse Monastery


Tony Freake - Monastery Icons

Monastery icons



Tony Freake - Monks' quarters

Monks' quarters


1999: it was time to build a new school. My design called for four classrooms and the Head Teacher's quarters. Again I invited Eton College boys to help me decorate the inside; two other groups were recruited to decorate and landscape the exterior. One of the groups came from the rather gritty Canning Town neighbourhood of London's East End. It was interesting to see young people from extreme ends of the social spectrum equally working so hard for these Sherpa halfway around the world from England. In fact the Canning Town lads raised enough money the following year to invite twelve young Phortse Sherpas for two weeks' holiday in England. Procuring the visas, however, turned out to be quite the challenge.


Tony Freake - Phortse - new school

New school



Tony Freake - new school, Phortse, Nepal

Performance at the New School


"Let there be light!"

At the opening of the Namche Conference in 2003, a representative of each of the fifteen participating countries lit a butter lamp in the gomba courtyard, which had been given a much-needed facelift by the conference organizers. I lit a butter lamp on behalf of the UK. It was for me a powerful moment, and it inspired me to install electric power in the village of Phortse.  By 2005 we had a 60kw micro-hydro plant up and running. I also raised money and installed a drinking water system.


Tony Freake - Phortse youth centre

Youth Centre


In 2007 I  financed the rehabilitation of the old school so that it could be used as a Youth Centre complete with two pingpong tables. I also opened a Community Centre, which I hoped would help conserve Sherpa culture. A Sherpa Ladies Group is already in action. We have plans to install a library and 'learning centre' inside the Community Centre, and we expect to initiate some sort of cottage industry as well. We're still raising money for this project.

Tony Freake - Phortse youth centre

Children playing at the Youth Centre


Lastly, through my Phortse Community Project I have helped two girls through college in Kathmandu. The Himalayan Trust paid for fees and exams, while I paid for the girls' upkeep during their enrollment at college. The girls became the first Phortse youngsters to pass their School Leaving Certificate after graduating from the new Khumjung High School, built by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1982. One is now the Health Worker at the clinic I established in Phortse, so they are in a way completing the circle.



Sheila Freake

Sheila teaching a class at the Phortse School


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In 2008, Papa Tony was awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal. Peter Hillary, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary and a member of the Hillary Medal Selection Committee, presented the Medal at a lavish ceremony at Tengboche Monastery in honor of the 55th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest. The entire village of Phortse, and a great proportion of the residents of Khumbu district, showed up to fete their local heroes.

Presentation- Peter Hillary, Tony Freake, Beau Beza

Peter Hillary, Tony Freake, Beau Beza. (This photo and the three following courtesy of Dr. Beau Beza.)

Tony Freake

Sherpas present katas (Tibetan ceremonial scarves) to Sheila and Tony.


Tony Freake - Hillary Medal

Sheila, Tony (with Hillary Medal), and Beau


Presentation of Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal: Sheila Freake, Dr. Beau Beza (Chair of the Hillary Medal Selection Committee)

Presentation of Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal: Sheila Freake, Dr. Beau Beza (Chair of the Hillary Medal Selection Committee), Papa Tony, Peter Hillary, and Peter's daugher Amelia


A few weeks later, Sir Edmund's son Peter Hillary introduced Anthony Freake at a gala event of the Royal Geographical Society in London, attended by upwards of 850 luminaries.



Emulating Hillary

The remarkable achievements of Tony Freake and his collaborators cannot be fairly represented in such a synoptic narrative. One element worth underlining is that Tony's work is not really an isolated freak of philanthropy. The Hillary Medal is intended to honor and encourage emulation of the even more extraordinary achievements of the first summiter of Mt. Everest. Sir Edmund built, equipped and maintained 42 schools, hospitals, clinics and forestry programs in the Himalayas. As a mountain climber, Tony Freake was very much aware of Hillary's philanthropic heroics,  as was Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and founder of more than 130 schools in the remote mountain villages of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While there are not many Hillarys, Freakes or Mortensons, their impact is so momentous that tourism planners need to consider how to propagate the breed. I will come back to this issue in another column; for now let me just suggest that a key factor is the amazing success of Sherpas in generating a philanthropic response among tourists. It's not an accident.

Kale Pheb, Tony!

As we were finalizing this article for publication, we learned that Tony had succumbed to cancer on Sunday, Dec. 27. We extend our condolences to Sheila and his friends in Phortse and around the world. Tony's mission will be carried on by his circle of collaborators. Those who would like to send messages of appreciation or find out how they can contribute to the Phortse Community Project may contact Sheila via Tony's email address: tony.freake at  If you're going to the Khumbu in Nepal, please visit Tony's beloved village of Phortse ... and stop by the gomba to light a butter lamp in gratitude for his life and his example.

On behalf of his friends at Mountain Legacy, Iet me offer our thanks and farewell, Tony. As the Sherpas say to one about to depart on a long journey,  Kale pheb! Go slow.


 All photos unless otherwise specified courtesy of Tony and Sheila Freake

Seth Sicroff is the Nepal Editor for Wandering Educators.