If you want to really understand the Himalayas before your trek in Nepal, or you need a mellow recovery activity after, take an excursion to the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara to really understand the Himalayas.
I’ve read hundreds of articles about Nepal and have been to the country three times, but I had never heard of the International Mountain Museum before I visited recently. This is no small, rinky-dink museum you will want to leave after 10 minutes. It’s a full explanation and celebration of the highest mountain range in the world: how it got there, who lives on its banks, the flora and fauna there, and what kind of nuts risk everything to reach the tops.
The museum doesn’t just stop there either. It has huge photos of the 14 highest peaks in the world—all more than 8,000 meters high. It goes through mountaineering’s history in a very visual way, with peoples’ photos and the actual gear they wore and used while ascending. (Believe me, things were much tougher before synthetic fabrics, compact camp stoves, and Gore-Tex.)
How the Mountains Got Here
The section here on how the newest and highest mountain range on the planet formed gave me a better understanding than anything I’ve ever read. I knew that they formed when two land masses collided, but it’s hard for us to fathom how slow this process actually was. Roughly 70 million years ago, the then-island of India started drifting toward the Asian continent at a rate of 9 to 16 centimeters per year. Around 50 million years ago the land masses collided and India kept moving at a rate of 4-6 centimeters per year, pushing the ground upward. This led to the forming of the Himalayan Mountain Range, as well as the Tibetan Plateau.
This process hasn’t really stopped, and the mountains continue to rise about one cm per year. Since there’s also erosion going on, however, it’s mostly a wash. There’s very little volcanic activity in this region because a lot of venting went on during this process. There is still some plate movement, however, which we saw the devastating consequences of in the 2015 earthquake that hit Nepal hard.
Mountain People and the Yeti Legend
Travelers who have never been to Nepal don’t realize what a diverse country this is, but as soon as you get into the mountains you can’t help but notice. There are some 26 different ethnic groups in Nepal, officially, but some put the count as high as 125, which is understandable considering how easily people get divided by the topography. The largest are the the Indian-looking Hindus of the lowlands and the Tibetan-looking Buddhists who came from the other direction. The groups in the mountains each have their own style of dress. Even in cases where common international clothing styles have taken over, they still pull out the more ornate, handmade items on festival days. If you can do a trek in the autumn, you’ll see a lot of these festivals around harvest time.
The International Mountain Museum has a lot of dressed-up mannequins showing off the finery from various ethnic groups. In the same cases you’ll find traditional items they have used over the years for cooking, cleaning, and farming, including many you’ll still see in teahouse kitchens today.
You have to make it to the back corner to find Yeti since he is, by most accounts, more legend than reality. (See our feature story A Short Trek in Bhutan’s Wild East for more on the Yeti.) There’s a big Yeti model you can pose in front of and various articles over the years about what the creature may or may not be, plus literary references.
Those Driven to Climb Tall Mountains
There’s a scene in the Hollywood movie Everest—as opposed to the more reality-based IMAX version—where the writer Jon Krakauer who is tagging along asks everyone why they want to climb the world’s highest mountain. “Because it’s there!” everyone shouts in unison. That’s the best answer most mountaineers can provide when asked why they risk their life and lose appendages to frostbite just to say they reached the summit. After the first successful summit of Everest in 1953, over the next 40 years one in four people who tried to do the same ended up dead.
In some ways it has gotten safer, but this is still a deadly pursuit. Six died this year, including four in the one week I was doing the much lower Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek. In 2015, 24 people died, mostly from an avalanche that took the lives of many local Sherpas.
If you think the climbers are nuts, this museum probably won’t change your mind. When you look at all the gear they have to shlep up there, all the oxygen canisters they blow though, and how many weeks they have to sleep in tents breathing thin air, it seems like an insane sacrifice. When you see what they used to reach the top in the 1050s though, it’s even more amazing that they made it.
Modern Pressures on the Mountains
I was happy to see that the museum also showed the dark side of travel and living in Nepal. There’s a downright scary aerial map showing how the population of Pokhara has exploded in the past two decades. It wasn’t my imagination that the city has grown four times it’s size compared to when I first visited in the mid-1990s. As more people move there and to Kathmandu for jobs and money, the two main cities are buckling hard under the pressure. Pollution, traffic and frequent electricity blackouts are a way of life for more residents. In the days you could see Fishtail Mountain from Pokhara on any clear day. Now a haze often obscures the view.
Then there’s all this stuff that has to be picked up from the sides of Everest and hauled back down by porters. Every year.
The Himalayas are the source of water for billions of people, so their preservation is more than just a matter of aesthetics. Let’s hope the varied works of the mountaineers, legit NGOs, and the government can protect these mighty resources.
If You Go
The International Mountain Museum is on the edge of Pokhara, out past the airport, with lots of green space around. It’s best to grab a taxi to get there as it’s not really close to most hotels. Admission is only $4 though, or a mere 40 rupees for students (US 40 cents).
There’s also a library, a climbing wall, and a cafe inside a traditional-style set of buildings in the gardens. See more at the official website in English.
Exterior and Yeti photos by Tim Leffel, others (linked) Flickr cc photos by Pierre-mary Thibault.