There’s a term for online journalists: information sherpas. I’m going to introduce you to an online journalist who has a crowdfunding campaign that, if successful, will help him do journalism about Sherpas, the ones who guide hikers up to the summit of Mt. Everest.
Syracuse University grad Adam Popescu G’10 is on a mission to bring the story of the hard-working sherpas of Nepal to the public. Sherpas work in an extremely high-risk environment, and that came into clear focus in April of this year when 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche.
Sherpas are hired to carry the majority of equipment and supplies for hiking tourists, for as little as $2 per day. There is virtually no regulation here, safety or otherwise, and Sherpas have been doing this work for decades. Their families depend on the money tourists bring in to survive. But what kind of toll has the incredible rise in the number of hikers wishing to reach the summit wrought on the Sherpas? What are the environmental tolls on the mountain itself, with increased traffic and tons of trash accumulating?
I spoke to Adam to find out more about his desire to tell the story of the Sherpas, and how he’s using Beacon, a crowdfunding site for journalists, to help raise the money necessary to finance his work.
KL: Tell us a bit about yourself, your time at SU and what you’ve been doing since graduation:
AP: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Growing up in Los Angeles, my parents, who were writers, cautiously encouraged me, and even though I watched them struggle at times, I also watched them succeed despite the odds. This gave me hope, and an amazing tutelage. Most importantly, it also eliminated a lot of the pretense and romanticization that paralyzes many young artists.
Journalism, for me, became a tool to learn storytelling, to gain experience and understanding of a wide range of professions and walks of life, and an entre to be taken seriously and gain entrance to the party. I started writing professionally in late 2007, mostly writing eco-focused travel writing. But I wasn’t making any money. I applied for a Fulbright, and graduate schools. I became a finalist for Fulbright, and was admitted to the journalism program at Syracuse University. The Newhouse program changed my life. I learned how to turn my skill into a real profession, and realized how important it was to understand the entrepreneurial business side of media. Without that instruction I wouldn’t have been able to translate my career and take it from the fringes to reality.
Since graduation, I’ve worked in newspapers, public radio, and online journalism, writing for publications that include Fast Company, Mashable, Los Angeles Magazine, ReadWrite, LA Weekly, Marketplace Radio, Forbes, and others.
KL: How did you end up going to Everest in December 2013? What prompted that?
AP: Last year was the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Everest Base Camp; sixty years since Hillary and Norgay first climbed the mountain. When I heard about this, and the environmental situation on the mountain, with all the metric tons of trash and no way to clean it up and get rid of it, I knew it was an important story. A story not too many journalists, especially western journalists were telling. At the time I was writing for Mashable, but my contract was coming up, and I wanted to make a change. Everyday publishing was starting to take a toll. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, or who would publish the story, but I knew I had to do it. I knew there would be a home for the piece if I could just get there.
I had done some travel writing in 2008 and 2009 before I came to SU, and started reaching out to my contacts. I ended up selling the piece to the BBC, finished my contract with Mashable, and dug deep into my savings to make it happen. I spent a month in Nepal writing and reporting from late November to late December.
KL: Do you consider yourself an ‘adventure journalist’?
AP: Just being a journalist is an adventure. Finding your way from cub reporter to career journalist is like navigating the Temple of Doom in Indiana Jones. It’s full of booby traps, and every time you think you’re safe, there’s another hoop to jump through.
KL: What was it like at Everest base camp in December? How did you spend your time there?
AP: Cold. Beyond cold. We walked through glaciers with frozen blocks of ice the size of cars. There were crevasses that no human has ever stepped foot in. It felt very lunar, very quiet, very surreal. At that height, oxygen is less than 50%, meaning for every breath you take, you’re getting half as much oxygen as you would be at sea level. It took two weeks to get to Base Camp, trekking ten plus kilometers a day, starting at 9,000 and climbing up to about 18,000 feet.
When we finally made it to Base Camp, it was basically a pile of rocks. But instead of being an empty experience, it was so gratifying and special to get there, because it was such a hard journey, and many times felt like we would never make it. We battled wind storms, loose rock, black ice, bad food, no plumbing or heating, and of course, our bodies, which are not made for that high altitude. Thirty-one Australians were trekking at the same time as our group (me, a local guide and two marines I met in Nepal). Of those 31, Only 19 made it to Base Camp, the rest were medically evacuated. When we finally got to Base Camp, we spent less than an hour there since the sun was going down and it was a hike of several hours to get back to camp. December is the off-season for summit attempts, so Base Camp was empty. In Spring, it looks like a tiny city.
KL: How did you meet your partner in this endeavor, Deepak Adhikari?
AP: We met on Twitter a few months before my trip. We started emailing each other, and when I got to Nepal, we met in person several times, bonding over our love of journalism and storytelling.
KL: What inspired you to want to write about the Sherpas?
AP: Watching the men, women and children on the trail, hundreds of pounds on their backs, climbing through mountains in sandals and tennis shoes. Inspiring, shocking, crazy…these emotions flood you when you see 12 year olds hauling beer bottles on their back. I met many Sherpas, both on the way to Everest, and in Kathmandu. After the avalanche hit, I knew that the world wanted to know who these invisible people of the mountain were. The tragedy, while unfortunate, brought to light just how poor their working conditions are, and the need for reform.
KL: Why Beacon? Why not Kickstarter?
AP: I support independent journalism, underreported storytelling, and that’s what Beacon is all about. It’s a unique platform where supporters can subscribe to writers and writers can use their brand and following as a tool to serve readers.
KL: How are you getting the word out about your project?
AP: I’ve been tapping into my network, probably sending too many tweets and emails and asking for too much help. But so far, I’ve been getting quite a bit of support, as well as media coverage from Romenesko, as well as several other upcoming pieces from major publications.
KL: Why should people care about this project?
AP: I’m trying to raise money primarily to travel to Nepal. From there, minus money for room and board, I will be donating funds to three charities, including the Widow’s Relief fund, an aid group helping Sherpas directly impacted by the April disaster. Programs like this are experiments—new ways to deliver important, underreported stories, and using a crowdfunding model to make it happen.
KL: What advice do you have for aspiring journalists, especially those currently studying here at Syracuse?
AP: Listen, ask questions, plan realistically for your first steps post-academia and start paying your loans before interest starts biting you. A great media job isn’t guaranteed upon graduation. But using resources at SU, you can walk the path towards that job. Just be patient, work hard and network, and you’ve already done most of the heavy lifting.
Check out Adam’s crowdfunding page on Beacon, Everest Sherpas: The High Price of Tourism, to learn more about this project and how you can help.
Follow Adam’s progress on twitter and tell him you read about him on InfoSpace!