"The Last Season In Nepal" is a fascinating 10 part podcast that charts Dr Tessa Coulson’s work at the International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) rescue posts in the autumn of 2019. We got together with Tessa and her co-producer Hywel Evans, to ask them how it came about...
Thanks Tessa and Hywel for speaking to us. Could you start by describing how the idea for the podcast came about?
(H) Tess and I met because amongst my various hilarious excuses for jobs, I run a rabbit and guinea pig boarding place from my back garden! Tess brought her guinea pigs, and we’ve got to know each other a little over the last few years (she is a very good customer!). One midsummer day in 2019 Tess came to pick up her pigs and as I’m always thinking of creative ideas, I thought that she had a great voice, a nice human being (always my prerequisite for working with anyone!) and suggested we have a coffee and a chat. I had a couple of ideas around doing a podcast about anxiety, but I’m never tied down to an idea. I think the best stuff always comes from the ‘protagonist’ and I’m fascinated by interesting people. Some way into our chat, probably around the time available to work on things, she mentioned that unfortunately she’d be escaping the country for a few months to work as a doctor in the Everest region. Obviously I was immediately hooked, desperately wanted to go along and the job was to not put her off with my immediate enthusiasm! I invited her in to a radio studio I was doing shows at and out of hours we just recorded me asking her a few questions about the trip.
Streets of Kathmandu with signs of damage from the 2015 earthquake
A few minutes of basic audio training (how not to ‘fluff’ and ‘pop’ on a mic, things to try and capture, what to look out for) and we were off! She had a practice in terms of some pre-journey audio diarying when packing and so on, but pretty soon it was time for the flight and she started to send audio back in a Google Drive folder. Tess recorded things, I sent her the odd question that I had as a listener (e.g ‘could you take us on a tour of the toilets’) and I began to edit the pieces down. It didn’t take much, just removal of the usual ‘errs’ or sound fluffs. I wrote the music and began to weave everything together, and that was that! We had help from a few radio friends who are great confidants and that helped mould things, but basically it was a very small simple operation. Clinical you could say :-)
(T) Apart from being an occasional listener, I had no experience at all in making podcasts or anything like that, so when Hywel mentioned it I probably didn’t think he was serious. The idea seemed a bit ridiculous, who would want to listen? And also I often have difficulty getting my words out so it seemed even more daft. But I’m also not one for turning down suggestions and opportunities and there didn’t seem much to lose from keeping an open mind about it. I thought that if nothing comes out of the whole podcast thing, at least I’d have some audio recordings of my time in Nepal which might be fun to look back on. That kind of helped to determine what I recorded, rather than having a particular script (aside from occasional bits that Hywel has mentioned above). I suppose I asked myself what I might want to remember!
Hywel has done an incredible job of turning my ramblings into something and giving a shape to what was often just an outpouring of gibberish. He’s pretty much done everything apart from my voice recordings!
Just after Tessa landed at Lukla airport the fog came down. Flights were suspended for 4 days. Much of their medical kit was stuck in Kathmandu until the weather cleared
Tessa, how much audio recording did you do? Did you have a daily routine? Could you describe the “nuts and bolts” of the recording process? Did it replace a written diary? What were the greatest challenges of recording?
This was pretty much just guided by what was going on at the time or how I was feeling. I tried not to be too strict with myself, but occasionally when I’d not recorded something for a few days it would start to feel like “homework”. I tried to record reasonably regularly to prevent that. I kept a written diary too, you can’t beat reading through an old travel journal! But it was quite brief and a bit more factual/descriptive compared to the audio version. It probably documented slightly different aspects of the trip.
The recording process was very simple. I just used the Voice Memos App on my iPhone. Turns out the microphone quality is absolutely fine and meant that no extra kit was needed. There is WiFi through the region via Everest Link, which was mostly fairly good, and when I could I’d just upload the files to a shared Google Drive. That way they were saved safely and Hywel could access them too.
The IPPG rescue post and porter shelter at Machermo
Challenges? I think you can feel quite self-conscious making voice notes, in a way that doesn’t happen if you’re writing a diary. So finding a suitable time to record was sometimes tricky. I didn’t find it easy to do some of the audio description of things/scenery etc, which I imagine is vital for someone listening to be able to imagine it. It’s so much easier to just show a photo! And finally, listening back to yourself for the editing can be really uncomfortable, especially the more emotional/vulnerable sections. I would have loved to just remove a load of it, but it would have lost a lot of the substance and wouldn’t have been an honest account so I was encouraged to keep it in.
Hywel, what were you expecting to hear when the audio arrived in your inbox? Did it differ from the reality? Listening to the podcasts I was impressed by the blending of street sounds, music and commentary. Can you talk about how that was recorded and how it was arranged within the podcast?
I expected much less. I thought that this would become a horrible chore for Tess. Homework while on a trip of a lifetime. I also expected her to be nowhere near as good as she was. By ‘good’ I mean that people often have a ‘radio voice’ that somehow kicks in when people are aware that they are being recorded. They can sound incredibly odd. What Tess managed to do was just talk honestly and openly, from the heart, like a diary. Before she left I remember we discussed how the important thing to remember was that she could say ANYTHING and we won’t ever put something out that she’s not happy with. We stuck with that (as much as anyone can enjoy their own voice - Tess certainly doesn’t, because she’s far too humble). I think that like a mountain climber has to not think about the drop and focus on the logical work at hand, she managed to only be concerned about talking into the ear of somebody who wants to know what she did today, and how she feels about it. It's amazing how difficult some people find that to do. A lot of other brain-noise* gets in the way when mics or cameras are involved.
Tessa's first patient - see the podcast for more details!
What impressions do you hope the listeners will go away with? Do you have any tips for those wanting to record podcasts in the remote mountain environment.
(H) For anyone wanting to make a podcast out of an adventure, I’d happily spend the rest of my life making these with people so time permitting… do get in touch via our website. I’d love Tess to be able to do more seasons because she’s so good at it. But I imagine one will be enough for a few years…
Top tips for solo recording? I teach radio at the University of Chester and always stress to students the need to have an objective. So if your objective is ‘climb that ridge’, fine. If it is more specific ‘climb that ridge and leave this Star Wars flag there’, great. If it’s less specific and more adventurous, like ‘step into the unknown and slay my fears’, great too. But have a set up that can simply say ‘this is what I’m doing and why’. Then use that, when you’re out in the field, to be you measure of when you press record. Do we need to know how much your flights cost? Or, describe a moment when you see something stunning and realise why you came?
Edi and Deb treating a porter with high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) who became unconscious after coming over the Renjo La. He significantly improved with dexamethasone and treatment in a portable altitude chamber PAC. After helicopter evacuation to Lukla he quickly recovered and was soon seen eating his dinner that evening!
Practically, Tess used her iPhone voice notes. She also avoided recording in strong wind, learned a good distance to speak from the mic, and captured a good balance of ‘exposition’ (tell us context, what you’re doing next, and why). There’s lots more… but you need to create a short hand so when you’re in the moments of the trip you know when to press record. Tess probably recorded about 2 hrs of audio. For a three month trip that is brilliant. Many people would get home with 24 hours of audio and never want to sift through it again.
The team outside the Machermo Rescue Post - Dan, Samip, Kanchha, Jen, Tessa, Edi and Deb
(H) In terms of what people may take from it? I’m aware that people are very different and enjoy different things. But I think you’d have to be a robot to not take away a lovely sense of what I’ll describe pretentiously as ‘spirit’ from Tess here. I think Tess’ wife Charlotte - who we owe a huge HUGE bottle of wine in gratitude for putting up with this silly hobby for so long - said that she had a “lovely afternoon” listening to it. A further apology if I’ve now misquoted you Charlotte, but my parents and my wife also listened and said very similar things. ‘Lovely’ is not always good, it can be dilute - I know Michael Palin hates the word ‘nice’ for the same reason. But he is nice. And Tess is lovely. Those people who are genuinely themselves in any situation really can’t help but come across the way they are. And what Tess has given us is a truly lovely experience that lifts our spirits and takes us on a walk through the clouds of Nepal. PRETENTIOUS OR WHAT. Tell me I’m wrong.
(T) It’d be great if listeners came away with a little taste of the adventure that it was. It’s hard at the moment, after all the months of Covid restrictions, to think that all this was fairly straightforward just a year ago. To imagine all those people huddled up in the sun room together for our altitude talks, or cosied around the stove in the evenings. People from all over the world getting to hang out together. But hopefully it won’t be too long until we’re back to those things again. And we’ll need to really support those communities that have been hardest hit. Like the trekking regions of Nepal which have pretty much had 2 tourist seasons wiped out by the pandemic. All those porters, guides, lodge owners etc with no customers. We all need to get back out there when we can and support them with our feet!
Tips for recording podcasts in remote mountain environment? Get in touch with Hywel! Or just give it a go. At worst you’ve got some fun audio recordings to look back on. And find someone willing to encourage you when you’re starting to feel the trepidation of actually releasing the thing.
Dan, Jen, Tessa and Shakar outside the Gokyo Rescue Post. Shankar is a doctor and member of the Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal. Working with IPPG and Community Action Nepal, this organisation provides local medical staff to work in the rescue posts
Without knowing it, your podcast coincides with the final year that the IPPG’s rescue posts were open. Were there clues during your recordings that this was going to be the case? Do you think it adds a special importance to the podcast?
(H) Tess can answer this better, but from my point of view it was just as sad to hear it come ‘down the wires’ as it is for listeners. I think I am the only person that will ever be privy to Tess saying things with a little more anger than we kept in the podcast, but we really didn’t want to cross any lines - of which there are many. The writing was certainly on the wall, and it’s sad to hear it unfold.
Charlotte and Tessa happy to be at the top of the Renjo La. Gokyo and one of the lakes, together with the summit of Everest can be seen in the distance
(T) When we arrived we just heard rumours really that a private clinic might be opening. It was all very quiet until the new clinic signs actually appeared in Gokyo, but it wasn’t until we were back in the UK that the news came in of the rescue posts definitely being forced to close. It’s a very complex situation and the statement released by IPPG summarises it on their website. The podcast might have added significance for this reason. Hopefully it’ll serve as a tribute to what the charity has achieved whilst working with the local community over the last 17+ years. (Although it wasn’t intended as such at the outset!)
Although the IPPG rescue posts have had to close, the work of Community Action Nepal in supporting these mountain communities and advocating porter welfare very much continues, so any donations to the charity will be invaluable!
Passing a cave near Monjo. These were previously used by porters to sleep in before the porter shelter was established
Congratulations to Tessa and Hywel for putting together a wonderful podcast series. These episodes are sure to encourage many more of us to record our own special stories from far flung places. "The Last Season In Nepal" can be found wherever you look for your podcasts!
"The Last Season In Nepal"
Written and Presented by Tessa Coulson
Produced by Hywel Evans and Tessa Coulson
Music and Editing by Hywel Evans
Additional Editing by Paul Webster
Artwork by Richard Ross
Thanks to Anthony Gay for executive producer skills, Charlotte Wilson for her heroic on-site production, Edi Albert for his speaking voice, Jeremy Windsor for his enthusiasm and support, and Mike Newman for bringing some AudioBoom.
The trip would not have been possible without the wonderful International Porter Protection Group and Community Action Nepal.
A commercial porter with a heavy and unwieldy load. An important reminder that porter welfare needs to remain a priority after the forced closure of the IPPG rescue posts at Machermo and Gokyo
Recommendations for other mountain medicine-related podcasts can be found here.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.