"The collaboration with local people was excellent"
Engineer Hans Aschmann led the first Swiss-backed construction of a suspension bridge in Nepal in 1960–61. In this interview, he recalls that pioneering mission.
"Probably the most important member of our team was Ang Tsering Sherpa, an experienced mountain guide. He organised the porter services and looked after us brilliantly." © SDC / Hans Aschmann
In 1960, international development was still in its infancy. How did you come to work in Nepal?
I had graduated from the Winterthur engineering school and got a job working at 3,000 m for a federal radar station. It was a tunnel and cavern construction in which rock bolts played an important role. That's where I gained the technical experience that helped me when I heard about the job in Nepal and applied for it. The region simply interested me. I had read Sven Hedin's Transhimalaya and was also familiar with the publications of Toni Hagen, who had covered 13,000 kilometres on foot creating a geological map of Nepal. He was a role model for me.I wasn't able to leave for another year, so I set about making preparations. I was 26 at the time.
You also must have had to do a lot of walking...
When I arrived in Kathmandu, I had endless questions. One day I was told: "Just go and take a look!" There was no road from Kathmandu to western Nepal at that time. So it took me five days on foot to get to the site where they planned to build the bridge. It was a deep gorge in the Marsyandi Valley.
How did this project that later became so influential come about?
The Americans had an agreement with the Nepalese authorities to build suspension bridges, but weren't making any progress because there weren't any Nepalese experts to do the work. The head of the Helvetas team in Kathmandu, Rolf Wilhelm, was married to an American and had a special relationship with the US development organisation. He offered to assist by organising professionals and training.
Was the Swiss approach different from what had been done previously?
A crucial factor was that steel parts for the planned bridge were manufactured in the country for the first time, in the workshop that Helvetas had set up in Kathmandu. Only the steel cables were imported and provided to the Nepalese roads department by the Americans. You can't picture the programme without the workshops which were later established, often by former workers from that first factory.
Even a simple construction is likely to require modern equipment and machinery. What did you have to work with in such a remote area?
We needed a jackhammer and drill rods to prepare the rock anchors, a hydraulic press to test the anchoring, and Habegger manual winches to tension the cables. Everything had to be purchased in Switzerland and hauled to the construction site in Nepal. The porters were carrying unbelievably heavy loads.
And who carried out the work?
It was people from the villages there. As high-altitude farmers, they faced so many challenges in their daily lives that they were very open to learn. You could see how skilled they were from the fact that in a short space of time, they were able to do many tasks like constructing bamboo scaffolding. I had been given two technicians, but they had no on-site experience. I was also accompanied by a Sherpa who had already been on a Himalayan expedition. He was Nepali and spoke a little English. The whole collaboration with local people was excellent.
How were the workers paid?
I was given a whole backpack full of small rupee notes, plus an accountant who dispensed wages to the workers in exchange for a thumbprint signature.
The bridge was the prototype for many others. How did it hold up?
In 1967, extreme flooding shifted the foundation of a pylon and the bridge was virtually destroyed. A construction team then went and created a makeshift footbridge with the available materials. What happened later, I don't know.
Were there lessons to be learned for later construction projects?
To my successor I said: "On the construction site, you absolutely need a radio line, if only to organise all the supplies and materials." I didn't have one at the time, and it took a courier almost a week to get to Kathmandu and back with a message.
But your approach held up?
In my reports, I noted that it wasn't absolutely necessary to build the type of bridge where cables running over two towers support the walkway. In many places, modern suspended walkways that hang relatively flat are sufficient. This cheaper type has become the norm.
Did you expect suspension bridge construction to take off in the way it did?
At that time, it was simply a matter of making a start; but there really is a tremendous need. When you see what was just a trickle in winter turn into a monsoon-season torrent, you enter another world. Bridges made of bamboo ropes did not last long. There had also been frequent accidents.
You worked in Nepal again from 1972 to 1975. Why were you there the second time?
At the Nepalese road department, there had been a suspension bridge division since 1964. In 1972, I went on behalf of the Swiss federal government to help advance the stalled construction work. With the help of two other Swiss employees, Dieter Elmer and Thomas Neidhart, that project succeeded in increasing the number of completed bridges from 2 to 3 per year to about 20. That time, I myself worked exclusively in the bridge construction division and not in the field. The previous construction assignment, on the other hand, was the biggest professional challenge I faced in Nepal.