Love him or loathe him, there is no denying that Nirmal Purja’s high-profile achievements of the last few years have been a game changer for Nepali mountaineering.
With his book Beyond Possible riding high on bestseller lists and his film 14 Peaks one of the most watched films on Netflix, the profile of Sherpas and Nepal mountaineering is at an all-time high.
But where do you go if you want to find out more? Here are seven insightful and entertaining books that have Sherpas at their heart. As ever, please feel free to add other book recommendations in the comments.
1. Tiger of the Snows by Tenzing Norgay and James Ramsey Ullman
From the moment Eric Shipton picked him out from a line up of hopefuls to join the 1935 British Everest expedition, Tenzing Norgay stood apart as both a climber and leader of men. By the time he became the first man to stand on the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary in 1953, he had already attempted Everest seven times and written himself into mountaineering folklore.
Tenzing’s first autobiography was written soon after his Everest ascent and covers the first half of his life before fame overtook him. He found the ideal ghost writer in American mountaineering journalist James Ramsey Ullman. The Tenzing of Tiger of the Snows is likeable, brave and dignified. He is not afraid to tackle controversy, but does so with a refreshing humility that you simply won’t find in any other celebrity autobiography (or none that I’ve ever read, but please feel free to correct me in the comments if you disagree).
The overall effect is to paint a picture of a deeply wise man who was able to juggle the needs of both his fellow Sherpas and their western employers. You finish the book understanding why Tenzing was the greatest Sherpa mountaineer.
2. Tigers of the Snow by Jonathan Neale
Not to be confused with Tiger of the Snows by Tenzing Norgay with its almost identical title. Where Tenzing is diplomatic, always able to see things from different perspectives, Jonathan Neale spares no sympathy for the western climbers who he believes abandoned their Sherpas during a killer storm.
In 1934, nine members of a German expedition to climb Nanga Parbat, including 6 Sherpas, lost their lives during a horrifying 4-day retreat in a killer storm.
Many controversial books have been written about mountaineering disasters pieced together from the conflicting statements of the protagonists. The story that emerges is understably weighted to those who are prepared to talk the most. Jonathan Neale went out of his way to search out the Sherpa survivors of the 1930s, many of whom were illiterate with little or no English, and listen to their stories. I believe it makes this book unique. How accurate their recollections were so many years after the event is open to speculation, but for shining a light on stories that would otherwise be forgotten, mountaineering history owes him a debt of gratitude.
3. Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay and Broughton Coburn
Dozens of books have been written about the 1996 Everest disaster by those who witnessed it, but this is the only one written by an ethnic Sherpa.
Jamling Tenzing Norgay is Tenzing Norgay’s second son by his third wife Daku. “I climbed Everest so that you wouldn’t have to,” Tenzing told his son. Jamling was raised and educated in the United States, but his father’s heart beat strong and he yearned to climb Everest himself. In 1996 he got his chance as climbing leader of the team led by David Breashear’s that made the Everest IMAX movie that year. But, as many of you will know, events took a turn for the worse.
Jamling’s perspective is that of a lead climber rather than a mountain worker, but his background as an ethnic Sherpa enables him to capture the perspective of both groups better than any other account of the events that unfolded. But, as the title implies, this isn’t just a book about the 1996 Everest tragedy. It’s an exploration of Jamling’s relationship with his father, and what it means to be offspring of the most famous and revered of all Sherpas.
4. Cho Oyu by Herbert Tichy
This is perhaps a recommendation mainly for German speakers. My second-hand copy of the English translation is the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, weighing in at an eye-watering £120 (no, you can’t borrow it). It was worth every penny, though. The Austrian explorer and writer Herbert Tichy has such an engaging writing style, his light-heartedness and joy shining through every page, that I wish more of his work would be translated into English.
This is an account of the first ascent of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain, by a lightweight Austrian team. Star of the book from start to finish, however, is not leader of the expedition Tichy, nor any of his compatriots, but Pasang Dawa Lama.
Tichy’s respect and friendship with his sirdar and lead climbing Sherpa is present in every sentence. Pasang is trailblazer throughout, and we are left in no doubt that the eventual success of the expedition rests on his shoulders more than anyone else. Pasang leads the way up the mountain, returns to Nepal for essential supplies, then races back to Cho Oyu to lead the final summit push. The final chapter also belongs to him as the team returns to Namche Bazaar for his wedding and two weeks of celebration in his honour.
5. Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest by Tashi Tenzing and Judy Tenzing
Tashi Tenzing is the grandson of Tenzing Norgay by his first wife Dawa Phuti, whose death and burial in what later became Pakistan while he was working in North-West Frontier Province in 1944 broke Tenzing’s heart (this book contains a Tenzing family tree to explain the relationships between his various wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren).
Like Jamling, Tashi also climbed Everest. He even went on to become a guide (I met him guiding a Czech client when I was on Everest myself in 2007). The theme of this book is broader than Jamling’s, however, and the writing is less introspective. This is a history of the Sherpa people and how mountaineering, Everest and in particular Tenzing, has affected its course since the early years of the 20th century.
The book was written by his Australian wife Judy with Tashi as narrator and eyewitness. It covers the early evolution of Sherpas as high-altitude porters in Darjeeling, Tenzing’s Everest journey and his life after the ascent. Tashi also talks about his own Everest journey, and the future of Sherpa mountaineering. This is a highly readable book and like James Ramsey Ullman, Judy Tenzing has managed to capture a likeable and wise personality. One of the book’s interesting features is the series of colourful vignettes of other notable Sherpas.
6. Nanda Devi by Eric Shipton
In 1934 the great mountain explorers Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, and their three Sherpa companions Angtharkay, Pasang and Kusang became the first people to find a route into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, a remote mountain basin in north-west India. They followed it up with two months of exploration in Garhwal, crossing two watersheds and surviving on a diet of tree mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
Shipton and Tilman hired local porters for some of the journey, but often found them unreliable. By contrast the three Sherpas never faltered, carrying huge loads over dangerously precipitous terrain. They pitched camp, cooked, and helped to organise the porter loads. Despite the harsh living conditions, Shipton found them unfailingly cheerful and always ready to share a joke and laugh at the situations they found themselves in.
Shipton’s book about the expedition oozes with warmth for his Sherpa companions and is an affectionate tribute.
7. Tenzing: Hero of Everest by Ed Douglas
Ed Douglas is one of the most highly respected and well-connected climbing journalists and historians in the world today, and this is probably the most comprehensive biography of Tenzing Norgay you will find anywhere.
Being both meticulously researched and highly readable, it’s one of those unusual biographies that will appeal equally to scholars and general interest readers.
Ed Douglas has somehow managed to piece together the facts about Tenzing’s undocumented early life in Tibet that Tenzing himself doesn’t touch on in his autobiography. While the majority of the book covers his journey from high-altitude porter to hero of Everest, fair space is given to Tenzing’s life post-Everest. His less fortunate later years are covered with sensitivity, and the book also explores his cultural influence in Nepal, India and beyond. An essential read.
Bonus book: Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite by Mark Horrell
My new book about Sherpas is now available as a paperback as well as an ebook. A collection of essays curated from this blog, I explore the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers of the present day.
Why read this book as well as those above? Unlike these books, I write from the perspective of a commercial client – one that is often derided or ignored by the critics. I cover the early history and describe my relationship with the Sherpas I have climbed with who have helped me reach the summits of the world’s highest mountains. I tackle some of the controversies of recent years, and provide historically significant accounts of the 2014 avalanche and its aftermath, which I was myself a witness to. I finish by looking to the future and putting the recent achievements of Nims and other Nepali climbers into context.
I truly believe this book offers something different, so why not give it a try by clicking on the green button below (and if you enjoy it, do please consider leaving a review or a rating).