A few months ago someone recommended to me a lesser known volume in the Everest canon, Life and Death on Mt Everest by Sherry B Ortner.
It has an innocuous enough title that could be applied to almost any of the hundreds of books about Everest expeditions that went wrong (the expeditions that is, not the books).
But Life and Death on Mt Everest is more unusual, because it covers a subject that is sometimes alluded to in Everest literature (and more often brushed aside) but almost never written about in such depth.
The subtitle of the book, “Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering”, makes its subject clearer. Sherry Ortner is an American anthropologist who spent over 30 years studying Sherpa culture, including fieldwork in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal. Her early work focused on religion, shamanism and gender, but this, her last book about Sherpas, focused on the role of mountaineering in Sherpa society.
In some respects, the title of the book is confusing (though not misleading). Anyone who picks it up expecting to read salacious stories about the mistreatment of Sherpas by western mountaineers will be in for a surprise. Although such stories are included (as they should be), this is a broader and deeper book than that.
There is a whole chapter around the role and treatment of death in Sherpa culture, about Sherpa belief in reincarnation and how death is part of the natural cycle. Death in climbing accidents plays only a small part in this chapter, and the focus on mountaineering centres around how Sherpas have persuaded their employers not to kill animals at base camp and to take part in the base camp puja ceremony.
Before reaching the subject of death, Sherry sets the scene by describing the origins and development of Himalayan mountaineering: how western explorers and mountaineers (referred to throughout as sahibs in a consciously tongue-in-cheek way) came to be there; and how they came to employ Sherpas, initially as porters, then as supporting climbers.
Much of this early history and how it shaped Sherpa society has been widely written about in Everest literature, and especially more recently as some of the controversies have received international attention.
But then Sherry changes tack to talk about another big force shaping Sherpa society at around the same time. Until the early 20th century, religion in the Solu-Khumbu region had been a mix of lay Buddhism and Tibetan magic, led by married lamas and shamans. Ceremonies often consisted of theatrical rituals involving phallic symbols and animal sacrifice.
Then in 1916 Lama Gulu came over from the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet to establish Tengboche Monastery in the Khumbu region. Another big monastery opened at Chiwong in Solu in 1924. A new breed of devout and celibate monks encouraged the Sherpas to abandon the old shamanism and adopt a purer form of Buddhism. Over the following years new monasteries opened in Takshindo, Serlo and Thame, and a nunnery opened at Devuche.
There is also a discussion of some of the other forces and beliefs that helped to forge the destiny of Sherpa mountaineers.
These include the feudalism, once a force in European society too, that existed as sahibs started to explore the Himalayas. Sherpa society was divided into big people, who owned the property and controlled the wealth, and little people, who worked for them and earned just enough to survive. It was these little people who moved to Darjeeling to find work and ended up joining mountaineering expeditions. These expeditions paid very well, so well in fact that it enabled the best Sherpa mountaineers to break out from being little.
It also involves the role of the zhindak, benevolent protectors who Sherpas believed arrived at auspicious moments and guided a person at a key time of their lives. Sherpa mountaineers embraced sahibs as their zhindaks, and this partly explains their loyalty towards them.
My favourite chapter is the one called Reconfigurations, which takes the development of Sherpa mountaineering up to the present day. The book was written in 1999, so it by no means brings us all the way, but we can already see how things are evolving. By then, the trekking industry was firmly established and commercial mountaineering on Everest was in its infancy but growing fast.
The title of the chapter is a reference to the common belief by the 1990s that Sherpas had become corrupted by mountain tourism – that their culture was weakening and instead of being the cheerful and willing servants to sahibs, it was becoming clear that they were motivated by money. Sherry points out that Sherpas were no different from anyone else in being transformed by the enormous changes that happened during the 20th century. Instead of using the term corrupted we should call it reconfigured and recognise that these changes contained both good and bad elements.
The bad included stories of Sherpas exploiting their porters, who came from other ethnic groups such as Tamangs and Gurungs. Some examples of this were stories of abandoning sick or injured porters, or dismissing them early at the end of treks so that tourists would tip more to the Sherpas instead. These stories echoed the relationship between sahibs and Sherpas; but by the same token, Sherpas also became the zhindaks to porters too. There is a story about Pertemba Sherpa, Chris Bonington’s sirdar, providing opportunities to four Tamangs by hiring them as high-altitude “Sherpas” for the 1975 Everest Southwest Face expedition.
There is discussion of the institutional fallout from mountaineering, notably in health and education. Increased wealth and sponsorship from sahibs led to new schools and hospitals in Solu-Khumbu. The building of the Lukla airstrip brought a massive influx of tourism. By then, Sherpas were better educated and in a better position to take on the roles that were also being taken by sahibs. By 1999, Sherpas owned 30% of the trekking agencies in Kathmandu and 50% of the largest ones. Educated Sherpas had jobs in government, for NGOs, and as doctors and pilots.
These are the advances outside of mountaineering, but what of Sherpa advances within mountaineering? As early as 1970 Sherry said she was hearing of resentment among Sherpas about their lack of recognition from sahibs. They were not mentioned in climbing accounts or only as “the Sherpas” and not as named individuals.
Things started to change in the early 1980s when the first ever all-Sherpa expedition made the first winter ascent of 7,132m Tilicho Peak in the Annapurna region. In 1991 a team of Sherpas put together the first all-Sherpa Everest expedition, although in a nice twist of role reversal it wasn’t technically all-Sherpa, as the American climber Pete Athans helped to raise funds and ended up working for them as a support climber with almost no recognition.
Sherry ends this chapter on a final positive note about the continuing kindness of the Sherpas. She notes that while some commentators speculate on the rise of individualism, competitiveness and rivalry among Sherpas at the expense of loyalty and honesty, this isn’t reflected in trekking and mountaineering literature. She found virtually no difference between early and contemporary literature for their accounts of Sherpa kindness, generosity, warmth and heroism. Twenty years later this has been my experience too.
There have been many more advances in the twenty years since the book was first published. Sherpas are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve as climbers with achievements such as the first winter ascent of K2 last year. And in a complete role reversal from the Darjeeling days, they have taken over as expedition organisers, achieving a staggering level of success with their sahib clients on K2 this year. I wonder what Sherry B Ortner would have made of that.
I thoroughly recommend this erudite but readable book to anyone looking for a greater understanding of the lives and culture of the heroes of Himalayan mountaineering.
And if you’re looking for something a little lighter which describes these continuing reconfigurations up to the present day, my book Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite explores the evolution of Sherpa mountaineers, from the porters of early expeditions to the superstar climbers they have now become.