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High Society

Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering
By Sherry B. Ortner
Princeton University Press • 376 pp • $26.95 • October 1999

George Mallory's famous quip on being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest--because it is there--is not simply evasive. The mountaineer, in silent contemplation of forbidding heights, would rather do it than talk about it. Nonetheless, the tight-lipped mountaineering spirit has yielded a steady and rich stream of travelogues and adventure stories, from Sir Edmund Hillary's 1955 account of the first successful Everest summit expedition, High Adventure, to John Krakauer's best-selling book about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air. The thrill of these stories depends in part on the way that such thin air makes talking difficult; they wring meaning out of the mortal solitude of climber and peak. The voice of the mountaineer reaches us over a great distance, its authenticity sharpened by hardship, loneliness, and altitude.

Yet in the case of Himalayan mountaineering, there are key voices that have gone mostly unheard in the West--those of the Sherpas who have accompanied virtually every expedition since the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India first triangulated the highest mountain on Earth in 1852. Who knew, for example, that at least one Sherpa has reached the summit of Everest ten times? Now the Columbia University anthropologist Sherry Ortner has written a keen and compelling ethnography of the evolving relationship between Western mountain climbers and Sherpas throughout the twentieth century to right the balance.

Life and Death on Mt. Everest compiles thirty-odd years of Sherpa study, and Ortner works consistently against stereotypes to portray mountaineering Himalayans as neither noble tribesmen nor wage-bound coolies. She takes a long view of the history shared across the ethnic divide, framing the story as a cultural "encounter" that leaves neither party unchanged. In so doing, Ortner casts her lot with a strain of contemporary anthropological theory that urges attention to unfamiliar, non-Western "meanings" even as it acknowledges the power of Westerners to shape the terms on which those meanings develop.

On the Himalayan peaks, cultural influence and manipulation flow in both directions, though the "sahibs," or white mountaineering bosses, clearly have the upper hand in expeditions they fund and control. Throughout her book, Ortner uses the phrase "serious games" to describe the interactions of individuals aiming to control the course of change. For some time, the serious games of the sahibs have revolved around various forms of rebellion: Early in the century, they saw themselves forsaking the material greed of the age for spiritual experience on the mountain, whereas after World War II, the mountain offered them vital athleticism and eco-communion as opposed to a flabby, bureaucratic, and toxic modern order.


One of the most famous expeditions to Everest in this decade was the 1999 trip seeking clues to the 1924 disappearance of British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The climbers were able to keep in touch with the world, and their families, in a series of e-mail dispatches that the Manchester Guardian called "one of the best pieces of reportage of our time."

The most famous recent Everest climb was the disastrous 1996 trip depicted in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Among those who have criticized Krakauer's version of events was the late Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa, a guide with the American expedition.

Ortner tracks these shifts in sensibility in order to plot them against changes in the Westerners' relations with Sherpas. An early twentieth-century white climber of a spiritualist bent might extol (however paternalistically) Sherpa loyalty and nobility on the slopes, while a postwar rebel-macho climber would be more likely to express a competitive anxiety about Sherpas' physical strength. Yet the spiritualist and the hard guy share an aversion to the materialism of mainstream Western culture: Stories of Sherpas risking (and not infrequently losing) their lives to stay by the side of dying sahibs proved to sahibs that Sherpas were not simply in it for the money.

Of course, the game looks different from the other end of the field. Ortner makes clear that money has indeed been central to the Sherpas' motivations, as low-status men discovered a fresh channel for ambition and wealth in the expedition business. Traditional Sherpa society offered relatively few means of becoming a "big" person if one started out "small," and the farming life tended to draw a sharp line between those who owned the land and those who worked it. There was also a chronic slide toward "smallness" as family land parcels were divided each time they passed to the next generation. In this context, mountaineering presented a way for a few Sherpas to get rich and for many more to make a better living than they could have in their home villages.

But a motive and a labor pool are merely starting points for the Sherpa story; how did Sherpas help define the mountaineering project once they signed on? Early Western recruiters looked mainly for porters, taking the mountaineering skills where they could find them. But for Sherpas, there was more at stake. In their villages, the absence of roads and (oddly) beasts of burden meant that everything, including the day's water supply, had to be carried from its source to each house. Accordingly, a distinguishing mark of high-status Sherpas in village life was that they did not carry their own loads. And when Sherpas entered the mountaineering business, they worked hard to distinguish undesirable portering duties (which they consigned to ethnic rivals) from increasingly skilled, high-altitude climbing support (which also paid better). Indeed, Sherpas improved their wages steadily over the century by staging strikes every now and again at key points during a climb.

But money was never just about money: Sherpas also seem to have waged a long and fairly successful campaign for what we could loosely call respect. Sahibs have consistently noted that there was nothing servile about the Sherpas' serving style (and service here includes everything from preparing and cleaning up meals to carrying a frostbitten climber back to camp). Sherpas performed whatever was asked of them with a kind of grace that spared them any indignity and the sahibs any pangs of guilt.

While sahibs may have been surprised by a Sherpa strike, the Sherpas' combination of friendly compliance and assertive self-interest was utterly consistent with the manners of their culture. Sherpas have long had a cultural model of unservile service: the zhindak. "A patron or protector who would help a lesser person to succeed," the figure of the zhindak appears in many Sherpa stories.

Significantly, the benevolent paternalism of the relationship between zhindak and protégé is based on an underlying belief in equality. As the dependent party succeeds in life, his relationship with the zhindak is expected to change accordingly; it's as if the zhindak's support enables future equality. Ortner writes, "this is part of a larger cultural and religious pattern of both accepting and overcoming hierarchy," and she argues that when Sherpas served sahibs with grace and loyalty, they expected zhindak-like acknowledgments of their worth and companionship in return. Thus were climbing protocols negotiated and renegotiated on the snow at the border between sahib paternalism and Sherpa care-and-be-cared-for egalitarianism. Eventually Sherpas gained the right to choose which summit parties they would join, and they seem to have established an ethic in the higher-altitude camps: The burden of carrying expedition gear would be shared by Sherpa and sahib alike.

The zhindak story is the clearest point of exchange between Sherpa and sahib cultural meanings. Western paternalism met Himalayan paternalism and found itself outpaced. By contrast, Ortner's account of the development of Sherpa monasteries, which took place during roughly the same period as the growth in Himalayan mountaineering, feels dutiful. Clearly it serves as a reminder that Sherpas maintain their own culture beyond the world of the high-altitude climbing business, but it has little connection to the "encounter" at the heart of the book.

There is a peculiar irony, finally, in the choice of "encounter" as Ortner's guiding framework; namely, she seems not to have experienced mountaineering firsthand. As a result, her story unfolds at several removes from the Sherpa-sahib encounter. For the historical sections of the book, she necessarily relies on the written accounts of Westerners, but even as the narrative moves into the present, meanings and conventions embedded in mountaineering are gleaned from published interviews and other secondary sources. This is not to suggest that Ortner should have risked life and limb in ascending to Camp 4, but one wonders what else she might have learned had she cast her marvelous ethnographic eye on, say, the trek to base camp.

Nonetheless, the book brings us a much richer understanding of the cultural partnership underpinning Himalayan mountaineering than do the ripping yarns of Western adventurers. The voice of the iconic, solitary Western climber may have lost a bit of its authenticity in the process (solitary, my boot!), but high-altitude cross-cultural companionship carries its own kind of narrative adrenaline, and Life and Death on Mt. Everest is a swift and canny guide to this uncharted territory.

Alison Demos, a cultural anthropologist, is managing director of research at KRC Research & Consulting in New York City.

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