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A Life in the Shadows

Top of the Mind: Sherpas and the Summit

The Everest story must be re-assessed to give Sherpas their due — because they are there.

The Mountain: My time on Everest — The Irresistible Lure of the World’s Highest Peak. The Mountain: My time on Everest — The Irresistible Lure of the World’s Highest Peak.

The climbing season at Mount Everest has pretty much been called off after the tragedy of April 18. Sixteen Sherpa guides were killed in an avalanche, making it the single-most deadly day on the 8,850 ft peak. A range of issues about the climbing arrangements have bubbled up to the surface, all of them relating to the inordinate risks the guides have to take to help climbers summit. Technological advancement in climbing gear and other aids have brought even more visitors to Everest, many of them little more than amateur in their climbing experience, causing a “traffic jam” with the abundance of climbers insisting on the guarantee of summiting on their first attempt, no matter what. There has, for long, been a feeling that this is imposing immense risks on the venture, especially to the guides. However it pans out from here, the Sherpa guides will have to be substantively reassured that their devotion to Everest and their safety will not be compromised, that their concerns on the mountain won’t be summarily subordinated to others’.

Tension currently centres on the amount of compensation for the families of the dead, but it is clear that whatever resolution to the crisis that may be struck in the days ahead will finally put the Sherpa guides at the heart of the Everest story. George Mallory once said, reportedly in exasperation, that that he was obsessed with scaling Everest “because it is there”. Now, the long-overdue reassessment of the Everest story should rehabilitate the Sherpa guides with the tag-line: “because they are there”.

The Everest story, so far, got a good and proper airing in the past year, as it’s been 60 years since the first recorded successful summit, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. That British expedition of 1953 got a last dash of imperial flair, with the news of its success being reported on the morning of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Jan (then James) Morris, the sole reporter covering the expedition, for The Times, had famously devised a code to “safeguard” the scoop: “SNOW CONDITIONS BAD (= summit reached) ADVANCED BASE ABANDONED (= Hillary) AWAITING IMPROVEMENT (= Tenzing) ALL WELL (= nobody hurt).” It was a different news era, of course, as Morris recalled in her anthology, A Writer’s World (2003). It didn’t make front page, because the paper did not carry news on the front page then, and stories did not carry bylines either.

In the current context, it is interesting to get a recap of the Everest story from a fascinating new book by Ed Viesturs, an American climber who has climbed all 14 of the world’s peaks higher than 8,000 m, The Mountain: My time on Everest — The Irresistible Lure of the World’s Highest Peak. He revisits the Mallory expedition of 1922, when seven Sherpas were killed, and his mate agonised, “Why, oh why, could not one of us Britishers have shared their fate?” Mallory wrote, “Do you know the sickening feeling that one can’t go back and have it undone?”
Mallory, of course, subsequently disappeared, and the discovery of his body so many years later is the stuff of “what-if” romanticisation. But valour took on many other forms, including Reinhold Messner’s climb without the use of supplemental oxygen. (Messner was also the first person to climb all 14 8,000-ers.)

Climbers like Messner have made Everest literature particularly rich, but as Viesturs notes, no other book has shaped public perception as Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Into Thin Air, about the 1996 disaster. It conveyed the scene as serious and casual climbers got caught in a blizzard on May 10-11, as dilemmas about assisting others versus getting on oneself on a particularly crowded day zeroed in on the ethics of climbing. Viesturs worries that while Krakauer’s account was absolutely authentic, it has left some avoidable stereotypes about the Everest travel phenomenon as a “circus of dilettantes”. His book is an attempt to counter that impression.

However, given the circumstances of this year’s abandoned season, coming as it does a year after a scuffle between Sherpa and foreign climbers, and in a year when Nepal instituted new requirements on climbing teams having local guides and committing to bring back garbage from Everest, the mountain’s particularly able chroniclers must know that there is a fresh book waiting to be written.

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