Willing servants emerge from shadow of Everest

Life and Death on Mt Everest

August 11, 2000

The Sherpas of the Khumbu Valley were the first of many of Nepal's ethno-linguistic groups to attract the attention of anthropologists after the kingdom threw its doors open to foreign visitors during the 1950s. This was mainly because their villages lay close to the mountain the outside world called Everest and they had been helping foreigners up that "very steep hill" since the 1920s. The Sherpas now also provide subject matter for an interesting debate about cultural authenticity and the effect of the western gaze. This debate was sparked in large part by Tigers of the Snow (1996), whose author, Vincanne Adams, argued that much of what we think of as Sherpa culture now has emerged through a process of mimesis and seduction in relation to western conceptions of what Sherpas should be.

Sherry B. Ortner is professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York. This is her third book on the Sherpas. The primary focus of her earlier works, Sherpas through their Rituals (1978) and High Religion (1989), as their titles suggest, was religion. But during her fieldwork Ortner became aware of the social effects of Sherpa involvement in mountaineering expeditions, primarily of "the intensity, even the violence" of the grief that followed Sherpa mountaineering deaths. Ortner's purpose here is not to search for an authentic Sherpa identity. Instead, she charts the evolution of the relationship between the rich, powerful mountaineer sahibs and the Sherpas they employ to assist them in their "serious game"; two categories of people who come together "from different histories and for different reasons to accomplish a single task".She is critical of Adams's analysis, which she considers to be informed by a view of "modernisation as decline".

Rejecting this approach, she tries to understand what has driven sahibs and Sherpas, what they have done to and for each other and what effect this has had on the world of the Sherpas as they define it.

Ortner argues that the Sherpas' engagement with mountaineering was "at the same time an engagement with their own culture" and that it was by no means the only big transformation in their society in the 20th century. The reform of Sherpa Buddhism and the establishment of monastic institutions were equally "new" and "alien", as was the Sherpas' increasing interaction with the Nepalese state.

Ortner quotes extensively from mountaineering literature, in which Sherpas first appear as childlike, cheerful, non-materialistic, trustworthy servants who are not worried by danger. By 1990, however, only the oldest Sherpas addressed or referred to foreign mountaineers as sahibs,and Sherpas had become partners on something approaching equal terms. For their part, the sahibs were at last willing to accept that Sherpas climbed mainly in order to earn money. Ortner explains this transformation in terms not only of changes within Sherpa society and Sherpa resistance to sahib constructions of their role (in 1953, for instance, while the British sahibs stayed in the British embassy, the Sherpas, who were housed in the garage, "staged a very dramatic representation of their feelings: they urinated in the road outside the embassy") but also with reference to changes and transformations within sahib culture. In the 1970s, for instance, the influence of the counter-culture brought a greater sensitivity to Sherpa perspectives, and the launching of mixed and women-only expeditions problematised the sahib-Sherpa relationship more extensively.

There are minor errors of fact and interpretation in some references to the broader politico-cultural context. For instance, I am not sure that the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was the primary factor prompting the Chinese to revive their claim to Tibet, nor is it strictly accurate to state that "a family called Rana" took control of Nepal in 1846. On the other hand, to state that the "there" of Everest contrasts with the "here" of the modern suggests an intriguing new reading of Mallory's famous explanation of the urge to climb Everest.

Despite these minor flaws, this book will probably appear on anthropology reading lists worldwide, and deservedly so. It re-humanises the Sherpas by demonstrating that their lives in the late 20th century are "just as contradictory as anyone else's", and it also makes an important argument in favour of an approach that accepts the validity of both Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault.

"The strongest kind of anthropology today," Ortner concludes in an epilogue, "is the kind that attempts to keep walking the tightrope between the two perspectives. Falling off on either side gives up the game."

Michael Hutt is reader in Nepali and Himalayan studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Life and Death on Mt Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering

Author - Sherry B. Ortner
ISBN - 0 691 00689 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 388

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