Everest Mountain, described by many as the top of the world and an ultimate destination of adventure-lover, has long been attracting both amateurs and professionals. Numerous books were written about conquering the cruising altitude of the highest peak in the world, as well as about experiences of people from all over the world while trying to climb it. The aspect often overlooked is the role of Sherpas in assisting others to reach the top of Everest and the change which was brought together with this mountain’s commercialization and raise in popularity. This paper will analyze one of the books on the above-mentioned topic, “Life and Death on Mt. Everest” by Sherry Ortner. It will provide a summary of the book together with character analysis and descriptions of Sherpas, their lives and change that was brought into their lives with the growth of Everest’s popularity.
“Life and Death on Mt. Everest” covers multiple aspects of Sherpas’ existence and coexistence with sahibs, or as they are more commonly known – Western people. It dwells upon money issues as well as political and economic factors that motivated them to assist foreigners in climbing Everest. The book also uncovers religious beliefs of Sherpas and the importance of monasteries near mountain tops. It portrays Sherpas’ attitudes towards death and their view on equality and respect. The book touches upon history of Everest climbing and how it changed over the last century. Finally, it debunks some myths and preconceptions about Sherpas which exist in the modern society and illustrates gender issues in ascending the top of the highest mountain.
The book portrays history of Sherpas and sahibs climbing together as a tumultuous and evolving relationship based on culture difference and wealth gap. It changed significantly from the beginning of the 20th century – it morphed from romantic idealism and current practical view of climbing (Ortner 45). In the 1920s, ascending Everest was viewed as a sort of spiritual experience which was motivated by rebellious nature of Westerners (Ortner 47). White climbers considered Sherpas to be reliable partners in adventure, who are unbelievably strong and weirdly adapted to high altitudes, as well as loyal and noble companions on the slopes. After the Second World War the Everest could see a wave of macho-climbers from the West, who were interested in athleticism and viewed Sherpas’ physical strength with apprehension (Ortner 51). Nowadays climbers understand Sherpas and their relationship became more flexible and practically oriented (Ortner 281).
The reasons which forced Sherpas to start climbing not merely as a hobby, but as a way of earning a living, are touched upon in the book as well. To understand why money was not central in their motivation to ascend, their socio-economic conditions of living is to be analyzed. Ortner explains in her book that farming and herding were originally the main areas which brought income to people living near Everest. But since the quantity of land territories was not increasing while the number of people was rising, climbing guide career as an alternative job was an attractive alternative (Ortner 58). It became a channel of wealth for the Sherpas. Their relationship to money was static – they cherished hard currency. Ortner admits though that Sherpas were not entirely motivated by materialistic reasons, even though mainstream culture exploited this idea a lot. Since the risk of losing life or damage health remains significant, Sherpas are not doing it only for the money. Numerous situations when they saved other climbers by the cost of their own lives and prevented many lethal accidents serve as a proof of that (Ortner 128). So, sahibs who were largely educated, wealthy middle-class individuals represented additional source for income but simultaneously posed a dilemma of whether Sherpas are ready to break away from their traditions and beliefs.
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Ortner draws reader’s attention to the fact that Sherpas originally viewed climbing Everest as a blasphemous deed, since the mountain itself was sacred for them and ascending it was some sort of religious rule violation. The development of monasteries near the mountain pointed to the fact that Sherpas attempted to preserve their culture and cherished it significantly more than climbing business (Ortner 210). In the chapter “Monks” Ortner states that international popularity of mountaineering in Nepal prompted the establishment of many Buddhist monasteries. This proves that Sherpas remained deeply religious in the soul. Some of their basic life principles remained grace, selflessness and generosity (Ortner 312). They still believed in endless cycle of life and considered that decent life will guarantee reincarnation into human rather than an animal. Nonviolence, good deeds, generous hospitality towards foreigners, and offering gifts to lamas were of extreme importance to a Sherpa (Ortner 315).
Another important aspect of Sherpa analyzed by Ortner was their equality with sahibs and respect they earned over the decades. In one of the scenes described by the author the two dead bodies of Sherpa were thrown from a steep mountain and landed in close proximity to other expedition with Sherpa as guides. Even though every person witnessing this event was shocked, a special attention should be paid to the thoughts of the very Sherpa observing such a mistreatment of human body. They seemed horrified but also unpleasantly surprised by such a deed and realized that such a situation would never have happened to a white person climbing the mountain (Ortner 299). Respect Sherpa have always wanted to achieve was not easy to reach. For a long time their role was viewed by sahibs as limited to carrying supplies, fixing ropes, cooking, setting up camps, and establishing optimal routes. Sherpas worked hard to distinguish their job as not only carriers but more of “zhindak” – a patron or protector who helps other people reach goals and succeed (Ortner 250). Their aim was to prove that there was nothing servile about their job; it was rather a benevolent partnership. Sherpas’ belief in equality manifested itself by the fact that they wanted acknowledgement of worth and companionship from sahibs. With the course of time they were able to choose expedition groups they wanted the duty of carrying supplies and gear started being shared equally by both westerners and guides. Finally, Sherpa’s role as porters was transformed into the function of expedition members and honorable guides (Ortner 288).
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According to Ortner, various stereotypes about the function and role of Sherpa persisted over the years. The stories about their constant cheerfulness and no worries about death were believed to be true by many people (Ortner 127). Ortner attempted to look for true facts about characters of people relatively well known by the Westerners and realized that stereotypical attitudes were frequent. Among some of the most pronounced preconceptions were about Sherpa’s humorous nature, ardent devotion, and character which is not spoilt by the outside world (Ortner 189).
Separate chapter of Ortner’s book is dedicated to the topic of relationship of Sherpa with women and influence of female climbers on the overall alpinism on Everest. Expeditions with female sahibs and Sherpa started in the 70s and were marked by the stories about sexual activity (Ortner 219). Sherpas were believed to provide sexual services together with other guiding and carrying functions. Another novelty was introduced with the arrival of first female Sherpa. It has to be admitted that in Nepalese society women are not encouraged to participate in outdoor activities and therefore climbing among females was frowned upon (Ortner 225).
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To conclude with, Ortner in her book “Life and Death on Mt. Everest” attempted to investigate cross-cultural partnership and companionship between Sherpa and sahibs, debunk misconceptions of Western people about Sherpas and their roles in mountain climbing. The author also described evolution of Sherpa-sahib relationship from relative inequality to father-son-like relationship, impact of alpinism popularity on the Nepalese native guides’ religion and culture, as well as provided a detailed anthology of their life near Everest from past till the present.