Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sherpa People of the Himalayas

On May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to summit all the 29,035 feet of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Following their successful attempt, the region and its people to whom Norgay belonged became a fascination that prompted many to study the culture of the Sherpas. Initially, the interest came mostly from the mountaineering field and a few anthropologists, but subsequently, men and women from all walks of life, with a taste for adventure and the finances to afford it, started pouring into the area, which until recently had been accessible only to a selected few. Prior to the 1953 expedition, the Sherpas were largely unknown to the world, and those who had come in contact with mountaineers were simply regarded as “coolies” or porters who deserved no further mention. Even after the success of Hillary and Norgay, no one paid attention to the rest of the team, most of them Sherpas carrying the needed equipment, without whom the success would not have been possible. It is the obsession of Westerners with individualism and individual achievement that often prevents them from acknowledging the commitment and hard work of an entire team for a successful climb to the summit of Everest to take place. What is really important is the person who made it to the top, not the people who helped him along the way.

The quest for adventure in the most extreme of conditions is definitely sweeping throughout the world and young and old enthusiasts, women and men, seek and pay for the promise of experiencing the highest high in their lives. Of all the adventure sports, however, high-altitude mountaineering is by far one of the riskiest and most perilous sports. Even though special skills and equipment have significantly improved the chances of eager mountaineers to reach the summit of the highest mountains in the world, the success (or failure) of the whole endeavor ultimately depends on the weather conditions and the behavior of the mountain. Hidden crevasses and unstable ice could jeopardize or take the life of the human scaling up or down them in a matter of seconds. In addition, the elevation offers a different danger in the form of altitude sickness.

Considering the numerous dangers awaiting those taking up a contest against the mountain, it is no surprise that the Sherpas traditionally expressed not only reverence but also fear toward the behemoth. For Westerners, the fear and demoralization present in Sherpas were embarrassing and as a result, the Sherpas were often labeled as childish and immature, which, needless to say, did not improve the unequal relationship between the two groups.  From the Sherpa point of view, frostbite and avalanches meant death and leaving a family without an extra hand. To survive in the regions they inhabited, they had to learn to be aware of the hidden dangers of the mountain. The Westerners valued Sherpas’ physical strengths and adaptability, but they could not deal with their apparent lack of mountaineering spirit. This was a perfect example of people who did not understand the mountain judging the people of the mountain.

In addition to being dangerous, mountaineering is also a very expensive sport and it is often people who belonged to a certain social class that could afford to leave their normal lives behind and endure the uncomfortable conditions of a serious mountaineering expedition. It is also such people that are most disillusioned with their ordinary lives and sought the excitement of testing their limits and endangering their lives in order to finally feel alive. As Sherry Ortner illustrates, mountaineering emerged in response to modernity and this is why it is largely a 20-century phenomenon. There is something about modern life spent in monochromatic, regimented, routinized, and boring existence that pushes one to see escape and feel human again. Ortner writes, “the spirituality and transcendence of mountaineering contrasts with the crass materialism and pragmatism of modern life”. Life in the Western world is full of meaningless noise, the concept of busyness, the ultimate power of father time, characteristics which leave a person unable to stop and reflect, to commune with the self, nature, or a higher being. As a climber of the fifties illustrates: When I return to what is called civilization and find myself once again in crowded, bustling cities, jostled by men and women whose minds are warped by famous illusions, I experience a sense of dismay, a sense of uneasiness; I feel I should like to escape, to run away at once to some distant land, to return into the midst of simple, humble, primitive people—best of all, to return to one of the those barren wastes where man can be alone with himself and his God.

For the Sherpas, on the other hand, the mountain was their life. Day after day, their “routine” involved going up and down hills at 14,000 feet elevation to work, to survive. The mountain was not a source for excitement and adventure; for them, the mountain was a source of peace, and serenity, and harmony. Moreover, they knew the mountain does not appreciate pretence and while in the busy modern world, one is able to hide his true self, to hide his true faults and downsides, in the mountain, the true self is exposed and that allows one to be open and content, just like the Sherpas.

To refer back to the story of the first summit of Everest, Tenzing Norgay was the precedent that set the stage for other Sherpas to follow suit and show the world that they can do what Westerners can do just as successfully, and perhaps even more successfully. They are not the only ones, however, interested in the behemoth of a mountain. As Tashi Tenzing highlights, while fifty years ago the region was largely accessible only to experienced mountaineers interested in testing their abilities, in the present, anyone with enough money to afford a commercial expedition is now set to conquering Everest. Unfortunately, these are often amateurs with little respect for the mountain or the magnitude of the climb, and the Sherpas are astonished at their arrogance and belief in invincibility. For these “climbers,” the mountain is just a thing that can be conquered with the proper equipment by the almighty humans. Sherpas know better. They know that the mountain can be dangerous, tricky, and unforgiving and they respect it. They realize the importance of living in harmony with nature and even with modernization seeping into their lives, they have managed to keep their culture and traditions. However, while Tenzing remains optimistic about the impact popular tourism has had on the region, others warn that in its quest for global domination, the grip of materialism and consumerism might soon wipe out another traditional society. Only the future will show which group of analysts are right. 

- Krasi

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