Title

Room at the Top

The last time I was in the Himalayas, I met a young, highly Westernized Tibetan who, misled perhaps by my Indian features (born in England, I’ve never lived in the subcontinent), started talking to me about the strange ways of the exotic foreigners he saw all around him. “These Westerners,” he confided, in a tone of half-admiring bewilderment, “they call us Tibetans refugees. But to us they are the refugees: cultural refugees, always looking for somewhere to belong to. We can’t understand them. They come here, they always tell us, to find themselves; we believe we never lost ourselves in the first place.”

The leather jacket he was wearing suggested another side to the story—and clearly he was far from immune to the blandishments of Microsoft and Paramount. Besides, many of those same Westerners would doubtless have said that he too was losing his identity—being turned into a cultural refugee—because of all the videotapes and cell phones they were bringing with them to the Himalayas. Yet the tone of bemusement—in one highly susceptible to foreign ways—echoed a sound you hear more and more in many of the world’s poor places. For the Sherpas who live around Mount Everest, the subject of Sherry Ortner’s new book, the mountain is a sacred place to which they owe submission and supplication; to the foreigners who gather in increasing numbers from all corners of the globe to “conquer” the world’s highest peak, it is mostly a backdrop for complex hungers and assertions of the self.

Postcolonial theorists and professional students of “the Other,” therefore, can see in the Himalayas an almost ideal model of what is now called “Subaltern Studies.” There, on the one side, are small, relatively impoverished, and famously good-natured Nepalis (not Tibetans, as many believe) all but carrying well-to-do foreigners up the slopes of their holy mountain; on the other, mostly white men tied to them by ropes, but not by common assumptions. The mountain that the Tibetans refer to as “goddess, mother of the world” (and the Nepalis as “goddess of the sky”), whose status as the world’s highest peak was actually determined by a Bengali, working for the Raj, is named, nonetheless, after Sir George Everest, the British surveyor-general who led the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India from the 1820s to the 1840s. Its “Western Cwm” region received its name from George Leigh Mallory, the British schoolmaster (with the face of a Botticelli, in Lytton Strachey’s words) who doubtless felt nostalgic for Wales as he sat on the slopes reading Lear. Even the most publicized “solo” expedition by a European was attended by eighteen Sherpa helpers.

The result is that we know all about the heroics of Sir Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, and, more recently, Rob Hall, talking to his wife in New Zealand by telephone even as he lay dying near the top of the mountain; but we cannot summon up the name of any of the Nepalis who accompanied them—except, perhaps, for that of Tenzing Norgay (and when his companion Hillary wrote his memoirs, he misspelled the Sherpa’s name). More than a third of all the deaths on Everest (during ascents) have been Sherpa deaths, and when fellow Sherpas respond to them with hard-won stoicism they are branded as “fatalists,” when with tears, as “babies.” It would be a kind of imaginative imperialism to see these sturdy men of the mountain, carrying loads of 130 pounds up the slopes and sitting by fallen “sahibs” (as they still call them), as merely the invisible hands of Everest climbing; but they are, often, the stagehands who make the Hollywood dramas possible. And they are certainly, as much as the mountain itself, a kind of blank screen to foreigners on which every generation of visitors has projected its hopes and anxieties. The first group of climbers, from the British Empire, said the Sherpas wanted to aid in the colonial enterprise; the next group, idealistic mountaineers, said they were moved by the same spirit of adventure that drives us Westerners; the high-tech consumers of today say the Sherpas are in it for the money.

* * *

What has made the old imperial attitude many times more complicated, though—and has no doubt helped to make Everest seem more ubiquitous than ever—is that, ever since 1985 or so, the entire nature of climbing in the Himalayas has been transformed. The expeditions of old, aimed at charting the unknown, or planting the flag for king and country, or at least claiming a few giant steps for mankind, have given way to commercial treks in which aging anesthesiologists from Brisbane pay $65,000 apiece (planefare and personal equipment not included) to be guided, and even hauled, up the goddess by expert mountaineers, whose own treks depend on the revenue from such clients (and, of course, by Sherpas, too, carrying up the food and fuel and oxygen on which all the lives depend). We are left with the surreal image of a peak whose allure has always lain in its remoteness from men becoming lined with banners for Kodak and Apple Computer, and littered with an increasing number of corpses. The sacred offerings the foreigners bring to the top with them, to match those of the Sherpas, look increasingly like themselves.

During the now infamous season of 1996, as described by Jon Krakauer, with remarkable clarity and tact, in his best-selling book Into Thin Air,1 the “Death Zone” above 25,000 feet actually became crowded. An expedition from Montenegro was ahead of one from Taiwan; a crew shooting a $5.5 million IMAX film was just behind another one sponsored by the Johannesburg Sunday Times (and designed to show off the multicultural harmony of the New South Africa). A Swede had bicycled all the way to Nepal to mount an ascent alone and the Mountain Madness rock group of Scott Fischer had hung up a promotional banner for Starbucks Coffee from a “house-size” block of granite. Most famously of all, the New York socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, then wife of the co-founder of MTV, had her porters carry up the sacred slope two laptops, five cameras, a CD-ROM player, and an espresso machine, while other Sherpa runners brought her the latest editions of Vanity Fair and Vogue. As Krakauer notes, in the slightly disdainful tone of a serious climber, in the twenty years after Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit in 1953 only thirty-six people got to the top of Everest; by 1993, forty were there on a single day (and in May 1996 alone, twelve lost their lives).

To the Sherpas, the increase in casualties is not just a result of overcrowding; it is a kind of punishment meted out by their Mother Goddess to those who would try to assail her—and it’s notable that ever since the first expeditions, Everest has been regarded as curiously malign (Mallory called it “an infernal mountain,” James Morris referred to it as a “monstrous mountain,” and even one of the few survivors in Krakauer’s group was forced to concede that “Everest was the worst experience in my life”). What seems needed now, amid all the other books, is an account from the servants’ tent, so to speak: How does all this look to those who’ve always lived next to the mountain, and for whom Everest has traditionally been an incitation to surrender self rather than exert it?

* * *

Life and Death on Mt. Everest, by Sherry B. Ortner, is an attempt to fill that void, and to show us how things look from the Sherpas’ perspective. Having lived and worked with the Sherpas for more than thirty years as a serious anthropologist, Ortner is in an ideal position to introduce the other, unknown culture involved in Himalayan climbing. She is apt, though, to get a little entangled in her own special interests (the rise of monasteries in the region, say, which happens to coincide with the increase of expeditions), and her treatment has the feel of highly specialized research cleverly packaged to cash in on the Everest boom (its title might well have been Out of Thin Air).

Nonetheless, the heart of Ortner’s book, often obscured by her talk of “problematizing presumptions of male superiority and boundaries of gender difference,” is a fascinating one: to a remarkable extent, the culture of the Sherpas, a community of scarcely 20,000 people, and only one of fifty ethnic groups in Nepal, has been shaped and colored in recent years by changes in the West. When the first British climbers began scouting Everest in 1921 (always from the Tibetan side, since Nepal was closed to the world until the 1950s), they warmed quickly to the hardy, smiling locals they took on as load-carriers, and saw them—as their rivals from Germany did, too—as “children of nature.” The Sherpas returned the compliment by occasionally calling their rulers “father”—they are “a childish edition of the British soldier,” E.F. Norton pronounced in 1924—though, as Ortner nicely informs us, they were all but staging a mutiny, over rations, as early as 1921, and by 1930 were threatening to bring legal action over payment.

It is easy now to look askance at the Westerners who, when finally they stumbled into the Sherpas’ own Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal in 1950, came out as if from a screening of Lost Horizon, talking of a virtual paradise. Yet it’s worth remembering that the one who called them “bare-footed angels living in a forgotten corner of the Far East” (in 1978, no less) was the Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura. And earlier this decade the leading guidebook for travelers to Nepal was still speaking of how, twenty years ago, “Nepal was immune from theft, assaults and other assorted vices of contemporary Western ‘civilization.”’

Ortner, true to academic fashion, is quick to detect signs of “Orientalism” and romanticism and paternalism in all this. In James Morris’s accounts of the expedition of Sir John Hunt in 1953, Hunt is described as the last great imperial gentleman (taking pains to talk of an “ascent” of Everest and not a “conquest”). In Ortner’s telling, he becomes the man who housed the sahibs in the British embassy and the Sherpas in the embassy garage (an arrangement to which the Sherpas responded by urinating in the road outside the embassy).

* * *

The imperial phase of Himalayan climbing reached its climax, as in a Pathé newsclip, when news of Hillary’s and Tenzing’s ascent was trumpeted to the world (thanks to Morris’s coded dispatches to the London Times) on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, promising the dawning of a new Elizabethan age (or, some would say, marking the last gasp of Empire). In the years that followed, it was left to professional climbers from around the world—America, Germany, India, Japan—to remake the Sherpas in their own image, and to mount expeditions that looked more and more like war by other means (one American crew in 1963 took along 909 porters). No longer able to be the first to the top, climbers devised ever more outlandish ways to distinguish themselves—the first to get to the summit without oxygen, say, or the first to get there from the more difficult West Ridge, or the first to climb Everest solo, a Guinness Book of World Records form of one-upmanship that culminated in aspirants yearning to be the oldest woman to climb Everest, the first black, even “the first Jew.” As Everest became the site of a kind of existential consumerism, it also began to look like the world’s highest therapy couch; he climbed, the great Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner said, not to get to the top, but to “face my own fears and doubts, my innermost feelings.”

There is ample scope for social observation here, or at least for the kind of cross-cultural investigation mounted, not always convincingly, by Donald S. Lopez Jr., in his 1998 book Prisoners of Shangri-La,2 in which he suggests that every Western translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, from Walter Evans-Wentz through Timothy Leary and friends to Robert Thurman, has somehow produced a different Eastern text that seems to respond to the Western moods and demands of the moment. But Ortner’s approach, alas, is more theoretical. “In Althusser’s terms,” she writes, “one might say that if one seeks the illusions within the allusions (the ideological biases within the seemingly realist claims), at the same time one seeks the allusions within the illusions, fragments (or more) of ethnographic truth in even the most eccentric sahib representations.” In other words, there may be a grain of truth, as well as of wishful thinking, in foreign impressions of the Sherpas.

To the Sherpas, as the years went on, it must surely have seemed as if people from the privileged parts of the world (not just the West but, increasingly, Japan and Taiwan, among others) were seeking out the very hardship and discomfort that those born to it were keen to put behind them. The visitors from the West may well have seemed to be seeking out the First Noble Truth of Buddhism (that the truth of reality is suffering), even as they were importing a somewhat foreign version of the pursuit of happiness. By the 1970s, in what is the most amusing part of Ortner’s survey, the Sherpas were listening to foreigners quote from the Chinese Yellow Emperor’s Medicine Book on the slopes (once it had been Montaigne) and watching them practice vegetarianism. (When the Dalai Lama tried to become a vegetarian, as he engagingly writes in his Freedom in Exile, he almost died, such a diet not being well suited to Himalayan constitutions.)

* * *

Ortner knows the Sherpa culture well enough to be sensible when it comes to the question of how much it has been “spoiled” by the sudden influx of 15,000 climbers a year into a region that, as of 1950, had never seen a single foreigner. Most Nepalis are highly resourceful, she reminds us, and not without their own forms of hierarchy and machismo; it must be a matter of local pride now that roughly half the largest trekking agencies in Kathmandu are run by Sherpas, and that four Sherpas have become commercial pilots for Royal Nepal Airlines. Though a trekking Sherpa still earns a tenth of what his Western counterparts command, he can make as much on a two-month expedition as the typical Nepali earns in twelve years.

Besides, nearly every foreigner since Mallory has taken to the accommodating Nepalis he’s climbed with, and foreign climbers have helped bring schools and medical facilities and hydroelectric power to the region. Though they have denuded valleys and left trash on the mountains, they have also, if partly for public relations reasons, launched elaborate campaigns to clean the slopes of trash. A few years ago, Ortner points out, The New York Times reported that foreigners, by bringing candies to the Sherpas, had also brought tooth decay. But now, apparently, a “Canadian-trained Sherpa woman has opened a dental clinic” in Namche Bazar, the words “Canadian-trained,” “woman,” and “clinic” in that phrase all showing how things might be said to have improved.

The way Ortner puts all this, though, again is somewhat oblique. “The point is that, for all its negative positioning within a certain Western countermodern imaginary, money points precisely toward (as much as it might seem to point away from) something we may think of as an ‘authentic’ Sherpa cultural universe, a framework within which they articulate their own desires.” Sherpas, in short, like to survive as much as the rest of us do. When, at one point, Ortner devotes sixteen pages to the possible link between their making of money and their legendary cheerfulness, one feels like saying that, even post-Freud, sometimes a smile is just a smile.

What the book lacks here, in fact, is precisely what a longtime anthropologist should be in the best position to give us: a sense of how the Sherpas feel about all these rich aliens who risk their lives, and spend $70,000 apiece, to pass fewer than five minutes atop a mountain that has no traditional meaning for them and who become so light-headed and exhausted they hardly know where they are, and are in any case mostly preoccupied with the harder task of getting down. One of the most striking passages in Ortner’s book comes when one Sherpa, asked (almost desperately) by a Westerner if he is not moved to climb by something other than his livelihood, replies, “Maybe you people have too much money, and you don’t know how to spend…. If you want to know what we think, we think it is kind of silly. But you people seem to like it.”

What makes the Sherpa situation fascinating, after all, is that we find in it many of the same dramas we see in an Indian ashram, or in a Southeast Asian go-go bar: a well-to-do affluent foreigner takes on a poorer local to help him attain some vision of enlightenment, or self-realization, or just exotic adventure, rewarding him—or as often her—for the effort with the forms of comfort and opportunity they need most. To many Sherpas, surely, it is the people from Seattle who seem most like residents of Shangri-La. The Nepalis on treks find themselves not just in the position of local bellboys in a luxury hotel, catering to foreign needs (for simplicity or peace), but in that of gatekeepers to a shrine of sorts, who accept payment to let infidels trample over their sacred ground.3 At the very least, they might wonder who really are the children in this transaction.

* * *

This exchange of dollars for dreams has intensified dramatically in recent years as Everest has become a status symbol for the man or woman who has everything, leading to such unlikely sights as that of Pittman being carried up the slopes for several hours by a Sherpa, or the late Frank Wells, who became president of Disney, paying $250,000 a trip to climb the highest mountains in all seven continents. Ortner raises a few questions about how much the Sherpas, like their counterparts from Bali to Haiti, are “playing themselves” for foreign consumption (or, as she puts it, “consolidating the category ‘Sherpa’ in such a way that the ethnic category became virtually isomorphic with the work role of high-altitude porter”). But her biggest contribution comes in bringing to them an affectionate understanding free of romantic sentiment. The Sherpas, she points out from close acquaintance, are notably competitive toward their Tibetan neighbors, with whom they share a devotion to Buddhism; and now there is talk of the “first Newar” or the “first non-Sherpa Nepali” to scale Everest, reminding us that self-assertion is not unknown in Asia. In recent years there has even been an all-Sherpa expedition on Everest (with Westerners helping out in a menial capacity), and one Sherpani, or female Sherpa, who raised $50,000 in order, it seems, to beat a rival to the top.

Our own fascination with the ways in which man is humbled by Everest, and occasionally indulged by it, seems likely only to increase. The appetite for tales of humans being punished by Nature (not just on Everest, but on the high seas, in the Antarctic, and aboard the Titanic) mounts in direct proportion to technology’s claims that we have everything under control. Three books on Mallory are in the works, and where Sebastian Junger’s best-selling A Perfect Storm was bought by its publisher three years ago for $30,000, now even an account of the 1820 shipwreck of the Essex goes for $1.2 million. And Everest offers the particularly charged drama of people testing themselves in a higher, rare zone that trembles on the edge of myth, where many of the normal rules don’t seem to apply. (“Above 8,000 meters,” a Japanese climber says, in one of the most chilling moments in Into Thin Air, “is not a place where people can afford morality.”)

As interesting as the story of man against the mountain, though—and far less covered—is the one of man against man, and, more recently, woman against woman, especially as the relative simplicities of the British Empire have given way to a crisscrossing chaos of cultural interactions. Ortner’s solemn talk of “gender reflexivity” sounds a little strange in the setting of a mountain known as a goddess, but she does describe such scenes as that of an all-female expedition to Annapurna in 1978. True to their imported priorities, the leaders took pains to hire two Sherpanis, as “kitchen girls,” but both of them were fired after one took up with a male Sherpa. Things grew even more troubled as one of the American women fell in love with a Sherpa kitchen boy and then another with an “untouchable” porter. (Though the Sherpas are notably free and easy in their attitudes to sex and drink, they still have qualms both about the shedding of blood on the slopes of their holy mountain and about frenzied couplings there.) When Mallory was asked why he attempted Everest, as all of us know, he is reported to have said, “Because it is there.” When Stacy Allison, the first American woman to scale Everest, was asked the same question, she said, “Because I’m here.”


  1. Villard, 1997; reprinted by Anchor, 1998. Reviewed in these pages by Caroline Fraser; see The New York Review, August 14, 1997.
  2. University of Chicago Press, 1998.?
  3. In Andrew Grieg's somewhat laddish Kingdoms of Experience: Everest, the Unclimbed Ridge (Cannongate, 1999), one of a seemingly endless rush of Everest books now reissued, the Britons mounting an attempt on the unclimbed North-East Ridge of Everest in 1985 (minus Sherpas) ascertain that Tibetans in Lhasa all walk clockwise around their central temple, and then, blithely, walk in the opposite direction (the direction of impiety and bad luck). The expedition failed.