Room at the Top

Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering

by Sherry B. Ortner
Princeton University Press, 376 pp., $26.95

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…

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