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

Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. Sherry B. Ortner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. 396 pages. $26.95.

Life and Death on Mt. Everest by Sherry Ortner is a fascinating exploration of the complex and changing relationship between international mountaineers (“sahibs”) and the Sherpas who have helped them make their climbs—and suffered the greatest number of climbing deaths in the Himalaya. The book traces the history of this relationship, showing how both Western and Sherpa attitudes toward climbing and each other have evolved over time.

Ortner points out that the sahibs began with a paternalistic, colonial attitude toward the Sherpas, whom they viewed as children to be taken care of and disciplined. Over time, as Western culture changed and mountaineering reflected egalitarian and countercultural influences, sahibs came to view Sherpas as friends and equals. This change is highlighted in the fact that starting in the 1970s, Sherpas stopped calling sahibs “sahibs” and began addressing them by their first names.

In the beginning of Himalayan mountaineering, climbing Sherpas came from the lower economic and social classes of Sherpa society—those who were disenfranchised, needed money and would carry loads, something that “big” people with status looked down on as demeaning work. Today, however, climbing Sherpas and those in the trekking industry have become the social and economic leaders of Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland near Everest.

Ortner focuses on changes in Sherpa culture and society during the period of Himalayan mountaineering and how the Sherpas have handled the advent of powerful outside influences. In a chapter titled “Monks,” she presents an interesting parallel between the effects of the introduction of Western values by sahibs on the one hand and the introduction of monastic Buddhism by tulkus or incarnate lamas on the other hand. Before this period, Sherpas had relatively little to do with Westerners, and their religious life was dominated by village temples with married priests and the shamanistic healing practices of spirit mediums.

Ortner argues that the Sherpas and their culture have been much more resilient than many outside observers think. Rather than passively react to outside pressures, Sherpas have taken an active role in molding these influences to their own purposes. Ortner recounts a number of contemporary stories that contradict a widespread impression that the Sherpas have lost their old, selfless values and become materialistic money-grubbers.

A particularly interesting chapter goes into the complex attitudes that Sherpas have toward death, particularly deaths on Himalayan expeditions. Ortner shows that Western notions that Sherpas are fatalistic and accept death easily are simplistic and misleading. Climbing deaths in particular can have a profound impact. This I know firsthand. Annulu, a well-known Sherpa who put in the route to the South Col so that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary could make the first ascent of Everest, was killed in a climbing accident. When I visited his family afterward, people avoided talking about what had happened, and I could see how much his death had affected his wife and sons.

Ortner is a well-known anthropologist who knows the Sherpas well and received a prestigious MacArthur Award for her research on their religion and society. Accordingly, she has written the book from an anthropological perspective. She attempts to combine two approaches that have dominated recent scholarship in anthropology. One sees culture as primarily the creation of meaning, exemplified in the work of Clifford Geertz; the others sees it as the product of political and economic forces, as highlighted in Edward Said’s critiques of Orientalism. Ortner also makes use of a distinction between “high” and “low” religion popular in anthropological circles. Her expertise lies in the extensive fieldwork she has done on “low” or village Buddhism. She is less knowledgeable about “high” or monastic Buddhism and its subtle systems of thought and meditative practice.

For her study of sahibs and their climbing culture and history, Ortner has drawn on extensive reading of mountaineering literature. She hasn’t climbed herself and readily admits that she looks a bit askance on the sport and the risks it entails, both for sahibs and Sherpas:

“The mountaineering sahibs seemed in many ways more alien to me than the Sherpas. In the end I think I ‘got it.’ I have not entirely lost my critical sense about the senseless [this word appears with a slash through it in the book] risking of lives, and I could not imagine doing it myself.” (pp. 8-9)

A strong feature of the book that commends it to climbers and many other readers is the range of perspectives it provides. In few other places will you find such a well-balanced and rich mix of points of view. Ortner does an excellent job of presenting sahib views of Sherpas, Sherpa views of sahibs and sahib and Sherpa views of themselves and the life and death they have shared on the highest mountain in the world.

Edwin Bernbaum