Men of the Mountain

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FEBRUARY 4, 2002 | NO.4

In Spring 2001, as I fought my way up the Lhotse Face, traversed the Geneva Spur, hauled myself up the Hillary Step and finally, after two-and-a-half months, struggled onto the summit of Everest, it was impossible to shake the feeling that I was surrounded by ghosts. The recent fame of modern Sherpa climbers like Apa Sherpa, who has reached the summit 11 times, and Babu Chiri Sherpa who, before he was killed in 2001, completed a speed ascent in less than 17 hours, rests on decades of accumulated knowledge and sacrifice by the Sherpas who came before them: men like Tenzing Norgay, who braved the slopes seven times before becoming, along with Edmund Hillary, the first to stand on top of the world's highest mountain, in 1953. As the 50th anniversary of the first ascent approaches, climbing Everest is as much a historic journey as it is a feat of mountaineering.

Plenty has been written about conquering Everest, most of it biased toward the exploits of Westerners. Now, Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest by Tashi Tenzing (HarperCollins; 211 pages), grandson of Tenzing Norgay, gives a face to the Sherpa heroes, representatives of "a people whose loyalty and personal integrity have earned them a reputation worldwide to equal that of the great mountain, beneath which they dwell." Many of these so-called tigers of the snow paid the ultimate price: by 1990, 43 of Everest's 115 fatalities were Sherpas.

The book is most intriguing when chronicling the struggles of the early Sherpa climbers, who fought not only their own physical limitations but also cultural and religious barriers. From the beginning of

Himalayan expeditions, Westerners viewed Sherpas as strong and faithful load carriers, the backbone to any climb, but not as true summit contenders. For their part, says Tenzing, Sherpas were bewildered by Westerners' "fascination with these high, cold, dangerous places where the gods lived and men should not venture." Buddhist lamas, consulted before Englishman George Mallory's 1924 Everest expedition, told jthe Sherpas not to set foot on the summit, because calamity would befall their communities. The Sherpas obeyed; Mallory and Sandy Irvine fatefully disappeared during their climb.

One Sherpa, more than any other, changed this attitude. "In Tenzing Norgay," writes his grandson, "there developed something more, something almost alien to his race, this was a passion for and an ambition to climb mountains, specifically Everest." As a boy, while he herded yaks on the high mountain pastures with Chomolungma-as Everest is known by the Sherpas-looming above, he had grown to consider it his mountain.

In the spring of 1952, Tenzing Norgay joined a Swiss climbing team. From the start he demonstrated extraordinary leadership. As he led the three Sherpas and seven Swiss climbers toward the South Col at 7,925 m, they were stopped by savage winds and forced to bivouac 153 m below the day's goal. Tashi Tenzing writes, "My grandfather stayed in the Sherpa tent to keep them company. He managed to cook some soup and the Swiss were incredulous when, roped to keep himself from being blown off the face, he appeared at their tent with hot food and drink." The next morning, Tenzing Norgay's three exhausted and frightened Sherpa companions refused to go on, so he shouldered a double load, climbed to the South Col, descended to the previous night's camp, shouldered another double load and only then was he able to induce the Sherpas to carry on. On that trip, he came close to reaching Everest's summit, but terrible weather and primitive oxygen equipment thwarted the group's ascent at 8,610 m, giving Hillary's team its shot the next year.

Tenzing Norgay and his generation of climbers forged a path that the Sherpa people now navigate daily. Their pioneering accomplishments served as a bridge from the communities' isolated, subsistence past to the "relative affluence and sophistication that they enjoy today," writes Tenzing. A Sherpa, working as a high-altitude climber, can make four times the average annual wage of a Nepali. Namche Bazaar, the trading capital of the Khumbu Valley, once comprising a few dozen mud houses, now features neon lights, sophisticated communications systems and blaring rock music. The Khumbu is dotted with medical clinics and schools. But the climbing and trekking industry has brought with it the erosion of the traditional trading and farming life and the ills of rapid growth: drugs, inflation, deforestation.

In this testament to Sherpas past and present, Tashi Tenzing is confident that his people will face these challenges with the same determination as their forefathers who faced Everest. "I believe little has changed in the Sherpa heart," he writes, "for whether I meet my family and friends at Everest base camp or Kathmandu, in San Francisco or London, the bond of Sherpa kinship and tradition runs deep and strong."

Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind mountain climber to reach the summit of Everest, is the author of Touch the Top of the World


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