For over hundred years Mount Everest has been attracting climbers from all over the world to test their courage on Everest’s tricky slopes, enlisting the help of Sherpas and Sahibs living in that area. In this essay, I would like to discuss the two Mt. Everest communities presented by the international mountain climbing community, the Sahibs, and the culture of the Sherpas of Nepal in the book by Sherry B. Ortner “Life and death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan mountaineering.”
Sherry Ortner works as an anthropology professor at Columbia State University, her major is Sherpa’s Buddhism. In her book, she gradually introduces us to Sahib and Sherpa communities, their ideas about mountaineering and attempts to co-construct one another’s identity.
Sherry Ortner discusses time periods from late 1800’s up to present, when the first mention about sherpas came about, and the first European climbers showed their interest in Mt. Everest. These climbers were in their majority presented by British people from the start. In 1920’s the expeditions to the Mt. Everest became quite popular and all they saw deaths of Sherpas, since those were the only guides ready to lead those expeditions.
Up until present time, the interest towards Mt. Everest does not decrease, Sherpas continue to risk their lives as guides and porters, and Sahibs do the same as expedition leaders. Why do they keep going? There is no simple answer to this question. Sahibs, that are generally well educated, quite wealthy, middle class people and Sherpas – men willing to take a step out of their standards and traditional beliefs for money – they both are trying to escape the “smallness” and show their character and will for victory.
The foundation of mountain climbing consisted not only of sport themes; it was also a spiritual activity. Traditionally it was considered to be a masculine sport with competition and assertion as major motivators. Through the period of time Sherpas evolved from being simple guides to co-leaders on expeditions, life-saving friends and companions. Recently to new aspects of Sherpas culture and religion were brought to the knowledge of people, The educational system in their region has been going through major changes, and contemporary Sherpas are rather educated people.
Sherry Ortner’s research is thorough and her understanding of complex social issues is enlightening. She is fair to both groups and looks beneath the surface to expose agendas and games. Her many examples involve real people, relationships and encounters. Both groups balance examples of mindless exploitation with examples of extreme loyalty and attention to duty. She references important expeditions that will be known to the reader as well as individuals that should be known. She avoids generalizations this way and brings some understanding as to why people – Sahibs and Sherpas – continue to place themselves at such great risk.
The book takes a deep overview of Sherpa’s role in mountaineering, it positions Sherpas from the outset within the frame established by these men, and later women and their ideas. In the book we witness the history of ways in which, in spite of Sahibs’ control of mountain climbing, Sherpas gained wide recognition. In the race for a better pay, Sherpas participated in some insane expeditions from the earliest ones up to present. In those expeditions Sherpas started out their relationships with Sahibs as competitions and often ended up becoming very close friends.
Here we see the pressures of social and economic life that sent, and continue to send, many young Sherpas into mountaineering; we see the religious beliefs and gender assumptions that they brought with them to mountaineering, but that they also changed, over the course of the twentieth century; and we trace the changing shape of Sherpa “identity,” as the mountaineering experience connected with their lives in the local, national, and even global contexts they have inhabited.
As the time passed both communities have experienced large shifts in gender identity in the mountaineering sense. During two past hundred years we can see how climbing has drastically changed. The role women played comes apparent. Women pushed, just as the men did, their limits and set records of their own. The early women opened doors to the women who have taken the opportunity and run with it. We see many of these women today in the climbing news, making first ascents and going beyond our imagination’s wildest dreams.
The start of the women’s activity at mountaineering is the early 1970’s. And on May 16th, 1975 Everest has seen the first female – Junko Tabei from Japan. She was thirty-five years old, a mother that trained for several years. This was the time when women started to be accepted in mountaineering seriously. The expeditions that included females from both Sahibs and Sherpas then followed.
What is the use of mountaineering for all those people, risking their lives? For the two communities, described above the benefits are different. Ortner traces the political and economic factors that led the Sherpas to join expeditions and examines the impact of climbing on their traditional culture, religion and identity. She examines Sherpas’ attitudes towards death, the implications of the shared masculinity of Sherpas and sahibs, and relationship between Sherpas and the increasing number of women climbers. Clearly, mountaineering shaped Sherpas culture, it gave them acknowledgement in the rest of the world and simply made their living. Mountaineering is the essence of Sherpa’s life, without it they would not be what they are.
Sahibs’ benefits from mountaineering are very different from Sherpa’s. They do not need to climb mountains to make their living, however these people need it just as bad as Sherpas do. They love climbing and there is no other activity and place they can express and fulfill themselves as they do on Mt. Everest. Both groups are so dependent on this huge mountain, that took so many lives already but keeps attracting new and new men and women to go on heroic expeditions.