Thursday, May 31, 2012

Life and Death on Mount Everest, by Sherry B. Ortner

Sherry B. Ortner sorts fact from fiction in the representations of Sherpas in mountaineering literature in her Life and Death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering. She dispels many of the myths associated Sherpas, such as an lack of concern about death and their tireless cheerfulness, and she traces the development of the West's portrayal of Sherpas in Twentieth Century expedition accounts. Her coverage of the mountaineering literature is impressive, quoting dozens of expeditions reports and books, from Kellas to Krakauer. She shows that as western culture has changed, so has the West's view of Sherpas followed---from Romantic idealism, to hyper-masculinity, to counter-cultural, to practical. Though times have changed, each period seems to get things wrong, though climbers seem to in general understand Sherpas a bit more in recent years. Of course, over the years, Sherpas have changed as well, and Ortner traces the cultural developments within Solu-Khumbu during the mountaineering era and ties them back to Sherpas' actions on the mountains. Ortner has over the course of 30 years conducted field studies on Sherpas and their culture and religion, and she ties her earlier work and field notes into the mountaineering literature to create a critique on the relationship between Sherpa and "sahib."

I was overall impressed by her writing, though at the same time I found it frustrating. She catches most of the developments in Sherpa culture and refers to many other anthropologist's work, including Adams, Fisher, Thompson, and Fuerer-Haimendorf. She refutes some of Adams and Fuerer-Haimendorf, but seems to lend some credence to Fisher and Thompson. I felt like the book had so much to cover that just as her discussions of several topics were getting interesting, she moved on to the next. Though the result may not appeal as much to the public, I felt that several of the chapters would have made interesting full-scale books. I especially wish she would have spent more time discussing the development of the puja over time, as it is currently the most visible aspect of Sherpa culture on Himalayan climbs and has undergone an interesting transition since the 1920s.

I felt that she assumed that Sherpas' relationship to money (i.e. hard currency) has remained relatively static over time, but I've seen developments over time in my own reading that suggest that as years progressed, currency has become more useful. On many of the early expeditions that traveled through Solu-Khumbu during the late spring, it seems like many of the residents had trouble parting with the goods and provisions that would see them through to the summer, but as the overall wealth of the region grew, that currency became more acceptable and desirable. (A similar problem faced Ang Tharkay and crew in their travel home through Tibet in 1933, as the Tibetans had only what they needed, and would not trade with the Sherpas at almost any price. It was not that the sahibs were directly starving them, but that their wages did them no good.) Something that was not discussed was that the early Sherpas of Darjeeling were city dwellers, and naturally had a use for currency in their everyday lives, whereas early-on in Solu-Khumbu, currency could be useful for the average Sherpa, but not in every situation. (See, for example, Sayre's Four Against Everest or Shipton's The Everest Reconnaissance Expedition.)

This is overall a great book. I can't imagine trying to look for truth about a people, such as the Sherpas, who are relatively well-known and are subject to so many cultural stereotypes. It reminds me quite a bit of books written about Tuvans (a people in southwest Siberia known for their musical talents, friendliness, and Shamanism), where authors such as Theodore Levin spend much of their time sorting myth from reality. It was exciting to see so many books I've read quoted in an academic work. It makes me feel a little bit more legitimate as student of Everest!

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