Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 Everest disaster: some early thoughts

Everest climbers have faced their worst disaster in history, with at least 12 high-altitude porters killed (4 still missing) in the Khumbu Icefall by an avalanche. So many of the comments I've read on news articles are by people who have read an Everest book or two. (Krakauer's Into Thin Air is often cited.) What does one say who has read the history of Everest from beginning to end and back again? What can one say?

My first instinct is to think back to the closest incident in scale, when seven porters died in an avalanche in 1922 on the North Col, and climber Howard Somervell bewailed "Only Sherpas and Bhotias killed - why, oh why could not one of us Britishers [or fill in the blank] have shared their fate?" He continued, "I would gladly at that moment have been lying there dead in the snow, if only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had indeed shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk." After the 1922 climb there was quite of bit of searching for a scapegoat within the climbing community, with sides blaming the climbers (George Mallory, specifically, even if there were three climbers alternating leads) and others defending. Ultimately, little was done about that tragedy beyond fighting over blame, or at least little else is mentioned in Everest's recorded history. Two of the climbers who survived both the avalanche and the war of words actually returned to Everest two years later.

I also think of some of the predictions of Everest writers, whether Krakauer's belief that little, if anything would be learned from the tragedy of 1996, or Jenkin's (Call of Everest) comments that the concentrated crowds of people on Everest are inviting such a tragedy (though he imagined troubles on the Lhotse Face). I worry that because the victims of this tragedy are Nepalese porters, rather than foreign climbers, that we, the observing public, won't sit and analyze what went wrong here the way we did in 1996, when [only] eight foreign climbers died; we supported the publication of no less than 17 books about 1996. How many books will I be able to read about 2014?

There are very few books available that treat Sherpas and other Himalayan people as people, rather than some kind of "other," either to be studied (many anthropological studies are available), employed, or left out entirely. Even Tenzing Norgay's "autobiography," Tiger of the Snows, while subtly pushing back at some cultural stereotypes, accepts many others. Here's a short list I've encountered:

M. S. Kohli's Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends
B. N. Mullik's The Sky Was His Limit
Jamling Tenzing Norgay's Touching My Father's Soul
Tashi Tenzing's Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest 
Zuckerman & Padoan's Buried in the Sky

My prayers go out to the victims and their families. What a dark day on Everest!

1 comment:

  1. Almost three years later, and still not a single book! The 2014 avalanche and how it was covered both by the media and the climbing community destroyed any interest I had in continuing to draw attention to the climbing of Everest, which these days has grown into a materialistic farce. I started reading Everest lit because I was amused that so many books could be written about a single mountain, and I at times was drawn into the stories and the history. I no longer have any interest in the mountain, and I'm a bit amazed when I look back on the effort I put into this grand waste of time.