For Sherpas, a Steep Climb
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/05/31; May 31, 2003.]
By TASHI TENZING
he world outside the Himalaya Mountains "discovered" Mount Everest in the 19th century. Since then, foreigners have sought to conquer, market and control it. Though Sherpas and their Tibetan kin had known Everest ‹ or Chomolungma ‹ for centuries, not one of them wanted to climb it until my grandfather, Tenzing Norgay, came along. He made it to the summit, with Sir Edmund Hillary, 50 years ago today ‹ and life for Sherpas has never been the same.
My grandfather's dream to climb Everest was unusual for someone of his background. Sherpas once believed that the great summits were the dwelling places of Buddhist spirits and must not be violated. But even as a young lad in Nepal, my grandfather wondered whether it would be possible to make it to the top of Everest. His family made good-humored fun of his talk. In 1935, however, they were compelled to take him seriously. That year, he joined the Everest expedition of the British climber Eric Shipton, which made it to the Northeast Ridge ‹ close, but still about half a mile away.
It took 18 more years and six more tries for my grandfather to make it to the top. For him, reaching the summit was always a simple, honest, honorable quest. It was something he did not for medals, money or fame but for himself. Getting there was enough. Of his experience standing atop Everest he wrote: "My mountain did not seem to me a lifeless thing of rock and ice, but warm and friendly and living. She was a mother hen and the other mountains were chicks under her wings."
In the 50 years since my grandfather and Sir Edmund made their climb, Everest mountaineering has become a popular adventure sport ‹ about 10,000 people have tried to reach the top ‹ and a booming business. This has been a mixed blessing for us Sherpas. On the one hand, it has helped usher in a better standard of living than we could have ever imagined. In addition to the money brought in by tourism, outsiders drawn to Mount Everest, including Sir Edmund, have invested in education and health care for my people. Infant mortality rates have decreased (only 6 of 14 children in my father's family survived infancy), while literacy rates have climbed.
But life for Sherpas has become increasingly complicated. Many of our young people are understandably tired of the hardship ‹ the freezing winters and scarce food ‹ and are no longer satisfied grazing yaks or growing potatoes in difficult terrain at high altitudes. The influx of Western tourists to Everest has exposed Sherpas to a new lifestyle, leading many to seek an easier, more cosmopolitan existence in the cities and abroad. Few people, especially working-age men, stay in the mountains. Indeed, I myself do not wish to make my livelihood plowing high-altitude fields of barley. Indigenous crafts are dying out, and many Sherpa villages are now home only to the frail and elderly and the few relatives who remain to take care of them.
For the Sherpas who work in expeditions, however, Everest has provided a lucrative source of income. Most expeditions include three or four climbing Sherpas (about one per climber) and 20 to 30 Sherpas to carry loads to the base camps. A Sherpa guide can earn about $2,000 during a two-month climbing season, far more than he would for most other jobs.
But this work is also dangerous: at least 175 climbers have been killed trying to reach the top of Everest. Sherpas join expeditions without life insurance, which is expensive and difficult to get, knowing that if they do not return there will be little for those left behind beyond the good will of their community. Most Sherpa guides, however, are philosophical about the risks. When I asked my friend Ang Dorje how much longer he would climb on Everest with big expeditions, he did a quick calculation on his fingers and said, "Four more times," the amount it would require to build his home and educate his children.
I don't think my grandfather would be disheartened by the path we Sherpas have followed, however. He used to say that he climbed so that his children would not have to. Indeed, though my mother and a few of the elder members of my family remain in the area, the rest of us have moved far away, many going into law and medicine and other professions. Still, the draw of mountaineering is with us: four of us have climbed Everest.
My grandfather might have wished, though, that foreigners behaved with more respect ‹ and awe ‹ for our mountain. Reaching the top of Everest, once a symbol of humankind's triumph over nature, has become for so many simply a sport, an experience that (for a hefty sum, as much as $65,000 per climber) can be bought. The foreign climbers go home with photographs of themselves on the summit, then leave their litter behind and forget the Sherpas who have contributed so much to their successes.
Commercial mountaineering has created a quandary: it is a great boon for us financially, but in our hearts we worry about the safety of amateur climbers and the sanctity of our beloved mountains.
Still, I have been lucky. I have managed to hold on to both worlds. I have reached the summit of Everest twice but have never had to carry 75-pound porter loads as my grandfather and so many other Sherpas did. In fact, in 1993, I was the first Sherpa to lead an international climbing team (an expedition in which Western climbers carried their own loads).
I am happy that my grandfather's climb paved the way for modernization among the Sherpas. My people now have greater opportunities to learn to read and write, have a voice in the affairs of their region and are building a brighter future for themselves. I only hope that their increasing wisdom and empowerment can spread to the mountaineering world, where they are still so often viewed as mere load-carriers and nameless catalysts to Western success.
Tashi Tenzing, author of ``Tenzing Norgay and the Sherpas of Everest,'' runs a travel agency in Sydney that specializes in Himalayan tours.
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