It was squarely upon the backs of individual Sherpas that Everest and other 8,000 metre peaks were successfully climbed. Yet any Sherpa porter who performed heroics on foreign-sponsored expeditions could not expect the same recognition given to the sponsor members. Mary Beard, the Cambridge classics don, recalls a letter to her parents from a successful British expedition leader, stating “everyone got down the mountain safely.” The claim is then nullified by the admission that an unnamed Sherpa had, in fact, died while climbing high on the mountain. Such a shameful omission (reflecting the inbred bias of some western climbers) has become an embarrassment consigned to the dustbin of history. Mercifully, it finds no mention to spoil the splendid upbeat mood that characterises Everest Reflections on the Solukhumbu, a photo-essay tribute to the Sherpas where the indifference to human loss displayed by the sahib is overwhelmed by the generous instinct to celebrate life. This refreshing focus on the off-duty lives of those, who at great risk, service the Everest climbs, records the community’s steady rise to fame and wealth since 1951, when the Khumbu icefall route to the summit was confirmed dangerous but feasible. The book is also published to coincide with the birth centenary of Sir Edmund Hillary, who challenged colonial taboos when he initiated projects in the Solukhumbu designed to close the gap in the member-porter relationship. Hillary, in fact, can fairly claim to be the fairy godfather of Sherpa fortunes—he was in the party that confirmed the new route. The Khumbu icefall, a former cul de sac, would now enjoy centre stage, including en route such unlikely goodies as a German bakery and Irish pub. The Sherpas, by annually making their dangerous icefall feasible for aspirants to Everest, never looked back, emerging as the most colourful and reliable of all mountain guides, their sterling virtues making up for the peak’s disappointing profile from the south.
After the first successful Everest ascent with Tenzing Norgay, Hillary recognised the need to pay back to the ‘Mother Goddess of the World’ the debt he owed her for the grace received. The education programme the New Zealander enthusiastically embraced built on the foundation of Buddhist values to bring both science and opportunity to the area. The image of Sir Ed as a diplomat, hammering nails into the beams of a Sherpa primary school, appealed instantly to a world low on idealism, arousing boundless affection for the Sherpa lifestyle. For a non-Asian to understand the Sherpa ethos requires sharing their profound regard for the world’s highest peaks as living female deities.
In the preface, Dr Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa notes how his ancestors from the northern side of Everest crossed over and felt they had found a beyul, a hidden valley of sacred provenance revealed only to the blessed. He magnanimously suggests that manifest in Sir Edmund are the lineaments of a Bodhisattva, one who, like Lord Buddha, selflessly shares the suffering of others.
Lisa Choegyals’s text is a masterly resume of the history, trials and triumphs of this unique mountain people, and does not shrink from cautioning against over-romanticising what remains a tough existence above the tree line. Expedition books discreetly omit the presiding feature that announces Everest base camp from afar, the hacking coughs of summit candidates that might be mistaken for someone trying to bring up a gold watch. Lisa examines the risks when there is no guarantee that the rich novice client who struggles to the top can make it back alive. However, because of their everyday exposure to risk, Sherpas have learned to accommodate what Hugh Downs identifies as “the ineluctable rhythms of change”. Lisa cannily notes Sherpas (who perform their medieval religious rituals in rakish Wild West Stetsons) know how to “forge their own reality.”
Sujoy Das’ photos are immediately recognisable by their brilliant lighting. Here at the frontier between the human and the elemental, where the stark unites with and becomes the magical, the Sherpas have created in their living spaces a working harmony with the mountainside. Amidst such sublime but threatening surroundings, the human and animal residents become part of the scene. Portraits of his Sherpa subjects at their daily tasks, however, outnumber the dramatic landscapes. To prove how far their prospects have advanced, every Sherpa photographed, rich or poor, merits identification by name and village. My favourite shot is ‘A kitchen in a tea shop above Surkhe’ that defines what is vital for the passing traveller: human warmth, symbolised by a log fire blazing in the chula, a kettle on the hob, and the proprietor serenely at one with the shine of her polished vessels. This unpretentious frame also captures the enchantment of trekking in Nepal, which makes it a much more memorable experience than that, for example, delivered on Indian Himalaya trails. There, the tired arrival can expect to be met by a surly chowkidar in a cold and draughty sarkari barn, where in Nepal, a smiling hostess welcomes you into her cosy family homestead.
The pen and ink sketches by Sujoy’s wife Paula add to the charm of this reflective book. As an extra delight, the reader can meet and salute Ang Dami Sherpa: a statuesque grandmother from Thame, she has won the ladies Everest marathon thrice, once even as a pregnant 44-year-old. Her unsung Spartan feats remind the reader of how the power of the Devi myths can promote a pahari princess (like Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand) to sacred mountain status. In view of the host of contending names,Tibetan, Nepali, Chinese and British for top spot, I hereby ditch the Welsh misogynist Sir George Everest in favour of Ang Dami Ma.