The Sherpa Issue: Tigers of the Snow (Satis Shroff)
Can you imagine over a hundred Sherpas throwing stones and threatening climbers from abroad? Even the Swiss climber admits that the deep animosity between the tourist-climbers and the Sherpas was more of a behavioural nature, and a longstanding one at that. What made the normally peaceful Sherpas threaten the visitor from abroad with ice-picks? Was it a deadly faux pas that brought the wrath of the Sherpas? The three foreigners wanted to scale Nepal’s famous Everest alone, using the ropes that the Sherpas had laid.
– What, you don’t need us?
– No, thank you. We want to climb alone. But thanks for fixing the ropes for the ascent on Camp 3.
– These foreigners do as they please. We didn’t do all the ‘sherpa-work’ so that they could climb as a trio. Where’s the fairness of the sahibs? With such climbs the Sherpas will become superfluous and will be losing their existence-basis, in case free-climbing on the Himalayas becomes a trend-setter.
– After scaling Everest, Hillary said, ‘We’ve overcome the bastard.’ Pardon me, to the Nepalese Mt.Everest is the holy mountain Sagarmatha. And to the Tibetans on the other side (as well as Sherpas) the majestic peak is Chomolungma. Buddhist ritual ceremonies are common when expeditions are underway from the base-camps to the Himalayan peaks. There is fear, hope for a successful climb. In this situation even the sahibs become a part of the ceremony.
– Success, failure or death.
Was it just a conflict between the commercial expeditions and climbers who do it in free Alpine style like the Swiss adventurist and extreme-climber Ueli Steck? It is heartening to note that an agreement was signed between the conflict parties. Ueli called it an ‘unhappy coincidence’ according to the ‘Migros- Magazine.’ According to this agreement, which was moderated by laison officers, both sides have the right to be on the mountain. Future conflicts have to be solved through the intermediary, namely the Nepalese liason-officers. Ueli Steck is of the opinion that this is certainly not the solution to the problem. The hatred doesn’t lie on this particular mountain (Everest) but has been gathering momentum since many years. The Swiss climber broke his expedition.
It’s an open secret that the organisers of tourism and trekking industry pay heed to the demands of the tourist-climbers. This means that every climbing tourist has the power to reduce his or her demands to do what he or she pleases in the Himalayas. Alas, this doesn’t happen. The foreign-customer is always right and that is the motto in business.
There has been talk about climbing the mountains ‘by fair means,’ that is without oxygen, but a great deal of expeditions wouldn’t have scaled Nepal’s peaks without the security ropes, aluminium ladders brought to the walls of the peaks by the porters of Nepal who come from a handful of tribes, including the Sherpa community.
Rockclimbing, mountain climbing are also high performance sports and in the seventies the climbers from the west started taking a magic-cocktail comprising Diamoc, Dexamethason (cortisone) and Dexidrin. Whereas Diamox could lower the symptom of brain edema in the case of acute mountain sickness, Dexidrin was used by bomber US bomber pilots in the Hindukush War. Viagra, which is actually Sildenafil, and is known to promote oxygen intake, is also taken by climbers to increase their climbing-stamina. Even the hormone-drug Epo, which increases the red blood cell production, has been used by climbers even though its assistance in adapting to the thin air on peaks is still a matter of debate.
Reinhold Messner took Aspirin to make his blood thin when he went to the Nanga Parbat. Even he believes that there are enough climbers who take medication for better performance, even though it’s dangerous to do so. The 3-D cocktail seems to be very much in use. Even Ueli Steck, the best contemporary Swiss climber, is known to have amphetamine in his rucksack apothecary. He, of course, swallows it only in life-and-death situations. Diamox is also for Ueli Steck, an emergency solution only.
Perhaps the Swiss climber Ueli Steck is a person who thinks he can rule over the Sherpas and Himalayas. Nature is always stronger and mightier than humans. Generations of climbers make their way to the mountain and some lose their lives in the process but the mountain remains and is always there. And you cannot start a quarrel with the Sherpas and other porters who help to carry equipment and fix ropes and pave the way with ladders. In the West journalists write about ‘the angry mountain.’ Daniel Stolzenberg, the French veteran climber, said:
– ‘There is only the mountain. And when she’s angry, things can go very badly wrong.’
– Things did go wrong. He and half a dozen of his countrymen, including his wife Marie Odile, were killed along with 11 Nepalese climbers by a thunderous avalanche in their base-camp on the Kanguru peak.
Eight climbers died in May 1966. Although every 10th climber doesn’t return from Everest, a hundred climbers take their chance to climb the peak, a peak which is majestic and demands everything from you. On the one hand, you learn to trust your intelligence, experience, abilities and have faith in yourself, and are responsible for yourself at that height. Everything you do has to be done correctly. On the other hand, a small mistake and you never see your home, and your near and dear ones. You have to wait till Spring before the mountain gives up its dead.
In this death-zone it is essential to maintain a peace-of-mind and not start quarrelling with the tigers-of-the snow, the loyal, helpful ethnic Sherpas and ethnic Tamang-porters who are in the climbing business since the colonial days, even though Nepal was never a colony.
Intercultural competence is very important and social competence plays a big role in lubricating a friendly behaviour and relationship. Mutual respect and tolerance is also a must. Perhaps the western climbers should learn more about compassion from their fellow-climbers from Nepal. It’s not all business out there. Mutual help gain importance and not how much you paid the porter or your guide. If, as in the case of Ueli Steck (Switzerland), Johathan Griffith (UK) and Simone Moro (Italy) the ‘Sherpas’ had installed the climbing ropes, and the western trio had used these ropes, common courtesy demands that the Nepalese Sherpas receive their remuneration and courtesy, after all the three Europeans were in Nepalese territory, as paying-guests.
I’ve attended a number of slide-shows organised by climbers from Germany, Austria, South Tyrole and Switzerland and the pictures of the peaks and people of Nepal, the shots of the pagodas, yogis, ethnic tribes, lamas, beggars are fascinating but a certain colonial tenor from the upper hemisphere lingers as far as the comments are concerned, when people from a developed country in the Northern Hemisphere visit an underdeveloped country in the Southern Hemisphere.
THE CONQUEST OF USELESSNESS (Satis Shroff)
The Conquest of Uselessness in the death-zone at minus 40 degrees, namely climbing peaks and scaling vertical rocky, icy walls, may seem a forelorn task for the layman ot the couch-potatoe, but for the adventurer it takes a new meaning towards knowing oneself and the world.
If you’re victorious the world applauds, but the also-rans don’t count, like in athletics. Words like fight, victory, comradeship and leadership become meaningless in the Alpine or Himalayan heights because you’re battling against the elements: the howling wind, the scary avalanche, the thin air and the noise of the glacier crunching nearby. They haunt you at night and during the day. Your hematocrit value sinks, breathing becomes hard, and you trudge on. Sometimes there’s a whiteout. You see nothing but a mantle of snow and a furious blizzard everywhere. You hear your heartbeat and feel the angst within you. You want to live on, survive to tell the story of your ascent of Everest, and your descent. You want to witness the jubilation of your friendly, religious Nepalese porters at the base-camp with their litany of Tibetan mantras and colourful prayer flags, internet café, DVD movies. Hot coffee, dinner party.
Whereas the Sherpas want to appease the Gods of the Himalayas with ritual sacrifices, the Eurocentric sahibs aren’t interested in appeasing the fears of the Sherpas. Alas, Everest has become a place for egoists, fanatics and dreamers. Up there Freud’s ‘Ich’ has priority and the higher they climb the crazier and ‘grosswahnsinnig’ they become.
To climb a mountain ‘by fair means’ is a slogan that dated back to the 19th century, and was postulated by a climber named Albert Frederick Mummery who died in 1895 while climbing the Nanga Parbat (Naked Mountain). The South Tyroler Reinhold Messner found this slogan appealing and has used it since then. According to the Tyrole Declaration for Best Practice in mountain-sport ‘Good style in the mountain-world means to relinquish the use of fix-ropes, performance increasing drugs and oxygen-bottles. Sadly enough, businessmen, executives and amateurs love to climb with the help of travel agencies at a sum of 80,000 dollars to get helped to climb Everest. They don’t care how they get up to the summit. They’re heroes at home when they’ve made it.
And the Sherpa? He’ll be glad to return home with a bit of money, if he doesn’t die in an avalanche.
Alone in 1996 over 30 climbers made it to the top of Everest. Climbing with expeditions sponsored by firms has led to tourism for the masses. Adventure in the Himalayas is sold out.
– Why Everest?
– Because it’s there?
– No, it’s the highest. It brings you prestige. At the same time, your life and the life of the Sherpa mountain-guide is endangered. One does is for esteem in the western world, and the other to eke out a living.
When a western climber dies because he doesn’t listen to his Nepalese mountain-guide, he takes the guide with him in the recesses of a crevice, only to turn up a years later like George Mallory (1924) in the moraine. Without the help of the Sherpas, Tamang-porters and experienced Nepalese mountain-guides who set the roles and ladders for the climbing tourists, most of these foreign enthusiasts wouldn’t have a chance in the Himalayan heights.
It might be noted that there are many clans among the Sherpa people. Sherpas are of Tibetan stock and live mostly in the Solokhumbu Canton of Eastern Nepal. In Helembu they live a sequestered life. As far as the language, religion and culture are concerned the Sherpas show a lot of similarities with the Tibetans but at the same time they celebrate also Hindu festivals and speak Nepali. It was the King Prithvinarayan Shah from Gorkha who in a bid to unite Nepal after his many conquests introduced Nepali as the lingua franca of Nepal. This brought a lot of hill tribes, Bahuns and Chettris who lived in the blue middle mountains, and the Tharus and Maithili-speakers of the Madesh (Terai flatland in Southern Nepal) together.
Tenzing Norgay was the first Sherpa to scale Everest with a bee-farmer from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary in 1953. Tenzing was a Nepalese who’d gone to Darjeeling to join an expedition to Everest or Kanchenjunga, for in those days the Brits operated from the Queen of the Hillstations. Kathmandu was established as a based for expeditions to the Nepal Himalayas later. After Tenzing, a great number of Sherpas have scaled the peaks of the Nepal Himalayas. The Sherpas live on rice, barley, potatoes and yak-milk and meat, and are known for their hospitality, even though they are don’t have much. The young people migrate to Kathmandu or Darjeeling in search of work. Life is hard in the hills. Times have changed in Nepal and so have the governments with the massacre of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya by their own son. A decade-long war was waged by the Maoists of Nepal and King Gyanendra’s reign didn’t last long. Now the Maoists hold the reins under the guise of democracy. Nepal, quo vadis?
Money dictates the relationship between the sahibs and the porters. It is also a lesson in intercultural incompetence, because the porters are used by the dollar-toting visitors as high-altitude workers and are expected to obey, much like the Gurkhas, and show discipline and loyalty, on a hire-and-fire basis, which is a bit too much in the UK, Italy and Switzerland. Human rights in the rarefied atmosphere? Does a Sherpa have a life-insurance, social-insurance, medical-insurance? The sahibs from the Continent do and they dictate what the Nepalese have to do.
Eurocentrics might or might not assist other climbers along the route but the egoism-prize goes to the Chinese who left one of their colleagues to die. But this isn’t the only case. The Brit climber David Sharp, who was dying on Everest, was left unassisted and 40 adventurers walked past the Brit in 2006.
– What went in their minds?
– There’s no time for such rescue activities.
– This climb was expensive. I’ve got to make it to the top.
– Somebody else will do the job. Not me.
– I don’t want to be a loser.
– Ach, just walk over the corpse and forget about your sentiments. This is the death-zone. Those are just lucky, unfortunate losers.
And so you march on, oblivious of the dying Brit or Sherpa. Time is money. And victory over the mountain means fame. You’re on your way to becoming an Everest-hero, even though 250 expeditions assault the Sagarmatha every year with corpses of dead climbers, and rubbish of the western civilization, along the route.
Welcome to Everest. We’ll get you to the top, no matter how.