The writing life

Recounting the life stories of two famous Sherpas - Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay after climbing Everest in 1953
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay after climbing Everest in 1953

What do a twentieth-century Sherpa mountaineer from the Himalaya and a seventeenth-century poet and polemicist from England have in common On a beautiful spring day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I&rsquod just finished some reading on John Milton, and in the mountaineering world, friends and fellow-climbers &mdash whose rage and sorrow I shared &mdash were discussing the deaths of 16 men who had lost their lives in a massive avalanche on Everest on 18 April 2014. The dead were part of a group, composed of mostly Sherpa climbers, who were fixing ropes on the South Col route for fee-paying &lsquoclimbers&rsquo to trundle up the mountain in the upcoming climbing season. In between talking to my friend Pem Dorjee Sherpa about recovery of the bodies from the icefall and telling people about the Sherpa Support Fund set up by the American Alpine Club, I found myself thinking of the haunting, amazing parallel between a beloved poet and my favourite mountaineer.

Tenzing Norgay&rsquos journey from a tiny village in Nepal to the top of the highest point on earth is legendary. What interests me is Norgay&rsquos need to make his own fable, his insistence that his story needed to live beyond him and speak infinitely farther afield than his celebrated yet mortal Sherpa life would allow. &ldquoIt may seem strange, but one thing I have many of is books. As a boy I never saw one, except, perhaps, as some rare thing in a monastery but since I have been a man and gone on expeditions I have heard and learned much. Many men I have travelled with have written books. They have sent them to me, and though I cannot read them myself, word for word, I understand what they say, and they mean much to me. Now it means much to have my own book. A book, I think, is what a man has been and done in his life and this is mine, here is my story. Here is myself,&rdquo he says in his autobiography, Man of Everest (1955). Milton&rsquos passionate assertion in Areopagitica, that &ldquoa good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,&rdquo although infinitely more literate, had not been more urgent or more moving.

At around the same time, in 1954, the formidable Ang Tharkay &mdash the equal partner of the famous Shipton-Tilman explorations around Nanda Devi in the 1930s, the participant of British Everest attempts up to 1951, and the phenomenal sirdar of the 1950 French expedition to Annapurna &mdash approached the mountaineer Basil Norton to help document the story of his life. Tharkay&rsquos autobiography was eventually published as M&eacutemoires d&rsquoun Sherpa. The levels of translation and transport of this work are in themselves fascinating. With the help of translator Mohanlal Mukherjee, Norton rendered into English Tharkay&rsquos Nepalese, and Henri Delgove subsequently translated Norton&rsquos notes into French before the M&eacutemoires could be published in Paris.

This belief in and commitment to the intellectual life, the writing life, and indeed, the creative life is to me immensely valuable because it transforms the climbing Sherpa from being merely represented, mainly by Western authors, to ownership of their own stories. The narrative is placed squarely in the context of a language that is oral &mdash Sherpa is not a written language &mdash and opened up with a special proximity into wide literacy, access, and currency. Norgay and Tharkay bring their stories to James Ullman and Basil Norton respectively, and these two deeply sensitive writers aid the Sherpas&rsquo authorly journeys. But for all their translation and conformity to the written register, the Sherpa stories retain a visceral immediacy. Norgay&rsquos tale tells of grounded poverty and yet more grounded dreams with a simplicity unrivalled by the world&rsquos greatest eloquence. And Tharkay&rsquos thrice-travelled tale &mdash from Nepalese to English to French &mdash later struck the mountaineer Michael Ward with such force that he wrote in his tribute to Tharkay (Alpine Journal, 1996) that those without first-hand experience would find it hard to understand the calibre of the climbs described by Tharkay.

With considerable sympathy and insight, anthropologist Sherry Ortner points out that within the history of Himalayan mountaineering, Sherpas and other indigenous climbers like the Tamangs, the Gurungs and others inevitably need to insert themselves in terms created and propagated by westerners, whose sport it originally was and still largely is. But to me, these gorgeous, windblown, funny, humble, troubled, challenging and always profoundly affectionate Sherpa narratives simply re-align mountaineering in a radically different light. From Sherpas and other indigenous climbers, from women, and from those who come to the mountains with differently-abled bodies, will come the new histories of Himalayan mountaineering. To borrow from Norgay, it is the hearts of climbers that make mountains big or small.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller