OPINION: Climbing Mount Everest and the evolving East-West relationship

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Hope remains that, with publicity and exposure, both Nirmal Purja and Lhakpa Sherpa receive better treatment than their predecessors.

Within the last week, two Nepali mountaineers, Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja and Lhakpa Sherpa, made the headlines, but for two different reasons. Purja climbed all 14 of the world’s above-8,000-metre peaks within a record 190 days. The next shortest time to achieve the same feat was 7 years 10 months and six days. In the world of mountaineering, this was sensational news. It seems like the Nepali man, formerly a Gurkha and a special forces soldier in the British Army, has become a model climber. The other news was about Lhakpa Sherpa, a Nepali woman of the famed Sherpa mountain community, who had already climbed Mt Everest nine times and was preparing for her 10th ascent by washing dishes at Whole Foods in America for the lack of endorsements.

The journalist who did a story on Sherpa for The Guardian lamented on the contradiction. Serena Williams--who demonstrated her athletic ability by winning the Australian Open while pregnant, among her many other achievements--receives many sponsorships and so much attention. But here was a woman from Nepal who has climbed Mt Everest a record 9 times, but needs to wash dishes and work multiple odd jobs to feed her kids.

The journalist’s bewilderment about Lhakpa’s hardship in Connecticut, USA, despite her unprecedented athletic achievement, deserves attention and explanation. She says that Sherpa hasn’t received any endorsements because she is ‘not traditionally marketable, and brands want maximum visibility. She doesn’t have a curated Instagram presence. She is a middle-aged woman of colour, an immigrant single mother who speaks in broken English. She doesn’t exude “stoke”.’

The above reasons touch the heart of the matter but do not fully offer an in-depth and historical analysis. In order to fully understand Lhakpa and her predicament, we must turn to the history and anthropology of the East-West relationship. Climbing Mt Everest didn’t begin as a workaday thing. It was originally an offshoot of explorations, expeditions and conquest in the colonial enterprise. If one reads the history of climbing Mt Everest or other such expeditions, one very often finds the involvement of survey offices. Thus, the Survey of India office had a special role in mapping the area not just of colonial India but also the Himalayas. This included the charting of what came to be known as Mt Everest, named in 1865 after a Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest, even though the mountain peak’s height was first determined by a Bengali man, Radhanath Sikdar, in 1852 during the tenure of Everest’s successor.

We should also keep in mind that the idea of climbing Mt Everest seriously took root in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918) and Irish Independence (around 1920) when Britain’s confidence born of the period of high imperialism (1885-1914) received a serious blow by the two events. And George Mallory, the romanticised hero and pioneer of the first three Mt Everest expeditions, himself was a quintessential product of that period who sought to rescue and restore Britain’s glory by his Everest conquest. But when he perished in the attempt, he became a legend and a national hero.

So, climbing Mt Everest needs to be seen as part of the historical enterprise of modernity--mapping, exploring and conquering. The agent who does it is the individual out to tame nature’s most difficult places to establish man’s domination and his/her nation’s glory.

Seen this way, climbing Mt Everest doesn’t remain just a physical act of plodding through deep snow and sight-seeing at above 8,000 metres. It becomes a metaphor, a symbol, even an allegory. The climber becomes an Ahab-like figure, out to tame Moby Dick in order to establish human dominion.

What happens to Purja and his superhuman feat is yet to be seen. But how can Lhakpa Sherpa receive the same treatment as Serena Williams without being part of the discourse of modernity and globalisation? Despite their suffering in America during slavery and through the Jim Crow laws--and even afterwards--unlike the Native Americans who refused to participate and thus got displaced and nearly destroyed, African Americans fully participated in American modernity. Some forms being involuntary, they participated first as slaves, then as industrial workers and artists and now as athletes. Serena Williams is part of that tradition.

If you look at the well-known mountaineers of the West, you find that they are most often not just mountaineers. Mallory was a product of private schools and Magdalene College at Cambridge University, and went on lecture tours in America and Europe to enlighten his audience about mountaineering. Reinhold Messner didn’t just achieve the mind-blowing mountaineering feats but also wrote 80 books. They represented in their identity the essence of European modernity both as individuals and society’s representatives.

When many knowledgeable people find that I’m from Nepal, their second question usually is, ‘So, you must have climbed the mountains.’ My response, ‘Nope, I just love to look at them.’ Indeed, I grew up watching Mt Kanchenjunga majestically shine all day long--changing colours through the winter months. But I never felt like Marlowe in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who sets his finger on a map as a child and says that he would one day go there. My primary concern in life was to make a living somehow.

Like me, our Sherpa brothers and sisters got into mountaineering because they had to make a living by helping the ‘Sahibs’ to climb the mountains. Indeed, the advent of mountaineering has transformed the lives of the inhabitants of high mountain villages in terms of employment, education and healthcare. So much so that, as Vincanne Adams has interpreted in her study of the Sherpas in Tigers of the Snow and Other Virtual Sherpas: An Ethnography of Himalayan Encounters (1996), the word ‘Sherpa’ has become virtual, a signifier drawing positive character traits. Similarly, another anthropologist Sherry Ortner (mainly in her book Life and Death on Mt Everest, written after the Everest disaster of 1996) has documented the climber-sherpa relationship and the stratagems sherpas adopt to balance the unequal power relationships between the economically, educationally and globally powerful Sahibs and themselves, who do all the legwork to make climbing possible.

These days other, non-Western beneficiaries of globalisation, including Nepalis, too, embark on climbing Mt Everest as Sahibs, at times individually but in the past funded by their nation-states to make a name for their country. And in the age of consumerism, climbing Mt Everest has become a consumerist enterprise. This is the reason behind the ‘traffic jam’ on Hillary Step that Nirmal Purja made viral with his photograph. 

So, if we take climbing Mt Everest as part of this evolving discourse, we can understand better why Lhakpa Sherpa, despite climbing Mt Everest so many times, still washes dishes. This is similar to Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) who, despite writing so many books, ended her life as a maid in a Florida motel. But the human spirit is indomitable, and times are changing. Let’s hope that with publicity and exposure, both Purja and Lhakpa receive better treatment from the globalised marketplace.