97 Touching My Father’s Soul

norgayby Jamling Tenzing Norgay, 2001

“[He] had abused the privilege of climbing the mountain by doing so for personal gain, and this was a ripening of karma within this lifetime.”

This was the consensus of the Sherpas on the fate of Rob Hall, one of the highly sought after guides who perished during the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated by the idea of climbing Everest all of a sudden—I’m certainly never going to attempt it—but after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, I was struck by how little attention is paid to the Sherpas who do much of the work—and risk their lives—to ensure the success of these paying climbers. I was intrigued to know how the area natives viewed these endeavors, and so when I found this memoir by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, was the first to summit Everest in 1953, and who had been on the mountain with the team who shot the IMAX film at the same time as Krakauer’s climb, I had to read it. I did not want to read another account by a wealthy foreigner. I wanted to know about Everest from the people who spend every day in its presence.

If you’re looking for the same sort of adventure story that Krakauer tells, you won’t find that here. There is a certain amount of intensity surrounding the events on the mountain, but this is also as much about Norgay’s desire to connect with his father and his Buddhist practice as it is about the physical journey. Krakauer is, to be sure, the better writer, but I found myself just as riveted by Norgay’s account of his own ascension and deeply interested in the Sherpas’ spiritual reverence for the mountain and its goddess. Norgay expresses his discomfort when hearing climbers discussing Everest “as if their success was a forgone conclusion… The more I witnessed the garish displays of ego and individualism in some of the foreign teams, the more I felt they were inviting misfortune.” Norgay is appropriately wary at the prospect of his own endeavor and we join him on his counsel with spiritual leaders and rituals in the hopes of ensuring a successful climb. His attitude toward what would constitute success is so vastly different from the foreign thrill-seekers: “Most of these climbers, myself included, don’t know what we will find during our journey, other than a brief glimpse of impermanence and the frailty of the human condition. If we truly saw only that, and gained only that much understanding, then I would consider our venture entirely worth our while.”

Can I admit a bit of ignorance here and say that for a long time I thought “Sherpa” was a job title? Chalk that up to the influence of the Western world, for whom climbing Everest is little more than a form of recreation. Norgay asserts that there is little appreciation for the work Sherpas do, which includes setting up the lines for the routes and delivering supplies to the camps, a job that entails numerous trips up and down different parts of the mountain. I recall reading in Into Thin Air that a climber can consider his effort to have been a solo one even if he had a score of Sherpas to assist him, and Norgay confirms this: “Even today, some expedition accounts…don’t list by name the Sherpas who made the summit or who were on the expedition, but lump them into the generic category of ‘Sherpas.’” According to Norgay, nearly half of climbers killed on the Himalayas have been Sherpas, and in 1950, compensation for loss of Sherpa life was only $20 to $50. Today the required life insurance policy is $3,500, a still paltry amount that reveals how little their lives are valued. I know I should not be surprised, for the effects of colonialism run far and deep, and yet I am utterly disgusted that one can lay claim to all of the success when so much of it was built on others’ backs.

However, this is perhaps why Norgay’s father’s relationship with Hillary was so special, for the two refused to reveal to anyone who stepped foot on the summit first. It was only to quell public demand that Tenzing Norgay allowed Hillary that honor, but to his son Norgay insisted that neither of them could have completed the journey without the other. The truth has died with the two men, but it’s clear that this humility and respect permeated the younger Norgay’s own journey and informed his interpretation of the disaster. He does not place the blame on any one thing, but it’s clear that a combination of Western ego, poor choices, and unfortunate events made for a terrible fate.

Of standing on the summit Norgay writes, “I felt I was touching [my father’s] soul, his mind, his destiny, and his dreams. And I had received his blessings and approval. Perhaps I didn’t really need to come so far to be near him and to understand him. But I had to make the trip in order to learn that his blessing was there all along.” For, ultimately, this climb should not be about asserting dominance over the earth, but finding oneself amidst its dangerous beauty. To learn more about the social and political effects of Everest climbs, as well as one man’s journey to connect with his father’s legacy, please do pick up this book. It is as deserving of every bit of attention as Krakauer’s.

[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book about sports, read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location, read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.]

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