On the morning of Coronation day – 2 June 1953 — the world was suddenly made familiar with the name Sherpa Tenzing. When I heard it, I thought of Sherpa as a first name, like the Edmund in Edmund Hillary, rather than as a description, like the Desperate in Desperate Dan. I was only eight, so my ignorance was forgivable, but now I wonder how many people of any age could have set me right about the name of the man who had stood at the summit of Everest with Hillary four days before. Properly, he was Tenzing Norgay; Sherpas were his social group. But were they a tribe or a nationality, or did the word mean an occupation such as “mountain guide” or “carrier of heavy loads uphill”? Or perhaps a bit of both?
I think hardly anyone knew, just as few in this country knew about the posters that soon began to appear in India and Nepal, showing Tenzing dragging Hillary to the summit. These added a divisive, racial tinge to the superb achievement – the newsreels called it “the conquest” of Everest, not just its ascent – that the expedition’s leader, John Hunt, always insisted was a team effort. Hillary was a New Zealand beekeeper and Norgay an illiterate “mountain coolie” (his own phrase) who was born in Tibet to a Nepali family and now lived in India – the Sherpa community, being high-altitude nomads, weren’t easily caged by national boundaries. But it was hard not to think of both men as proxy Britons, as they were part of the British team and had planted the British flag. Unlike Hillary, Tenzing didn’t look British (as we then expected the British to look), but he certainly exemplified the kind of people we liked and sometimes imagined ourselves to be. Tough, loyal, honest, ever cheerful: that was your Sherpa for you, then and for the next 60 years.
It would have been hard to believe in 1953 that, between that summer and the beginning of this year’s Everest climbing season, no fewer than 6,149 ascents would be made – in 2007, a record year, more than 600 climbers reached the top. Or that the most popular routes have bottlenecks and queues during good weather, that phone calls can be made on the way up and down, that the base camp has WiFi, that the ascent has become little more than a form of adventure tourism available to almost anyone who can afford £50,000 for the guided trip, a fee that might include a personal Sherpa to carry your backpack and cook your meals as well as a share in the cost of hundreds of other Sherpas to move the food and oxygen supplies and fix secure ropes across the snow and ice.
All these things, which amount to a mountain’s commercialisation, would have been inconceivable to Tenzing Norgay – in 2003, 17 years after his death, his son said he would been shocked to find adventurers setting out on the climb “who have no idea how to put on crampons”. But last Saturday an even more inconceivable event occurred when a group of Sherpas pelted three European climbers with rocks, intending, or so it seemed to the Europeans, to stone them to death. The cause of the violence isn’t clear, but it broke out after an argument at 24,000ft between the Europeans, who were climbing on their own in the Alpine tradition without fixed ropes, and Sherpas who were securing ropes for guided expeditions. The Sherpas believed the Europeans had dangerously breached mountain etiquette by moving across ropes that were being fixed when they’d been asked to wait; during the argument, a Sherpa waved an ice axe threateningly and the European called him a “motherfucker”. When the Europeans – a Swiss, an Italian and a Briton – returned to a lower camp, a mob of a hundred Sherpas began to stone them and stopped only when other climbers intervened.
What had caused such murderous hostility? The British climber, Jonathan Griffith, believes he and his friends were the accidental victims – an unlucky last straw – of a more general hatred towards the rich climbers who give Sherpas so much of their living; a hatred that for financial reasons needs to be suppressed. They were angry at the “financial gap” that had opened up on their mountain, and at rolling out bedspreads and making tea for clients who hadn’t even bothered to learn their names. “These Sherpas are doing a huge amount of work to get everyone up the mountain,” he told America’s National Public Radio. “I’m sure they must look at their clients occasionally and think they’re being used.”
Perhaps they do, perhaps it’s as simple as money. But perhaps something more complicated has also occurred, a change on both sides that has chilled the Sherpa-climber relationship. To begin with, not all “sherpas” are Sherpas – porters from other parts of Nepal now do a lot of the heavy lifting, leaving Sherpas as a labour aristocracy of mountain guides. Second, their clientele has changed – the kinds of people who talked up the comradeship of the mountains and celebrated “a brave mountain people”, which were prevailing tendencies in 1953, have mainly vanished into the obituaries page. Everest is now an industry with straightforward advice to consumers. “Check if the Sherpa has made the summit and when so,” says an online guide to Sherpa-hiring. “Check if the Sherpa is motivated to go for the summit again. Young non-summiteers could be hungry to summit, but lack experience. Summiteers might be content with the higher rank and salary … and not really be motivated to summit again. Remember a simple fact: you get what you pay for.”
Livingstone and Stanley would recognise this kind of advice, and the fact is that the hint of imperialism can never be far from a system that depends on the physical labour of brown people helping far richer white people attain their adventure – a continent crossed, a lion shot, a peak scaled. Livingstone and Stanley respected their guides because they knew their lives depended on them. Livingstone may even have loved them – his “boys” – and however paternalistic the emotion, it was real enough.
The same can be said of Everest. The details of the 1922 expedition, recounted in Wade Davis’s magnificent book, Into the Silence, suggest a comically bombastic enterprise typical of Empire. A caravan comprising 300 yaks, 50 mules and 100 porters wound through the Himalayan valleys, carrying 900 boxes of food, all because 13 white men wanted to reach the summit. And yet in terms of compassion and empathy, the British climbers could be exemplary. An avalanche buried a party led by George Mallory and seven porters died. “All whites are safe” was the callous message that went down the mountain, but Mallory’s colleague, Howard Somervell, was later to write, “Why oh why could not one of us Britishers [have] shared their fate. I would gladly at that moment have been lying there, dead in the snow. If only to give those fine chaps who had survived the feeling that we had shared their loss, as we had indeed shared the risk.”
Mallory blamed himself for the accident. There was no blaming otherwise and no stoning either, in that both harsher and kinder age.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk