Into Thin Air: Analysis of Sherpa and Their Impact
In Into Thin Air there is a division that is perhaps the most clearly visible of all. It is, perhaps, even more clear than distinction of client vs guide. Each character in the book falls into one of two categories; Sherpa or Westerner. The culture of Everest could be said to be the culture of the Sherpa, the strongly Buddhist people who live in the shadow of the mountain, many of whom make their living leading wealthy foreigners up the dangerous slopes to the top. However there is no small amount of controversy regarding the commercialization of Everest in recent years. In fact, in many ways, it would seem that the Buddhist culture of the Sherpas conflicts directly with the new role they have found as guides of the increasingly “touristy” climbers of Everest. However, upon a deeper inspection of both the tenets of Buddhism and the job these Sherpa do, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Regardless, we must first assess whether there is any “blame” to be placed upon the Sherpa for assisting in the commercialization of Everest. First, it is absolutely crucial to remember that Sherpa culture and religion is completely intertwined with their mountain environment:
“The Sherpas belong to the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism. […] it emphasizes mysticism and incorporates shamanistic practices and local deities borrowed from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion. Thus, in addition to Buddha and the great Buddhist divinities, the Sherpa also believe in numerous gods and demons who are believed to inhabit every mountain, cave, and forest. These have to be worshiped or appeased through ancient practices that have been woven into the fabric of Buddhist ritual life. Indeed, it is almost impossible to distinguish between Bon practices and Buddhism.
Many of the great Himalayan mountains are worshiped as gods. The Sherpas call Mount Everest Chomolungma and worship it as the “Mother of the World.” Mount Makalu is worshiped as the deity Shankar (Shiva). Each clan recognizes mountain gods identified with certain peaks that are their protective deities.” (www.everyculture.com)
They object, often vocally, to climbers sleeping together on the mountain. There is an appearing possible contradiction here. Throughout Into Thin Air, Hall comments that “we would have absolutely no chance of getting to the summit of Everest without their help. […]Without the support of our Sherpas none of us has any chance of climbing the mountain.” (Krakauer 38) Although this is intended to be grateful towards them, it shows an interesting fact. Without Sherpa, fewer paying climbers would be able to climb Everest. In this aspect, Sherpas have contributed directly to the commercialization of Everest. Since the first summit of Tenzing and Hillary, Sherpas have been an invaluable tool for ascending Mount Everest. Yet for all their attempts to appease and respect the mountain, to some they have helped demean the mountain by putting in the reach of westerners who are able to climb the mountain only by virtue of wealth.
Of course, some of the changes in the identity of Everest were inescapable. After it’s discovery and eventual ascent, it became the preeminent goal of the most skilled mountaineers worldwide, a true honor. However, in 1985, Dick Bass, a wealthy Texan with little experience was guided to the Summit, and soon Everest became little more than a prize to be bought. Everest was made into a business, an accomplishment that could be bought by all but the least experienced of climbers. As Krakauer puts it; to many, especially those who had climbed Everest before hand, “Everest,[…] had been debased and profaned.” (Krakauer 22) In effect, this was a second change in the culture of Everest, the first being from Sherpa deity to mountaineer’s ultimate challenge. The Sherpas were instrumental in both of these transitions, offering their skills to any and all seeking to conquer the once unconquered peak. To the extent that Everest has been tamed, it could be said that the Sherpas helped subdue it. From there, it is no small leap to make that the Sherpas betrayed the long traditions of semi-worship the mountains.
However, all of these observations, which appear true on the surface, fail to truly hold water for a number of reasons. To start, while leading their clients the Sherpas stop at a number of temples and shrines along the way, encouraging the clients to experience Buddhism and maintain an air of respectfulness. Although thousands of clients have successfully summitted, the Sherpa have not forgotten the danger inherent in their job. In fact, one of the most saving facts regarding the Sherpas role on Everest is that they have not succeeded in taming the Mountain. The incredibly high levels of danger ensure that they remember that the Mountain must always be respected. Even if many westerners see Everest as an obstacle that can be bought for the right price, Sherpa culture still keeps in mind that the Mountain truly behaves as if it is a living entity that can and will punish climbers seemingly arbitrarily. To this end, the Sherpas display huge cultural and religious devotion to climbing the mountain in the most respectful way possible. Krakauer describes the way that the Sherpas build “beautiful, meticulously constructed stone chortens at Base Camp, one for each expedition.”(Krakauer 75) as a form of protection for the expeditions. Although the Sherpas have indirectly helped the commercialization of Everest, they also ensure that it is done in a way that maintains the Buddhist traditions as part of the experience of Everest.
Of course, one of the undeniable reasons that the Sherpa guide Everest is a need for money. This too, with a deeper reading of Buddhist teachings, is not in and of itself objectionable. Although Buddhism opposes excesses of materialism in the search for happiness, Buddhism acknowledges that a certain amount of material wealth is conducive to happiness, specifically wealth gained from just living. Guruge describes in his book that there are a number of “happinesses” that come from wealth. The most important for our purposes is that of Anavajjasukha , the happiness derived from blameless conduct. That is to say, Anavajjasukha is the happiness someone gets from making money doing something that is just and worthy, in effect all wealth not gained from illegal or otherwise immoral activities, such as prostitution, sales of weapons or crimes. (Gurude 86) In this way, Buddhism suggests that the wealth that the Sherpas make from their work is not anything wrong, but rather a tool to achieve happiness, in the form of enjoying the material wealth and the pride in the work that they do.
However, these are only arguments that suggests that they are not at fault. Upon consideration of what would happen if the Sherpas no longer offered their services, it becomes clear that they are actually performing a great service, one that is in complete harmony with the teachings of the Buddha.
As is established often throughout the book Into Thin Air, Everest makes people act in ways that seem insane. Summit fever, the irrational, all consuming desire to reach the summit, is a powerful force that grabs individuals both when they are close to the top and when they are thousands of miles away. For men like Edmund Hillary and Doug Harris, no obstacle, no risk is great enough to dissuade them. True fanatics will always be willing to brave whatever odds are thrown at them. It is easy to blame the Sherpas for the commercialization of Everest, for making it too easy, but in reality, Everest will always attract the ambitious and the foolish. The only effect that Sherpas have on these people is assisting them. The poor souls caught in the passionate net that Everest throws out will eventually find themselves in dangerous, occasionally lethal situations. When that time comes, the Sherpas are there to save their lives, the lives of their clients and friends to whom they feel a duty to. As shepherds of the mountain they function as lifeguards as well as guides, saving the climbers who will inevitably find trouble.
Sherpas play a central role in everything related to Everest; as such it is natural that they could seem responsible for some of the less seemly results of the commercialization thereof. However, when you take a deeper look at the traditions that Sherpas maintain on their climbs as well as the tenets of Buddhism, it becomes clear that nothing could be farther from the truth. Sherpas ensure that the experience of climbing the mountain does not lose its religious and cultural aspects while also saving lives. Although the current system of climbing Everest is not perfect it is clear that the Sherpas are part of the solution, not the problem.
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