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The Sharp End — The Center Will Not Hold

October, 1954, Tibet: Above 6600 meters

on Cho Oyu, the icefall rose like a fortress of

clouded glass. Autumn light glowed on the

cusp of evening. Pasang Dawa Lama vanished

into the blue shadows of a crevice, carrying a

rack of pitons, searching for a breach. No one

knew what lay beyond the ninety-meter wall.

Two years before, the British mountaineer Eric

Shipton found it impassable. The mountain

remained unclimbed. In 1939 Pasang Lama

nearly made the first ascent of K2 with Fritz

Wiessner. Now he was part of a small expedition

of three Austrians and seven Sherpas,

attempting another 8000-meter peak without

bottled oxygen. After decades at high altitudes,

he knew how to match the cadences of movement

and breath with the fluctuations of snow

and ice. Herbert Tichy belayed him in silent

awe. The Sherpa’s voice rang out: “No way.”

Pasang Lama emerged, traversed a steep slope,

and with a gasp, vanished once more amid the

ice. This time, he called for the others to follow.

In an hour, he’d solved the crux of the Northwest

Ridge. The way to the summit was open.

Two days later, a windstorm forced a

retreat. Pasang Lama trekked out to get supplies

for a second attempt. Thirty miles away,

in Marlung, he heard that a Swiss expedition

was progressing up the mountain, racing for

the first ascent. Moving almost nonstop over

the Nangpa La and up the lower slopes, Pasang

Lama carried food and fuel to Camp III. A day

later, he planted his axe on the top. As Tichy

hugged him, tears formed behind the Sherpa’s

dark glasses. In the expedition account, Tichy

declared: “Pasang’s achievement was surely

unique in the history of mountaineering–in

three days, he covered the difficult route…from

Marlung at 13,000 feet to the summit of Cho

Oyu at 26,750 feet. I do not think that there is

today another man capable of the same achievement”

(Cho Oyu: By Favour of the Gods, 1957).

These days, fixed ropes of commercial expeditions

cover the icefall. For many readers,

Pasang Lama’s feat has sunk amid the often hazy

anecdotes that form the sub-layers of

climbing history. By now, enough books on

Sherpas exist to fill, at least, a shelf. Yet most

publications still depict Westerners’ epics as the

central narrative of mountaineering. Ngawang

Nima Sherpa argues that his fellow local guides

exist only in the “shade.” Mainstream media

blasts news about international clients who

summit 8000-meter peaks, rendering invisible

the Sherpas who fix the ropes and lead them to

the top. When Sherpas do appear, it’s mainly

as supporting characters, lauded for rescues of

Westerners, praised for hard work or exoticized

as “local color.” Other figures linger even farther

in the periphery. A vast range of ethnic

groups exists within the nations bordering the

world’s highest peaks. All too frequently, their

experiences fall through the gaps of written

history, like a habitual lapse in our collective

memory, now hundreds of years old.

Most nineteenth-century Europeans

assumed that Himalayan exploration was a

Western story. Local knowledge of the mountains,

spread by the wanderings of herdsmen,

traders and pilgrims, vanished into “blanks on

the map”–as if vast swaths of passes, peaks

and valleys existed only as imaginary countries

until they were surveyed, (re)named and written

up into the realities of Geographic Societies.

Local people faded into the landscape, too,

like translucent incarnations of a “raw” and

“unknown” world. Gradually, they appeared as

“background” figures: the unnamed assistants of

the British Great Trigonometrical Survey; the

pundits who mapped forbidden regions during

covert struggles between Britain and Russia.

Early mountaineering took place amid

the height of European imperialism, when

the boundaries between non-Western and

Western roles seemed almost as delineated as

territories: servant and sahib, porter and mountaineer.

Meher H. Mehta, an elder member of

the Himalayan Club, recalls: “The division of

‘them and us’ was very much an attitude of

the colonials…always the case of the demarcation

of the common and the preferred.”

Over time, Sherpas protested these categories,

insisting they were more than “porters.” When

Tenzing Norgay joined the 1953 Everest expedition,

he demanded to be treated as a climber,

equal to the British. Edmund Hillary’s summit

photos portrayed Tenzing Norgay as a universal

hero–the first image of any human on top

of the earth. Jan Morris, the team reporter,

explained: “He was a man out of another

world, the new world of a renascent Asia”

(Tenzing: Hero of Everest, Ed Douglas, 2003).

High peaks are a powerful stage, as the

anthropologist Maria Luisa Nodari notes, and

even after the British Empire fell in 1947, a

virtual empire persisted within the climbing

imagination. For some of the Inner and

South Asian expeditions that arose in Tenzing

Norgay’s wake, the conquest of Himalayan

summits represented a symbol of independence

or empowerment, a regaining of lost political

terrain. Others followed older, indigenous

legends and meanings that layered the landscape

like invisible maps, charting a geography

that was, at once, cosmic and earthly, sacred

and real. Since 1953, each of these climbers

has re-interpreted the idea of ascent, in ways

influenced by cultural and personal visions,

local traditions and foreign encounters. To sift

through their histories is to see the nimbuses of

individual experiences spiral out into innumerable

galaxies of memory and dreams.

July 21, 1976, Pakistan: Below the top of

Payu Peak, light dazzled on a ledge of snow.

Allen Steck stood still, entranced, as his

Pakistani students continued on their own.

Despite the American’s desire to summit, he

felt this 6621-meter golden spire should be

an all-Pakistani first ascent. In his unpublished

memoirs, Steck recounts:

Nazir calls down to me, “The snow is very soft

and I am sinking in it, what do I do?” I tell him

to move slowly ahead with much caution and he

should be all right. The view of the peaks in a

wide arc is stupendous, K2 in particular, rises

above them all, basking in its glory.

Nazir Sabir, who’d been a high-altitude

porter for foreign teams, later recalled the

expedition as a “breakthrough.” Soon after,

he became one of the world’s great mountaineers,

completing the first ascent of the West

Ridge of K2, and alpine-style climbs of Broad

Peak and Gasherbrum II. One of his partners,

Reinhold Messner, declared that local alpinists

would “match us [Europeans] on their own

mountains, if not outstrip us” (All Fourteen

Eight Thousanders, 1988).

In recent years, often with little outside

attention, Messner’s prediction resonates. Pakistanis

Shaheen Baig and Qudrat Ali pursue

first winter climbs in the Karakoram. In 2009

they founded the Shimshal Mountaineering

School with Italian alpinist Simone Moro. In

January 2011, despite -38C temperatures,

they led eight female students on an alpine-style

winter ascent of Mingligh Sar (6050m).

Through “pure” local adventures, Baig tries to

bypass media biases and prove that the climbers

of his region “are second to none.”

Indian mountaineers began ascending

major unclimbed peaks like Annapurna III

(7555m) as early as the 1960s. Many focused

on “huge expeditions, Everest and ‘nationally

selected teams’.” Yet a few like Harish Kapadia

sought “hidden” objectives such as the

6559-meter Chiring We: “a shy mountain

[that] remained unheard of.” There, in 1979,

he wrote, “We had new approaches, a sort of

Indianization” (High Himalaya Unknown Valleys,

1993). By 2003, he’d climbed thirty-three

such summits, twenty-one of which were first

ascents. His teammate Divyesh Muni hopes the

next generation will accomplish similar feats

without fixed ropes. Mehta sees the younger

Indians carrying on the “age-old” Hindu tradition

of ascetic wanderers: “living happily upon

the land and what they can themselves carry.”

Some Chinese, Uyghur and Tibetan teams

have also left state-sponsored sieges of big-name

peaks for smaller-scale ascents of more difficult

mountains. In the 2010 American Alpine Journal,

Yan Dongong explains the ethos of these

“Free Mountaineers”: “Someone who doesn’t

climb for national glory or another lofty goal,

nor for profit…who is ready to match his

abilities against the pressures and dangers of

mountaineering, and prepared to face the consequences….

I think it is a China-specific term

because no other mountaineering community

in the world needs such a clarification.” Sichuan

alpinist Yong Liu refers to the influence of

local pioneers who climbed in alpine style without

knowing there was a term or an audience

for what they did. “Sichuan style,” he defines as

“only climbing, no talking.”

This spring, twenty-five Nepalese climbers

received international guide certification,

a step toward greater equality with Western

guides. To Buddhists, many high peaks represent

deities; climbing is potentially a form of

trespass. Some Sherpas have thus applied the

profits from high-altitude work to less questionable

and less dangerous careers. Others like

Dawa Steven Sherpa use climbing to promote

respect for a sacred and fragile environment.

If the economy improves, he says, “Nepalese

climbers will have more opportunities to climb

for themselves, and not just with clients,” and

to develop a “Nepalese climbing philosophy.”

To varying degrees, Inner and South

Asian climbers have coped with more limited

resources, equipment and training opportunities

than those in the West. Their stories remind

us that alpinism is, at its best, about overturning

assumptions. As the Polish climber Voytek

Kurtyka once wrote: “There are as many ways

to experience the mountains as there are real

and passionate emotional bonds with the

mountains…. It is in forging true bonds rather

than the collection of records that unveils a bit

of mystery” (Mountain 121).

Today, the metaphors associated with highly

publicized climbs shift steadily from the dominance

of nations to the promotion of brands.

Even a few Sherpas, now, are “sponsored,” and

the success of books like One Mountain Thousand

Summits (2010) and Buried in the Sky

(2012) may (one hopes) embolden publishers

to print more literature about non-Western

climbers. Increasingly, what falls beyond the

margins of representation may not be the

tales of local mountaineers per se, but those of

ascents deemed, for new reasons, unmarketable.

As Andy Selters argues, the “collective

roar” of modern commercialism has its own

“gravitational mass, shifting our balance, pulling

us toward what the crowd can recognize

and measure” (Alpinist 39).

This season on Everest displays, once more,

the power of such noise. The widespread

photos of people traffic-jammed along fixed

ropes; the deaths attributed to over-crowding

(which Nepalese journalist Kashish Das Shrestha

called an “international branding disaster”);

the cheering and booing from countless bloggers;

the mountainside production of digital

media; the participation of famous, sponsored

athletes–have saturated the Internet with

images that can too easily obscure the lack of

any significance to the 5645th+ ascent or to the

177th without bottled oxygen. And that can,

more seriously, make the loss of life seem an

inevitable part of a clumsy, gladiatorial drama.

In contrast, it’s worth recalling the solitary

and immeasurable impulse that allowed

Pasang Lama and Tichy to create an ascent as

“an ‘adaptation,’ rather than an intrusion,” in

which they “‘achieved harmony’ rather than

conquered” and could “forget the experience

and rules of the big expeditions and wander

among the mountains and climb them in

our own way” (Cho Oyu, Tichy). Within

this legacy–shared by many alpinists–lies a

broader argument for the telling of other stories

than the ones that get the most funding

and press. To preserve the spirit of alpinism

in our era, we will need to learn deeper ways

of expressing the history of all places, peoples

and times, searching for erasures, marginalia

and allusions; listening to oral traditions and

untranslated tales; and revisiting the value of

deeds judged “unhistoric” that quietly, yet

profoundly shift the inner development of

our pursuit. For it is often in such moments

that the climber, the writer or the reader can

look beyond all historical preconceptions and

commit to unknowns greater than those of

physical terrain. Whether or not the mainstream

public sees them, such truly creative

acts continue, always and everywhere, rippling

and spreading in constant reminder that the

center will not–must not–hold.

[With advice from Janice Sacherer, Harish Kapadia, Divyesh Muni,

Sumaira Jajja, Allen Steck, Hildegard Diemberger, Amanda Padoan,

Peter Zuckerman, Bill Buxton, Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn, Steve

Swenson, Michael Kennedy, Brot Coburn, Dawa Steven Sherpa, N.

Nima Sherpa, Motup Chewang, Sarah Ives, Yong Liu, Meher Mehta,

Suman Dubey, Eberhard Jurgalski, Shaheen Baig, Ashraf Aman]

For a selected bibliography of the Sharp End — The Center Will Not Hold, click here.