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Between the Lines

[Photo] Ethan Welty

IN A BRICK HOUSE in the tree-lined village of Hildenborough, England, a Tibetan woman listened to her British husband translate books and newspapers, so she could hear how foreign writers depicted her homeland. It was the early twentieth century, in the midst of the first British attempts on Everest. To many Europeans at the time, the world’s highest peak seemed like a final glimmer of mystery in the modern world, its surrounding countryside shining beneath a haze of myth and romance–an imaginary geography unrecognizable to Rinchen Lhamo. She was baffled by descriptions of Tibet as purely a “desert of ice and snow,” when she remembered the green meadows of summer and the high-altitude sunlight that blazed even in winter.

When John Noel’s film The Epic of Everest premiered in London in 1925, its scenes portrayed villagers on the Tibetan side of the mountain as if they were submerged in dirt and superstition. Live performances by dancing monks seemed to treat their religion as a spectacle. Tibetan viewers were offended–so much so that, until the 1930s, their government refused to allow another foreign Everest expedition. “I suppose our distant country holds little of interest for your public except for what of the strange can be written about it, and so you get a strange picture of us,” Lhamo concluded. “We are neither primitive nor bizarre.”

A year later, she published these words in a book, We Tibetans, coauthored with her husband, to fill some of the vast gaps between the land that was written about in English stories and the land that she knew.

THE EARLY INTERNATIONAL EXPEDITIONS that culminated in first ascents of the world’s highest peaks created a vast literary topography–one that shifted with the perspective of each author, reflecting dreams of hidden otherworlds or vertical wastelands, blanks on the map to chart or conquer, places for climbers to find themselves or to experience a sense of brotherhood. For armchair readers, lines of prose projected across the peaks and valleys, tracing elaborate features of imagination that frequently concealed, partly or entirely, the geographic traditions of the people who lived there.

Although some foreign mountaineers heartily praised their local porters and guides (and a handful spoke of them as equals), the Nepali-American writer Tashi Sherpa notes that there was often “an unspoken equation of lord and manservant.” Even today, only a few books tell the history of Himalayan mountaineering from the point of view of local protagonists. In his 1955 memoir, Tiger of the Snows, Tenzing Norgay, who became an international hero after making the first ascent of Everest with Edmund Hillary, complained, nonetheless, of feeling like a secondary character in Hillary’s story.

This spring, more than sixty years after Memoires d’un Sherpa first appeared in French, Mountaineers Books will publish an English translation of the autobiography of Ang Tharkay, the sirdar who assisted with the first ascent of Annapurna in 1950. As with Tiger of the Snows, Ang Tharkay’s original account was filtered through a Western coauthor. Tashi Sherpa, who wrote a new preface, recalls Ang Tharkay as a humble man unwilling to make reproaches. “You have to read between the lines. The equation is always there, in little snippets: the losses, the frostbite,” Tashi Sherpa says, “the troubling issues that always existed in a very subtle avatar…but always got somewhat brushed away quietly in a mutual celebration of the relationship between the Sherpa and the sahib.”

Intermixed with expressions of gratitude for his employers, Ang Tharkay wrote of Sherpas who fell cutting steps in windswept, ice-enameled snow. Of a doctor who tried to convince Ang Tharkay that chopping wood for the expedition members would somehow help his frostbitten hands. And of a colleague, Kusang Bhotia, who drowned trying to secure a bridge for the rest of the team, leaving behind a widowed mother and young brother. In one passage, Ang Tharkay recounted, “I don’t want to close this chapter without an emotional evocation of a dear friend, originally from a village in Khumbu, neighboring mine. His name is Jigme Sherpa.” The British mountaineer Eric Shipton hired Ang Tharkay in 1937 to explore unmapped regions of the Karakoram, while the German leader Karl Wien engaged Jigme Sherpa for an attempt on Nanga Parbat. The two friends spent their last evening together in Srinagar, Kashmir. “At the moment of separating,” Ang Tharkay recalled, “it seemed to me that [Jigme Sherpa] had a premonition that we would never see each other again, and he made a present to me of his watch as a remembrance.” Six months later, when Ang Tharkay returned to Gilgit, he heard that Jigme Sherpa had died on Nanga Parbat, along with fifteen other men, after an ice avalanche buried Camp IV. Ang Tharkay kept the watch as a “precious relic,” until he lost it on an expedition to Chomoyomo in northern Sikkim.

THROUGH THE DECADES, a quiet narrative of absence–missing family members and muted words–runs under the history of mountaineering, beneath the louder international sagas of alpine triumphs and tragedies. In her 2014 blog post, “Three Springs,” Jemima Diki Sherpa described a group of men gathered on a long bench in a Khumbu village. As they passed tea from oldest to youngest, gaps in the line appeared “like missing teeth,” where those lost on expeditions once sat. That April, an avalanche on Everest had resulted in the deaths of sixteen Nepali workers in the Khumbu Icefall, unleashing an outpouring of mourning and protest. “It took an avalanche to get people together to speak up,” Norbu Tenzing Norgay (son of Tenzing Norgay) told Alpinist. “But it’s always been at the back of our minds. The labor issues, the inequities, the greed. I felt some hope, if people stood up with one voice and spoke up, something might happen.”

In a new movie, Sherpa, directed by the Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, the Khumbu Icefall appears as a maze of precarious frozen walls and sudden blue crevasses–inescapable corridors flooded by an explosion of snow and ice. A polyphony of contrasting voices rises: the story of a Nepali woman who gave birth the night her husband died on Everest; the words of a BASE jumper comparing himself to Superman. The client who says, “I’m willing to assume that risk,” as if not realizing that the risk is not only his. The outfitter who urges workers back up the slopes where their colleagues died, reminding them this is their only source of income. The worker who pleads with others to stop: “That route has become a graveyard. We must respect the dead.”

By the end of the film, striking workers have put together a list of demands to Nepal’s government, including better life insurance and safer conditions. It seems like an inflection point. And yet, the business that surrounds Everest represents only one symbol of other, less visible forms of labor that support most climbs, in most styles, on the world’s giant peaks.

BEHIND A WHITE HAZE, outlines of Karakoram peaks turn into dim silhouettes of dun and grey. It’s the summer of 2014, and the Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee is directing K2 and The Invisible Footmen, edited by Jawad Sharif. The camera follows in point-of-view style as a low-altitude porter ferries a load to the base camp of K2. Sharp breaths make a jagged rhythm. Feet stagger across ash-colored stones. Cliffs plunge into rapids. A Pakistani worker explains that a porter fell in the river once: the body was found and buried a year later. The pale gravestone glows against the black emptiness of a cave.

Scenes are interspersed with spoken words of climbers and porters, like currents flowing past each other, eliding, reemerging. A foreign climber declares, hand on chest, “that sense of achievement when you reach the summit…is just something that will live in my soul forever.” A young porter says, “I just look human, but with this work, I don’t feel human anymore.” One by one, mountaineers from Nepal, America, Pakistan, Singapore and other countries speak of aspirations and fears. Some talk of the possibility of dying in awed tones, as if recalling legendary tales of falling ice and avalanches, of storms that trapped climbers for too many days at high elevations. Mountaineering is like no other sport. It is a game of life and death. One by one, porters recount the dangers of a job that provides their only available employment–fears of lives shortened by hard labor and hazardous trails. We work amid the sliding stones and crevasses.

The camera moves from the iridescent gleam of ice above 8000 meters to the shouts of children running between the stone walls of a village lane. A local climber recounts his progression from low-altitude porter to high-altitude worker to member of the 2014 Pakistani expedition, speaking proudly of risking his life for the honor of his country. The son of Hassan Sadpara–who also began as a porter and went on to climb 8000-meter peaks –recounts his grief at how little recognition his father ever got. The film offers no easy answers to the questions raised. But near the conclusion, a few climbers and porters dance together, with a momentary, interweaving grace: an image, in some ways, of new stories that might be told, in which the separation between peak and valley vanishes and the high snows no longer seem like empty stages for isolated, grand deeds.

IN HIS 2013 BOOK, Summits of Modern Man, the historian Peter Hansen described one of the most common paradigms of Western mountaineering narratives: lone individuals trying to prove their autonomy from the rest of society, escaping into the rarefied air of the heights. Some of the most significant recent works of literature and film remind us of just how much that formula leaves out. “A lot of climbing narratives smooth out rough edges to conform to expectations or suppress uncomfortable questions,” Hansen explains. “Perhaps we could use less heroism and more rough edges. Some writers might experiment with fragments, fiction, multiple points of view, mixed genres…. We could also be more tolerant of ambiguity, complexity, dissonance.” The anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa envisions a more inclusive genre: “The story should be about the existence of multiple stories and about bringing them to light…. It should involve shifting our focus from one-way-of-being to recognizing the multiple-ways-of-being.”

The result might be a rolling back of outdated literary maps, a dissolution of imperial names and categories, a replacement of the conquest of peaks (already an unpopular metaphor) with the effort of collaboration and with recognition of the need for change. Through gaps between the lines of classic books and alpine walls, we might glimpse larger realms of darkness and of light. When the earthquake struck Nepal this year, some mountaineers escaped in helicopters that seemed at times more available to foreigners than to local people. Others joined streams of refugees on foot or stayed to participate in the recovery. Meanwhile, Nepalis hiked in from cities and monasteries to help rebuild remote mountain towns. Trekkers and villagers alike camped by broken trails and fallen homes. And in the aftermath, stories arose that weren’t of climbers following a singular line of progress from valley to summit and back–but, instead, of branching journeys intertwining with each other, creating countless, unexpected paths.

[Many people helped with research and advice for The Sharp End, including: Tashi Sherpa, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, Pema Sherpa, Norbu Tenzing Norgay, Peter Hansen, Stephen Slemon, Zac Robinson, Jan Sacherer Turner, David Morton, Bob. A Schelfhout Aubertijn, Jochen Hemmleb.–Ed.]