[The following essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]
A CHILDHOOD MEMORY of my maternal grandmother offering incense to Khumbi Yullha connects me spiritually to the place I call home. I used to wake every morning to the sound of her repeating the Buddhist mantra, Om Mane Padme Hung. I watched her take embers from the hearth, lay them on dried juniper leaves and blow air into them. The barely lit kitchen would fill with smoke as she walked out to place the brass burner in her front yard. The grey smoke rose toward the mountain, and the scent lingered around us.
Khumbi Yullha translates literally to “protector deity of Khumbu,” home of the Sherpa people in northeastern Nepal. The deity is radiant, dresses in white silk and rides a red horse. He resides on the prominent rocky mountain named after him, Mt. Khumbila, which overlooks the villages down in the valley. Sherpas from the region perform the lhapsang ritual annually to appease the deity and to request his continued protection. They are careful not to disturb the god or his associates (khor), which include yeti, yaks, goats and sheep. This peak is considered too sacred to climb.
A mountain is a metaphor. To imagine a future of alpinism is to imagine the kind of future we, collectively as global citizens, want to create on and off the mountain. The gift of history offers us an advantage. The knowledge we have inherited orally or textually shows us what to leave behind and what to take forward. Each of us has a choice to make. I dream of a future that is just and fair. What would that be like? This question cannot be answered without coming face-to-face with our present reality.
We are entangled in the hegemonic system that privileges one worldview: nature is here to serve humans. Therefore, we extract and we exploit. When it comes to the mountains, we conquer. These concepts are assaults not just to the mountain but also to many who see summits as sites of reverence.
Worldviews on the margins of this hegemonic system are often dismissed as “superstitious,” “backward,” or “less than.” What if we recognized them for what they are? The worldview of our Sherpa ancestors, for example, is one that has supported life for generations in the rugged landscapes of the planet’s highest altitudes. Our resiliency as mountain people has come from recognizing the humanity of every individual, not just our accomplishments and shortcomings. A life well-lived through compassionate thoughts and actions matters more than the number of medals, records or degrees. At a time when modern luxuries were merely artifacts of dreams, our ancestors’ practice of taking on the responsibility of caring for each other and for other living beings–those in human form or not–is what sustained existence here. The longevity of this practice depended on holding each other accountable for it.
Like crevasses in the mountains, commercialized systems that have replaced our ancestral worldviews have swallowed many among us. The current COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the cracks in these systems. The global pandemic was expected to last one tourist season, but now we are entering into the second year with the situation worsening day by day. When I first drafted this essay in early May, the Solukhumbu district, where Mt. Everest (Jomolangma/Chomolungma) lies, was beginning another lockdown. An official from Nepal’s Department of Tourism was denying any knowledge of the viral illness on the mountain. A couple of weeks later, reports of more than a hundred positive COVID-19 cases at Everest Base Camp trickled in through news outlets and social media. We can only guess the number of infected individuals in the villages that expedition teams passed on their way up and down. The underreporting and denial here may not have been entirely accidental.
The pandemic has outlasted the humanitarian relief efforts that took place in selected Khumbu villages during its early days. Families are weighing anxieties about COVID-19 against other survival needs. This is why it is not surprising to see people still working in the mountain tourism industry despite the risk of illness. The lack of sufficient vaccines, medical resources and health care professionals in rural Nepal is a known fact. What those of us watching from the West often fail to recognize is that for many local people in roadless regions–who are literally carrying the mountaineering tourism industry on their backs– merely getting to health care facilities can be a challenge.
In 2020, when Everest expeditions were canceled, the pandemic gave us a glimpse of what it would look like if we let the mountain rest. Until that point, year after year, viral images had circulated of ever-longer queues to the summit and accumulating piles of trash. Sighs of relief could be detected behind the words of some international journalists who finally saw the mountain crowd free. For those in Nepal who depend solely on income from the mountaineering tourism industry, the quiet peak represented a dreaded reality. How were they going to survive?
In the midst of this situation, to imagine a future beyond pandemic seems like an opulent undertaking. It is a privilege I am able to enjoy halfway around the world. From a Sherpa perspective, an expedition to the summit is not only an act of performing technical skills on the mountain, but also a careful consideration of the relationship between the climber and the mountain. It is about maintaining the spiritual sanctity of the space that climbers occupy. Making offerings to the mountain as my grandmother did is one way to maintain sanctity. Another way is to open yourself for the service of others. Unfortunately, in the case of Sherpas, Western visitors have historically mistaken their cheerful acts of service for an acceptance of racialized subordination rather than simply recognizing them for what they are–gifts of compassion.
In the future, I hope alpinism is able to project multiple worldviews together at once–not as a competition to establish a hierarchy, but as a way to learn from each other and to treat everyone with dignity. I hope alpinism is not just about stepping on the mountain, but about strengthening our relationship with it and with each other. I hope that the mountains are not reduced to commodities for sale; that we are able to see and hear the people whose labor makes the mountaineering tourism industry possible; and that we recognize that they are indispensable, not disposable.
–Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, a Seattle-based anthropologist from Nepal, studies Indigeneity, climate change and the Sherpa diaspora.
[This essay is one of 18 published in Alpinist 75 (Autumn 2021) under the title, “The Cresset and the Light: The Many Futures of Alpinism.” We are publishing just eight online, including this one. For a complete overview of the wide-ranging essay topics and contributors in the feature, see the list at the end of the introduction by Editor-in-Chief Katie Ives here. Pick up Alpinist 75 from newsstands or our online store for all the goodness!–Ed.]