Of Sherpas and white men

  • Nepal's dependence on tourism seems to have installed a saviour complex in many visitors

MAY 05 -

Sixty years have passed since the first Everest ascent by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary and since then, the climb has gotten easier, with paths carved out and ropes laid out to facilitate the climb of thousands of foreigners and Nepalis. And although sporadic dead bodies and piles of trash mar the forbidding, pristine beauty of the mountain, hundreds more make for the summit every year for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional. But for the Sherpas, the Nepalis without whom the vast majority of climbs would not be possible, it is mostly a commercial reason. As experienced and capable guides and porters, they make a decent living helping foreigners, mostly commercial expeditions, up the mountain and onto the top of the world.

So it was distressing to hear of the recent brawl between three foreign climbers and a “mob” of Sherpas at Camp 2 on Everest. The initial reports laid out the ‘facts’: three climbers—Italian Simone Moro, Swiss Ueli Steck and Brit Jonathan Griffith—were “assaulted” by a gang of about “100-150” Sherpas for allegedly disrupting the latter’s work laying down ropes for the climbers. From the many conflicting accounts that have emerged since, only one thing that is certain: there was a fight on Everest. Everything else is a matter of conjecture and depends on where your sympathies lie.

However, if most news outlets had maintained their journalistic ethos, both sides of the story would’ve emerged. Instead, what came forth almost exclusively were the stories of Moro, Steck and Griffith, who laid the blame squarely on the Sherpas. Their side of the story is that they did nothing wrong and “jealousy” was the main motive behind the conflict.

“I think the fact that we were going up there made them angry because they were thinking that if they [the Sherpas] are on the mountain, nobody else can be on the mountain...They had been fixing the whole morning and we overtook them in about one hour. I can understand that this creates some problems or jealousy,” said Steck in an interview with the Swiss Broadcast Corporation. Although no Sherpas on the mountain were quoted, a Post report blamed the three climbers of dislodging ice while climbing, which fell and hit the Sherpas fixing the ropes below. The climbers have vehemently denied that any ice fell on the Sherpas and Moro even accused the Sherpas of throwing ice at his team in an interview with National Geographic.

A thorough report from American guide and climber Garrett Madison, who was on the mountain when the fight happened, claimed that Moro said, over the open radio frequency that climbers and Sherpas on Everest use, “if the Sherpa had a problem he could come down to Camp 2 soon and f—king fight.” While Moro rubbished this claim, he did admit to calling the lead Sherpa a “motherf—ker” in Nepali. Madison also accused another Western climber, one unaffiliated with the three climbers, of instigating the brawl by tackling one of the Sherpas who had come to argue with the three at Camp 2. Seeing one of their own physically assaulted was the spark that ignited the fire. Punches, kicks and rocks were thrown. Melissa Arnot, an American climber, shielded the three foreigners and diffused the situation.

The three climbers have since aborted their attempt on Everest. Steck and Griffith have left the country while Moro remains on Everest, where he said in an interview with ExplorersWeb, “I will stay to fly my heli rescues, maybe saving the same people who attacked us.” Moro, understandably, is upset.

When something incendiary happens in a place like Everest, it is natural that there will be conflicting stories. However, the bulk of the reports have focused on how unjustly the climbers were treated. Some Nepali newspapers have bemoaned the loss of revenue to the country, blaming the Sherpas and accusing them of hurting national pride. While it is natural for the foreigners to be angry and for foreign news services to tell their side of the story, it should have been just as natural for Nepali newspapers to attempt a balanced view. There is no need to pass judgment but relying exclusively on statements and quotes from foreign climbers gives a lopsided view of things.

Journalistic ethos aside, the discussions over the fight have taken a decidedly darker turn. In analyses, commentary and social media, overtly racist remarks are being hurled at the Sherpa community and the tendency to orientalise the ‘other’ does not seem to have vanished. Even the three climbers’ accounts post-incident reveal a deep resentment of the Sherpas. Anonymous commentators have further maligned the Sherpas, calling them “primitive,” “backward” and from the National Geographic’s Broughton Coburn, “noble savage.” While it is expected that closet racists will let loose under the cloak of anonymity, Coburn’s cloying, condescending piece is most irking.

Coburn has been to Nepal many times and is a familiar name and face to many Nepalis. Which is why his piece is most bothersome. If someone so familiar with Nepal and Nepalis can orientalise us so much, speaking at length about the Sherpas’ spiritualism and beliefs and as if surprised he says, “The Sherpas have demonstrated a remarkable ability to learn, adapt, and excel.” That it is “remarkable” for the Sherpas to learn and adapt, which, of course, comes so naturally to the Westerners, is particularly disparaging.

Coburn piece on the surface, is innocuous enough. But reading deeper, it reeks of orientalism and condescension. The most insulting sentence is, “They have gamely followed the natural progression from noble savage (of romantic proportions) to renaissance men and women. Many have targeted careers as doctors, airline pilots, scientists, and professionals.” While

the noble savage ideal came and went with the era of colonisation, here is Coburn, still applying it to Sherpas, as if they are stuck perpetually in a romanticised, Western ideal of what a third-worlder should be. He seems locked in a mindset that sees Sherpas, and Nepalis, as romantic primitives.

Moro and Coburn are both philanthropists and have done much for impoverished Nepalis and that seems to be driving their barely concealed arrogance. Tourism might contribute much to the Nepali economy but instead of fostering an understanding and appreciation of Nepali ways of life, it seems to have instilled a saviour complex in many foreigners who seem to think they are god’s gift to us, and that the Sherpas are mere obedient “service providers”.

It is most disheartening to see people like Coburn resort to tired clichés and orientalism. The Everest brawl was an aberration but while holding discourse on such a clash of “two worlds” as Steck put it, commentators, especially those from the Western world, would do us a service if they were more mindful of the subtle ways in which deeply held prejudices come to the fore.


Posted on: 2013-05-05 08:59