For Too Long We Have Only Known Western Stories of the Himalayas
Sophie Cousins on the Cruel Beauty of Mountaineering and
the Literature It Breeds
I never had any desire to climb mountains—nor even a single one—before I moved to Nepal.
Growing up along the coast in the flattest continent in the world, mountaineering wasn’t exactly a sport Australians were encouraged to take up. I used to wonder who those masochists were—the ones I read about in National Geographic who chose to subject themselves to no sleep, the bitter cold, and a lack of oxygen. It sounded truly awful, but the images were extraordinary.
When I moved to Kathmandu several years ago, I began to understand not just the physical pull of the mountains, but their intense spiritual calling. On days where the pollution would recede enough to show off the mighty Himalaya, from my balcony I could see Manaslu, the eighth-tallest mountain in the world, its white knife-edged summit soaring into space. Sometimes I would sit on my rooftop, alone, and stare in the distance, in awe of her beauty and sheer scale. When I watched planes fly below her, I would shake my head and think that I was a fool to be enticed by a sport that is so deadly, one that has taken far too many lives far too early.
But as I would sit there watching the sun set, I could feel it in my soul that the mountain was speaking to me; she was tempting me. I channelled that message into action, gaining experience on smaller peaks in the Himalaya and the Andes. I was meant to climb Manaslu last September, but the expedition was cancelled due to the pandemic and Nepal’s desire to keep remote mountain communities free of the virus. If I wasn’t scaling mountains, though, I wanted to be reading about the people who had. I wanted to read books that captured the human texture of the landscape; stories that embodied the true experience of mountaineering and the deep spiritual awakening that went along with pursuing something that is not only a sport, but also a layered, profound experience of the highest order.
But I quickly realized that for as long as mountaineering has existed, English-language mountaineering literature has been focused on telling stories about the tough, strong white male adventurer—the Westerner who scaled peaks in foreign, “exotic” places like the Himalaya. It became quickly apparent (though it has begun to shift in recent years) that these male adventurers—some with questionable or no experience—believed they had scaled some of the world’s greatest peaks alone, as if mountaineering was a sport that was dedicated to the individual pursuit of excellence.
It was this view that governments in the West actively encourage. In 1929, as the Nazis rose to power, Germany launched its first post-war Himalayan mountaineering expedition to the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, with one very clear mission: to rebuild faith in German manhood. In The Himalayan Journal, the mountaineer (and propagandist) Paul Bauer documented their expedition through the use of military metaphors as if the mountain was a battlefield: He referred to climbers as “solders”; climbing became “marching”; and the act of ascending the mountain was replaced with the words, “assault” and “attack.”
The use of military metaphors has long permeated society and is by no means restricted to sport. Susan Sontag wrote Illness as a Metaphor primarily in response to the rise of military metaphors used to describe people who have cancer—something that continues to contribute to the stigmatization of those with certain diseases. “There is the ‘fight’ or ‘crusade’ against cancer; cancer is the ‘killer’ disease; people who have cancer are ‘cancer victims’,” she writes.
Bauer’s description of their expedition to Kangchenjunga—like so many male mountaineers who followed him—was deeply extractive, colonial and hierarchical, with very little reference—or recognition—to the intense labor of Sherpas, one of the Tibetan ethnic groups native to the mountainous regions of the Himalaya. The word “Sherpa” has become synonymous with the word “porter” for many people who visit the region, suggesting that Sherpa people have no identity other than being the servants of colonialists.Book after book, peak after peak, mountaineering was transformed into a sport, an arena for hegemonic western masculinity to thrive.
“On this day we found the key; it lay in absolutely new ice-technique by which ice-formations never seen before were made passable even for porters,” Bauer wrote. “The porters with their heavy loads—they carried 80 lbs and we only 30—40 lbs—[were] continually stuck helplessly and had to be pulled out.”
Expeditions like these and their subsequent narratives shaped the bulk of modern mountaineering literature. Book after book, peak after peak, mountaineering was transformed into a sport, an arena for hegemonic western masculinity to thrive.
It has also become a playground for feeding and fueling post-colonial relationships whereby those native to the mountains are treated not just as servants, but as the “other” in their own land. The literature suggests, for example, that the Sherpa people should be grateful because mountaineering has allowed them to “develop” their archaic communities—communities that don’t have what we, a collective white narrator, have. In the book High Crimes, the journalist Michael Kodas writes that, “A Sherpa who had climbed Everest had the best pay-check in the Khumbu, and was assured of work during the climbing season. In two months, Dorjee earned more than he could in a full year of herding yaks. That income had allowed him to move his family to Kathmandu and send his two daughters to school, a path of economic and social advancement followed by dozens of other climbing Sherpas.”
But mountains are not for climbing in the Sherpa culture. In Tibetan, the mountain Chomolungma’s name means “Mother Goddess of the World.” For the Sherpa people, to climb Chomolungma’s slopes is to stomp on the head of a goddess. Its name in Nepali, Sagarmatha, has multiple meanings, all of them spiritual and religious. These are the original names of Mt. Everest, the tallest peak in the world, that was instead named after George Everest in the 19th century, a British former Surveyor General of India. Mountaineering, it appears, is centered in the West even when it takes place elsewhere.
Moreover, what Kodas—and numerous other authors—have neglected to mention is the reality that Sherpa participation in the industry is a hesitant one; a participation that, in theory, is optional, but one that confers enough financial benefits that it has trapped a marginalized community into a position of vassalage.
The reality is that while many Sherpas have been able to send their children to schools in Kathmandu, they make a pathetically low amount of money compared with western, usually white, climbing guides. These low wages are either ignored or justified by those who point out that the per capita income in Nepal is $1,000. The assumption is that the Sherpas should be grateful to their predominantly western, white employers for earning a few thousand dollars doing work that could very well cost them their lives.
Perhaps most significantly, as white western narratives of the Himalaya portray the Sherpas as invincible and invisible warriors—the word “Sherpa,” Kodas writes, “carries strong connotations of hard work, loyalty and honestly, and most Sherpas still live up to that part of their name’”—many neglect to recognize that they do all the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively. They are assigned by mostly foreign-owned guide companies the most arduous and physically demanding jobs. While many foreigners have died on Chomolungma or Sagarmatha since the first attempts to scale her, Sherpas actually make up 40 percent of those who have perished on the mountain during the last century. Where are their stories?
Re-reading Kodas’ words reminded me of the writer Allyn Gaestel’s pertinent lecture on reverence and relation, which she delivered in late 2019 at Haverford College, where she unpacks layers of white superiority in journalism, including the belief that white people in the West are superior to everyone else.
“Very often it’s unconscious, which makes it even more nefarious, because people don’t realize how violent their worldview is,” she said. “But it permeates everything from the stories people choose to tell: topics of war, belittling savior narratives, development stories as if any country would or should hope to end up like the West. And then how these stories are permitted to be narrated—what gets through to the public.”
One could be forgiven for believing that 2019, when 11 international mountaineers died, was the deadliest recent season on Chomolungma. However, that grim designation is shared by 2014’s season, when an avalanche killed 16 Nepalis, 13 of them Sherpas, and 2015’s season, when a devastating earthquake shook the country, taking 24 lives at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain. You wouldn’t know this as an outsider because the public has been led to believe that a death of a Sherpa is insignificant or, rather, a mere inconvenience.
After the 2014 tragedy, a grotesque television series, which documented the trials and tribulations of rich people looking to “conquer” the mountain, aired interviews with climbers who lamented the fact that the Sherpas didn’t want to climb after the tragic avalanche that killed their brothers. “For the foreign climbers, to go home now will mean forfeiting most or all of the fifty to ninety thousand dollars they have spent to be guided up Everest,” author Jon Krakauer wrote in The New Yorker.
When the Sherpas collectively decided to abandon the 2014 climbing season to honor the 16 that lost their lives, the Associated Press published a story noting that, “The decision throws the plans of hundreds of foreign mountaineers into chaos, with many of them waiting in base camp after paying tens of thousands of dollars to scale the world’s highest peak.” The implication was that the Nepalis owed it to foreigners to continue climbing because they had paid obscene amounts of money to get to the top; the deaths were merely an inconvenience.
Back to 2019: a season on the world’s highest mountain that made headlines not just because 11 foreigners died, but because of a viral photo that illustrated just what a vulgar circus the mountain had become. It showed about 100 people dressed in bright yellow and red down suits inching along the summit ridge, lined up as if they were at a buffet. The photo was taken by the extraordinary Nepali mountaineer Nims Purja who made history in 2019 after climbing all 14 mountains over 8000 meters in the world in just over six months, breaking the previous record by more than seven years.
The high mountains of the Himalaya are usually climbed in spring or autumn. Summer brings the monsoon; winter brings unbearable cold, snowstorms and bitter winds. Regardless, by 2019, the only mountain over 8,000 meters that had not been climbed in winter was K2 in Pakistan, also known as “Savage Mountain” for the number of deaths she has seen on her slopes. In early 2020, two expeditions of Nepali climbers, including Nims Purja, made history when they reached the top of the world’s second-highest mountain, achieving something that had long been considered impossible.
This time, Nepalis were not there to guide wealthy clients to the top and take back seats to their accomplishments. They were climbing for themselves, they were climbing for Nepal, and they were climbing for Indigenous climbers around the world.
This incredible feat could, if we let it, mark a turning point in how mountaineering narratives are told. This is the kind of feat that needs to be mythologized in writing. We need truer stories that not only capture a more palpable, unfeigned honest human experience in the mountains, but the metaphysical, too. Adopting this attitude will open us up to more narratives that are more real, more fluid, and far richer.
The story of K2 stands in stark comparison to an earlier winter expedition to Lhotse, the world’s third highest mountain, that author Bernadette McDonald documents in her book, Winter 8000: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains in the Coldest Season, in which Sherpas are portrayed as hungry, desperate thieves (who are earlier in the expedition described as “an army”) when a team of Belgians leave the mountain. “The departing Belgians offered the remaining Sherpas some of their equipment and leftover food but during this redistribution a few of the Sherpas became swept up in the generosity of the moment and climbed up to Camp 2 to take down tents and strip them of all their food and equipment.”
There is an urgent need for mountaineering literature in all its forms to go beyond the image of a colonial, stereotypical white male climbing in far-flung “exotic” places to include stories that are more true, more real. This literature must broaden our understanding of mountain communities and expand our understanding of the mountains themselves, in order to create space for brilliant writers whose voices for far too long have been ignored.
This is already happening, albeit on a small scale. In recent years, translators have taken up the project of translating some beautiful, poetic work from the Himalayan region. One such example is the Nepali writer Indra Bahadur Rai, whose book There’s a Carnival Today, translated by Manjushree Thapa, is a stunning depiction of post-Independence Darjeeling, an Indian town at the foothills of the Himalaya. Nepali author and translator Prawin Adhikari translated another one of Rai’s seminal works, Long Night of Storm. A collection of 16 short stories, they provide a unique window into a specific time, place, and attitude, portraying the richness and layers of Nepali and Indian culture beyond the mountains.
These projects make it clear that the heart of the Himalaya—and other mountain ranges—lies not just in nonfiction accounts of mountaineering adventures but also in fiction, short stories, and poetry; it lies in the words of the people who belong to the mountains, those who were there long before we were.
I long for the day that The Guardian’s “Top 10 books about the Himalayas” does not feature nine western, male authors, and instead amplifies the work of those from the region, people who understand the physical, spiritual, and emotional connection to these grandiose peaks better than anyone else. Especially now, as climate change continues to alter the topography of the mountains, we need stories from the people who continue to bear witness to the landscape they know better than anyone.