The Sharp End — The Center Will Not Hold

Posted on: July 11, 2012


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.

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