Life and Death on Mount Everest

Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering

by Sherry B. Ortner

2004 J. I. Staley Prize

Life and Death on Mount Everest by Sherry B. Ortner1999. Princeton University Press1999. Princeton University Press

A compelling study of the relationship between mostly Western mountain climbers—the "sahibs"—and the essential guides, or "Sherpas" in Nepal is the subject of the 2004 J. I. Staley Prize winner, Life and Death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering, by Sherry B. Ortner (Princeton University Press, 1999). The Staley Prize is presented annually by the School for Advanced Research to a living author in honor of a book exemplifying outstanding scholarship in anthropology.

Members of this small, mostly Buddhist ethnic group living in the high valleys of Nepal have long been employed as porters and guides, and more recently as expedition members. Because the Sherpas physiologically deal with altitude better than others, Everest legend George Mallory noted after his 1922 expedition that their strength and endurance exceeded all expectations. These silent partners to international mountaineers have carried supplies, established routes, fixed ropes, cooked, and set up camps, Ortner says. They have also saved climbers’ lives and sometimes they have died in the process. “Who were these Sherpas?” she asks. “What did they think they were doing on the stunning and lethal walls of the tallest mountain on earth?”

In single-themed chapters (“Sahibs,” “Monks,” “Death”), Ortner tracks the interplay of influences on the Sherpas, including the rise of international mountaineering, the religious aftermath of the establishment of Buddhist monasteries, and social transformations in their home community, as well as the effects of commercialization on the Sherpa culture. Ortner also looks at the role of gender in the clash of local and foreign masculinities and in the introduction of women mountaineers and Sherpas.

A professor of anthropology at Columbia University and an authority on Sherpa Buddhism, Ortner frames the story as “a cultural ‘encounter’ that leaves neither party unchanged,” wrote Alison Demos in Lingua Franca. Reviewed not only by the academic and popular press but also by special-interest periodicals such as Explorers Journal and New Scientist, Ortner’s book appeals to a broad readership. “It’s written so clearly and with such evident fascination with the subject that it’s more than just accessible to lay readers,” wrote Michael Parfit in the New York Times, “it’s captivating. I’ve had anthropology texts put me to sleep right after morning coffee, but this one kept me awake at night.”

In Life and Death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering, Ortner notes that “Sherpas and international mountaineers have competed with and teased one another within a (would-be) shared masculinity, have entered into father-son-like relations, and have occasionally managed to become something like equals and friends. The story of Himalayan mountaineering ‘from the Sherpa point of view’ is the story of these complex and changing relations.” 

Sherry B. Ortner, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

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