The Sherpa Question (1)

(Written on April 23 2014 after the avalanche on Mt. Everest that killed more than a dozen mountaineering high altitude support workers from the Sherpa community)

Trying to write a 1000 word article to publish in the Republica, a newsdaily in Nepal, but I am having a hard time processing my anger on the Sherpa question.

Why am I angry? I don’t personally know those who perished and nor am I into climbing mountains, so I can’t pretend to be in their shoes.

I thought of starting a crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds and even started a campaign on indigego, but changed my mind, thinking at the moment, it’s their fight, not mine.

Strangely, even though so many media stories talk about how Sherpa-Nepalis will jump through hoops for money because Nepal is a poverty ridden country and so they have no choice, I felt it’s disrespectful.

As much as it’s difficult to fathom even the poor have dignity and humanity, and I know plenty of people who live on 700 $ per capita that are not mentally as f’ed up as some first world people or wealthy Nepalis or Sherpas, happier and more content, in fact.

I think mine is a larger fight, not just a labor fight (although I think what’s going on is much larger than about money or a labor issues fight).

I am also from one of the older, “established” families, financially and socially more sound, I suppose, so there is a class perspective to all of this.

However I am 100 percent behind a boycott, with no vested interest, but solely as a simple community member who wants to see not just myself and my family and friends but the whole community uplifted, and more importantly, as a human being with human values.

I think all Sherpas, Nepalis and sympathetic friends around the world should support this boycott, whatever the differences in class, race, culture, or political agenda.

It says in the latest NY Times article that 200 of 300 Sherpas have walked out making a shutdown likely. I hope those with any vested interests holding them back will let it go.

A boycott will be painful and might cause some income and entertainment loss momentarily but in the long run it will be much better. It will also be a historic fight, a slap in the face of anyone who believed Sherpa-Nepalis would never dare do it. One for the underdogs!

As Sherpas are Nepalis, this will be a huge boost in morale when tabling and negotiating our agendas and identities, on an international scale.

But most importantly, I have been asking myself; “why does this anger me so?” Why is it that when western climbers call Sherpas “slaves” or western Nepal and Sherpa/mountaineering “veterans” prognostically write that even after losing more than a dozen friends and community members right in front of their eyes, they will still go back to risking their lives for a fist full of dollars, such as in the article written by Brougton Coburn in the National Geographic and even more recently, Jon Krakauer’s, in The New Yorker.

It’s saying we have no other values, basically, and this pisses me off!!!!

Last year when I agreed to speak with Al Jazeera, I had expressed my views that Sherpas should focus on education and boycott mountaineering and the mountain (Mt. Everest or Miyosanglangma) be allowed to rest. I also expressed our spiritual values that regard mountains as protector deities as well as a climate change pov. But my interview was edited to suit the story which was celebratory in tone (as it was the year of the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt. Everest).

I think my other views are in a dustbin somewhere. Not that Al Jazeera is watched by a majority of people but I thought I would try to use this medium.

Fast forward a year later and the only clear thought I have is one of gratitude. I am grateful more than to westerners like Hillary who provided my dad with an opportunity to go to school (my father was the first Sherpa to be sent to formal school in the Nepali system – prior to that he studied in the only form of schooling available which was at the Tengboche monastery) or to the thousands of clients and friends from all the world who we have “shepherded” all over the Himalayas or even to my father for taking a risk and sending me, a girl, to school, or even to my university, Yale, that gave me not only a scholarship but valuable analytical skills, to Tengboche Rinpoche, the abbott of Tengboche monastery.

He is apparently not very popular with neither western nor Sherpa climbers because he tells them quite bluntly when they visit him for blessings that he feels sorry for them and that they should have some other aspiration in life.

Toward the later part of his life, even Hillary had regrets over what Everest was turning into and the climate change and environmental impacts. He starting encouraging people not to climb which again apparently is not a popular position among some part of the Sherpa community that make an income off of this industry and obviously those in the climbing industry as well.

My mother told me the story of how Tengboche Rinpoche once met my father on the side of a road with a namlo on his head (the namlo is the strap that porters use to hold in place heavy expedition loads on their heads). It seems in the early expedition years his family was facing a rough time financially and he felt portering might earn a few extra bucks to sustain him and his family. Tengboche Rinpoche gently told my father “Kaldhen, you are a bright boy, promise me that from this day no load will ever touch your head again”.

I can’t even imagine how different things would have been had my father not run into Tengboche Rinpoche when he did. My dad walked fifteen days to get to school in Kathmandu, and fought against so many odds, to set a place for Sherpas at the table, in decision making, in tabling agendas.

The only time I saw him cry out of joy was when I graduated from Yale university. I was there on a scholarship and I won an award for an essay titled “Unimagining the Nepali National Imagination.” A part of it looked at how Sherpas used western fantasies and mountaineering/anthropology, to negotiate their identity in a changing world, as a nation state (Nepal) was being imagined that they were to be a part of.

I really didn’t understand why he was so emotional when I graduated from my college ( I mean I was only graduating from Yale – what’s the big deal, right?) but now I think I understand it a bit better and also why I am so emotional on this “Sherpa question.”

Just as the Sherpas who survive and live to tell the tale and fight for the rest for dignity, for respect, and financial rewards vis a vis the risk, feel that it could have been him in the other one’s place, I think I feel that my father could have been one of those who perished on the mountain too young had he not heeded Rinpoche’s words.

Maybe that’s why I feel kind of responsible? I could say its not my burden to bear but I think that would not be true either.

Haven’t found my voice of reason on this yet…but all I remember is when I was 16 and I ran up to my father telling him I wanted to try to set a world record by being the youngest female to climb Everest, he looked at me and bluntly said “you silly girl, we sent you to the best schools so you wouldn’t have to (work on the mountains)”.

I know what it’s like not to have a breadwinner around as my dad had a stroke when he was still relatively young so maybe that’s the other reason I feel quite emotional about this subject.

There will be many Sherpa kids with a lot of struggle, at par if not more, than what our grandfathers and fathers fought against all these years.

It was not that long ago Sherpas were considered unfit to sit at the table with, both by westerners and Nepalis, and no matter how our fortunes have changed, we have that as our common legacy.

It should pinch us somewhere that Sherpas are still called and treated like desperate “slaves” who for a quick buck will overlook any other values like family, spiritual, social, and human values.

For me I think it feels like we are going backward not forward as a community. We have to forget vested interests for now. Think about the whole community.

We are not slaves and we have never been slaves. We are a dignified, proud and democratic people with our own value system.

In fact we have a brave, illustrious history that fought for the greater human good, going back more than 20 generations, when most people cannot even trace back five generations.

If you dig deeper into Sherpa history and ancestry, you will find that Sherpas fought against exactly this kind of maniacal, inhumane, egotistical, authoritarian, selfish and narrow minded behavior, as displayed by the mountaineering industry and its stakeholders today.

Trying to channel my anger into a positive place…I know the best thing I can do is to express a reasonable Sherpa-Nepali- citizen of the world voice but it is an angry voice and there’s too much to say, it’s scattered and on top of that, I have to contemplate my motivation properly as well.

But I also know that unless Sherpas speak up, we will always be spoken for, our many narratives, our many beliefs and values, our many diverse voices, our many aspirations discarded in a bin.

Still searching for my voice and trying my best not to Ai Wei Wei it although I have a big F U inside me I could wave in so many directions right now.


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