When Jamling Tenzing Norgay asked his father to allow him to go on an Mount Everest expedition at the age of 18, he was told “I climbed Everest so that you wouldn’t have to.” Of course, the son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay—one of the first men to summit the world’s tallest mountain—would not be deterred so easily. Several years later, after his mother and father had both died and he was on the verge of starting his own family, Jamling joined the 1996 IMAX Expedition Team.
In his book, Touching My Father’s Soul, Jamling chronicles his journey from mountaineering dreams, to nightmarish storms, and finally to self-realization. He discusses both the physical and spiritual aspects of the trek, giving readers a unique look into the religious life of a Sherpa who began to question his faith while studying in America. Most Sherpas are Buddhists who live in the shadows of the mountain and work as guides for foreigners who seek the glory of reaching the top of the world. While Jamling is being paid by the filmmakers to get them and their gear safely up the mountain, he also sees this as his chance to reconnect with his father and take a deeper look into his spiritual life. In an attempt to recreate his father’s path up Chomolungma (the name given to Mount Everest by the Sherpas), Jamling seeks guidance from various Buddhist lamas, one of which warns him that “The [climbing] season looks bad… but not entirely unfavorable.” Not confident in the lama’s prophecy, Jamling doesn’t tell his other team members about it, but instead performs prayers and rituals to bring about good fortune. It is interesting (if somewhat confusing) to read about his struggles with his beliefs, and to see his views shift as he sees tragedies, miracles, and blessings.
Miyolangsangma. Photo courtesy of The Greatest Challenge on Earth.
Environmentally speaking, it was great to read something from the view point of a Sherpa. Readers get the chance to see that while climbing up and down Everest is a job for these people, they also try to do it with respect to the goddess Miyolangsangma who resides on the mountain. Some of the Sherpas believe that the tragedy of 1996—which took eight lives—was Miyolangsangma’s wrath after she was trampled on by too many people who did not show her proper care.
A graph from The Atlantic depicting fatality rates for America’s most dangerous jobs and being a Sherpa.
Altruistically speaking, the Sherpas are treated as poorly as Miyolangsangma—if not more so. Having to carry all the gear up to the higher camps, then coming back down the mountain to lead the expedition members up to the same camps puts the Sherpas in harms way more often. They are also expected to brave dangerous weather and rescue lost climbers and are looked down on if they fail to save someone, as was the case for Ang Dorje and Lhakpa Tshering after they returned to camp without Rob Hall in 1996. While the hard numbers from the Himalayan Database show that more expedition members have died than Sherpas between 1950 and 2009 (608 versus 224), the annual fatality rates for Sherpas is higher than some of the most dangerous American jobs. Almost half of these deaths are due to natural disasters that the Sherpas really have no way of avoiding once they’re on the mountain, while members tend to perish from their own slip ups or bad judgment.
Video footage from the avalanche at Base Camp this year that killed 19 climbers, 10 of which were Sherpas.
While the book can get confusing with Buddhism jargon and foreign names, the story itself is an interesting one. It is one of two books to ever be published by a Sherpa (the other being an autobiography of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay), and it allows readers to get a better idea of the lives the people at the base of the mountain are living. I’d say give this book a shot if you become obsessed with Mount Everest.
3/10 for those who like to stay at sea level or lower
7/10 for those who want to stand on top of the world
Note: Jamling includes a section towards the end of the book about how we can help the people of the Himalaya—an organization called the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF). Though the group doesn’t do much in the way of protecting the mountain itself like Saving Mount Everest and their clean-up project in 2011, AHF has supported schools, hospitals, and Sherpa culture every year since 1981.
Featured and last photo courtesy of Tenzing Norgay Adventures.