Sherpas are brought up to respect norms and rules in order to protect their environment
The news this week of the high-altitude dispute between elite European climbers and Sherpa employees of climbing expeditions highlights the differing expectations and world views when they are in juxtaposition on a steep and icy mountainside.
With modern mountaineering, the term ‘sherpa’ has come to mean Himalayan men working on expeditions in the Himalaya. But the capital ‘S’ Sherpas are an ethnic people whose culture is steeped in philosophical and practical traditions that helped them survive in scattered high mountain hamlets.
From the Sherpa perspective, mountaineering is a risky livelihood to fill the family coffers. In some villages, nearly every family has lost someone on an expedition. Still, mountaineering attracts numerous young men and a few women for the income and, occasionally, for the fame.
While helping others achieve their dreams, sherpas working in the icefall or to place fixed lines take this responsibility very seriously. A key issue seems to be that the Sherpas are working to fix lines for the general safety of all on the mountain, while these Europeans are pushing for their very individual goals. These are different cultural mindsets.
In Sherpa villages, traditional community norms and rules regulate everything from the collection of fuel wood and leaf-litter, to the movement of the yak herds, to the performance of cultural rituals and festivals.
Sherpas, especially in the villages, are brought up to respect these norms and rules, called “Dhi,” which aims to protect crops, forests, and community rituals for the common welfare of the settlement. The Dhi are vital for survival in the harsh high-altitude environment.
In a way, the verbal agreement among the expeditions that no one would climb on the face while the Sherpas were fixing the lines is like a Dhi, proclaimed for the common good. Although no one seems to have been able to interview the Sherpas involved yet since they are busy fixing lines, it would seem that they expected the climbers would abide by terms that they might perceive as unbreakable Dhi.
The Sherpas may be conformists in this regard, but it prepared them for the rigours of cross-Himalayan trade, agriculture on the edge of the inhabitable, and mountaineering expeditions. When confronted with the European sense of individual achievement, were the actions of the three climbers an affront on the Sherpa sense of community and responsibility for the common good?
Frances Klatzel is the author of Gaiety of Spirit: the Sherpas of Everest.