Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering is an interesting account of the relationships that are created through mountaineering. While this book is an enjoyable read, I do not have as big of a reaction towards this book as I have had with the others. I learned many things and though small accounts amused me or allowed me to think more critically about mountaineering, overall, I do not have a strong reaction towards this anthropological narrative.
One of the smaller anecdotes that provided an opportunity to reflect was the discussion of modernity. It is written that modern life is loud, crass, vulgar, and materialistic. Ortner also described modernity as “routinized” and “boring”. Contrasted with this image is that of mountaineering. Mountains demand one to be honest and real. This was an inspirational notion. In society, especially in Bozeman, many people pride themselves as adventurers and outdoorsmen. As in most recreational sports, some people often exaggerate their abilities and their skill level, in order to look a certain way in front of peers. Once on a rock wall or ski hill, it is incredibly difficult to mask your level of ability.
Ortner quotes a climber who expressed “modernity allows one to hide one’s faults, but mountaineering forces one to own up to them” (p. 37). In modern society, the Kardashians and the Kanye Wests of the world dictate how people are supposed to act and present themselves. When people are able to leave and escape the confinements of popular culture, they are able to more fully understand who they are and what their capabilities are. Every time a mountaineer is born, a Kanye West dies.
The last book we read, Into Thin Air, explained how some of those who climb do try to ascend in new boots, or without training. There is a fair share of people who do this, but that is not what Ortner is getting at in her book. The people who ice climb in the brand new gear without the training are still hiding in modernity. Will they ascend to the top and make it back down? That does not matter. Real mountaineers know the truth of what it takes to conquer a mountain. I will always hold Heinrich Herrer as the epitome of what a climber should be (or at least Heinrich Harrer, the person who he has led us to believe he is in his books).
I realize this part of the book was minor and was only a portion of one chapter, but as I read, it is one of the only parts that stuck with me and that I kept going back to reflect upon. I had an internal debate as I tried to figure out if mountaineering was a way out of modernity (We have also talked about this at some length during class). in many cases we have read that people wanted to escape civilization in order to have a primal experience, yet we have read many accounts of climbers who work hard at bringing modernity on top of the mountain with them.
I found it interesting that westerners use mountaineering as a way to fight modernity, while Sherpa’s use mountaineering as a way to embrace it. For the Sherpa’s, Mountaineering is a way to gain capital. Guiding westerners through the Himalayas has led many Sherpa’s to second guess their society and become more secular. Some have noticed that the cause and effect between disgracing the mountain and the mountain reigning terror in return, has not been entirely true to their previous beliefs. I hope that they do not embrace western culture anymore than they already have. It would be a shame to lose another world culture to western modernity.