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  • Jeannette McGill

From my bookshelf: Sherpa's and Survivors

(and some of my most reread books of all time . . .)

Most mountaineers summit peaks with the support of family and/or Sherpa's. When we go off into the mountains we generally leave family behind. The price of unfortunate tragedy is often debated, especially when mothers are in the mix. Also, in the Himalayas it is Sherpa's that often stand next to us during our mountain expeditions. The phrase "supporters club" probably doesn't do adequate justice to the role family and Sherpa's play in our mental freedoms, emotional support and summit success. This blog post shares the voices of people often left behind, or wait on the sidelines or who are under recognised.

The role and recognition of the Sherpa's supporting Himalayan expeditions has evolved and matured over the decades. Social media now ensures that we can view expeditions from a Sherpa perspective. The voices of older Sherpa's are much harder to hear.

One of my my all time favourite books is therefore Touching my Fathers Soul. Jamling Tenzing Norgay provides a narrative of both his 1996 Everest summit, alongside the story of his famous father: Tenzing Norgay. He provides additional insight into the tumultuous 1996 season, but it is for the depth of understanding the reader gets around Sherpa culture and mountaineering perspectives, that places this book in this blog.

(Jamling & Jeannette in Lukla, 2016)

First to summit Everest, Tenzing Norgay once lived in a basic tin-roofed structure owned by Ang Tharkay. Among a long list of expeditions Ang Tharkay was the sirdar on the French expedition to Annapurna in 1950, the first 8000m to be summited. Ang Thaykay dictated his memoir published in 1954 in French, subsequently translated to English in 2016. Sherpa provides a unique glimpse into how Sherpa's made their way to Darjeeling to be granted work on the various expeditions before World War 1. The CEO of Sherpa Adventure Gear, Tashi Sherpa, is the nephew of Ang Tharkey ensuring his legacy is not forgotten.

I taste fire, earth, rain: elements of a life with a Sherpa is Caryl Sherpa's account of how, in 1991, she met and subsequently fell in love with Nima Sherpa, while completing the Annupurna Circuit Trek. She denies her feelings for Nima, but as she comes to know the land and the Sherpas, she falls in love with him, his country, & his people. Initially located in the USA, in 2012 they returned to Nepal and established a stunning hermitage open to guests near Phakding. Unfortunately they are no longer together and The Beyul is closed, but I return to the book for insights and explanations around Sherpa culture and a reminder of rose-tinted youthful perspective!

One of the titles I have read the most, and has travelled with me the longest in life, is Fragile Edge. The account of Maria Coffey's return to the Himalaya's after the disappearance and death of two great mountaineers, Peter Boardman and her boyfriend: Joe Tasker. My views on this book have shifted as I have aged but the book is a good insight into life during the mountaineering era of the 1970's and 1980's. (Maria's book on lives lost in 1996, among other mountain tragedies, is mentioned in another blog post)

One and Two Halves to K2 by James Ballard and husband of Alison Hargreaves was published fairly soon after her death on K2 in 1995. It is his account of retracing her steps to the mountain, but remains contentious as his ultimate objectives and behaviour in the relationship have been questioned. Never the less this title is part of the rich tapestry of mountain literature by partners left in the sidelines. ("Regions of the Heart" will appear in another blog post). Even more tragic is that Alison's son Tom unfortunately died on Nanga Parbat in 2019.

Forget Me Not is the memoir of Jenny Lowe-Anker, wife of Alex Lowe who died in an avalanche on the south side of Shishapangma in 1999. His best friend Conrad Anker escaped the harrowing event. After a few years Jenny and Conrad then married. This tear-jerker account of her life is a constant companion on my book shelf. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and chatting with both Conrad and Jenny in Chukkung in 2018.

"On a summit the entire world is beneath us, horizons are expanded, and clarity envelopes our senses. It is this feeling that the mountaineer seeks, and perhaps it is the feeling that we all seek as we search for love and purpose in our own measured lives. In reaching for the summits of the heart and holding on to them, love and hope transcend the tragedy of our ultimate end" Jenny Lowe-Anker

BTW: This blog is an affiliate of online bookstores. When you click on some book titles you will be directed to a website where you can purchase the pictured item. Should you choose to purchase the item I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. All my opinions and suggestions are unbiased & based on my own extensive experience.

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