Cover image for Life and death on Mt. Everest : Sherpas and Himalayan mountaineering
Life and death on Mt. Everest : Sherpas and Himalayan mountaineering
Ortner, Sherry B., 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 376 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV199.44.E85 O78 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
GV199.44.E85 O78 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The Sherpas were dead, two more victims of an attempt to scale Mt. Everest. Members of a French climbing expedition, sensitive perhaps about leaving the bodies where they could not be recovered, rolled them off a steep mountain face. One body, however, crashed to a stop near Sherpas on a separate expedition far below. They stared at the frozen corpse, stunned. They said nothing, but an American climber observing the scene interpreted their thoughts: Nobody would throw the body of a white climber off Mt. Everest.

For more than a century, climbers from around the world have journ-eyed to test themselves on Everest's treacherous slopes, enlisting the expert aid of the Sherpas who live in the area. Drawing on years of field research in the Himalayas, renowned anthropologist Sherry Ortner presents a compelling account of the evolving relationship between the mountaineers and the Sherpas, a relationship of mutual dependence and cultural conflict played out in an environment of mortal risk.

Ortner explores this relationship partly through gripping accounts of expeditions--often in the climbers' own words--ranging from nineteenth-century forays by the British through the historic ascent of Hillary and Tenzing to the disasters described in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. She reveals the climbers, or "sahibs," to use the Sherpas' phrase, as countercultural romantics, seeking to transcend the vulgarity and materialism of modernity through the rigor and beauty of mountaineering. She shows how climbers' behavior toward the Sherpas has ranged from kindness to cruelty, from cultural sensitivity to derision. Ortner traces the political and economic factors that led the Sherpas to join expeditions and examines the impact of climbing on their traditional culture, religion, and identity. She examines Sherpas' attitude toward death, the implications of the shared masculinity of Sherpas and sahibs, and the relationship between Sherpas and the increasing number of women climbers. Ortner also tackles debates about whether the Sherpas have been "spoiled" by mountaineering and whether climbing itself has been spoiled by commercialism.

Author Notes

Sherry B. Ortner is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She is the author of two previous books on the Sherpas of Nepal, Sherpas through Their Rituals and High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism (Princeton), and has also written books on social, cultural, and feminist theory. She has received numerous prestigious awards, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Since the late 19th century, climbing mountains has held a certain allure. Expeditions are now reaching all-time highs, as experienced and inexperienced climbers "reach for the top." These two books examine mountaineering on Mt. Everest through different perspectives. Liberally sprinkled with entertaining anecdotes and significant cultural observations, Ultimate High is the story of a determined man with a unique goal. It chronicles both Kropp's ascent of Everest and his 8000 mile journey, on bicycle (with equipment in tow), from Sweden to the Himalayas and back. (To truly conquer the mountain, Kropp believes, one must get there and climb it without artificial assistance.) As it happened, his climb coincided with the much-publicized May l996 disaster (described in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air), so, in addition to detailing his own endeavours, he describes (with riveting clarity) the drama taking place around him. Kropp captures the emotional highs and lows of mountaineering; his astute observations of team dynamics and candid revelations of his mental and physical state provide insight into the climber's world. Taking a more academic and analytic approach, Ortner (anthropology, Columbia Univ.) provides a fascinating examination of the world of the Sherpas. Drawing extensively from autobiographies and her own ethnography, Ortner examines Sherpas both as mountaineers and villagers. In the process, she tackles a variety of subject matter, including sahib/Sherpa relationships and local history, culture, and religion. In doing so, she incorporates quotes from climbers, their chilling tales, and detailed research. Her book is an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at mountaineering. Complementary to any work on the Himalayas, it should be compulsory reading for climbers going to this area. Both books are recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄJo-Anne Mary Benson (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Columbia University anthropologist Sherry Ortner has studied the Sherpa culture for more than 30 years. This, her third book on the subject, deals with the impact of high altitude mountaineering expeditions on the Sherpas. Since the early part of the 20th century, expeditions to the Nepal Himalaya have employed the Sherpas as porters, guides, and expedition members. This has lead to political, economic, and cultural changes among the Sherpa people. Ortner examines these changes and the evolution of relationships between the climbers and the Sherpas. Ortner is not a mountaineer, and has therefore had to educate herself about the peculiarities of the mountaineering culture and its development throughout this century. Her observations on mountaineering are as interesting as her comments on the Sherpas. This book is a well-written and thorough account--and the only book on this topic. Illustrations are few, but adequate. The references and bibliography are excellent. General readers and professionals; upper-division undergraduates. A. Spero; formerly, University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. Xi
Note to the Readerp. xiii
Chapter 1 Beginningp. 3
Chapter 2 Sahibsp. 26
Chapter 3 Sherpasp. 56
Chapter 4 Monksp. 90
Chapter 5 Deathp. 124
Chapter 6 Menp. 149
Chapter 7 Counterculturep. 185
Chapter 8 Womenp. 217
Chapter 9 Reconfigurationsp. 248
Chapter 10 Epiloguep. 281
Appendix A Talesp. 295
Appendix B Monasteriesp. 307
Notesp. 319
References Citedp. 355
Indexp. 369