Today I am delighted to be joining the Random Things Tours blog tour for Sherpa: Stories of Life and Death from the Forgotten Guardians of Everest by Pradeep Bashyal & Ankit Babu Adhikari. It’s become rarer for me to venture out of SFF these days, but there was no way I could pass on the opportunity to read this one, because not only do I really enjoy non-fiction, but reading about mountaineering and adventure is one of my favourite categories to get lost in. I was already aware of Sherpas because of this, but they are rarely the focus so I couldn’t wait to read a book that focused on them, and this book did not disappoint.
Please do check out the rest of the stops on the tour!
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Changing the narrative of mountaineering books, Sherpa focuses on the people who live and work on the roof of the world.
Amid all the foreign adventurers that throng to Nepal to scale the world’s highest peaks there exists a small community of mountain people at the foothills of Himalayas. Sherpa tells their story. It’s the story of endeavour and survival at the roof of the world. It dives into their culture and tells of their existence at the edge of life and death. Written by Ankit Babu Adhikari – a writer, social science researcher and musician – and Pradeep Bashyal – a journalist with the BBC based in Nepal – Sherpa traces their story pre- and post-mountaineering revolution, their evolution as climbing crusaders with previously unpublished stories from the most notable and incredible Sherpas of the last 50 years.
This is the story of the Sherpas.
Firstly, this is a beautifully presented book. There is a map section at the front, with maps showing not only the wider Himalaya region with a focus on the settlements, as well as the summits but also narrower views of the routes on Everest and the location of the camps. It’s an essential section for a book that spans a considerable geographical area, but also made my geographer, map-loving heart very happy, and I probably flicked through that bit a few too many times. There are also two sections of colour photographs, highlighting both the region, as well as individuals that feature in the book, and were a fantastic addition to this boo, especially with the personal, and people-orientated focus. Then there is the cover, which is striking in its simplicity and certainly caught my attention the first time I saw it.
The scope of Sherpa is breath-taking, especially as the authors do a fantastic job of matching the breadth with depth. This book takes a multi-generational look at Sherpas both in the sense of climbing Sherpas from the first generation in the 1930s, to modern day, but also in terms of the people whose voices and experiences fill these pages. This provides a rich tapestry of voices and characters, and the different viewpoints and emotions flood these pages, and it removes any feeling of abstractness from this book even as we step through myths and religion, and rich oral history. It would have been easy to take a purely factual approach, but this book would have lost so much without this incredibly human aspect. It is also geographically diverse as indicated with the maps at the front, but it also expands beyond the region, following the Sherpas who have gone beyond.
Another aspect that stands out to me about this book, is that it is ‘stories of life and death’. Maybe it is just the books I’ve just picked up so far, but the focus always seems to be on the two extremes of mountaineering on Everest – success and disaster. Instead, what we have is a personal and cultural exploration of not just those extremes but what lies in between – yes success, and disaster, still play a large role in the pages of this book as it does in the lives of the Sherpa; but the parts that I enjoyed the most were the insights we got into how life played out for these people, as well as the history and culture that shaped not only their life but also their relationship with the mountains.
‘Lhakpa Futi was told our bundles of prayer flags would be more than enough to cover the entire length of the stupa, with its 36-m (118-ft) dome. However, that day, the bundles fell a little short and didn’t cover the whole length of the stupa from top to bottom.’
“This was a bad sign, but I did not think of it too much at the time,” Lhakpa Futi said. “It was only when other events started unfolding, including the broken teacup incident, that I started connecting the dots.”’
This entire book is just so incredibly personal, filled with anecdotes and quotes. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of details and information, which was an education in and of itself, because the care and attention to detail that the authors demonstrate throughout is great; but it is this human element that lifts Sherpa to a whole other level. How often have we read about disasters on Everest? It’s terrible, but distant from us. A risk taken in the name of sport and adventure and exploration. This book strips away that distance, takes it down to the bone with parents saying goodbye to their children, families losing a loved one, and people going about their life and work in the full knowledge of the risk that underpins what they are doing and it’s an incredibly impactful read because of that. I also really enjoyed how that emotional, personal element was used to support the factual side. For example, learning about Icefall doctors – a term I was unfamiliar with despite having been familiar with this genre, was fascinating in how the skills were learnt and passed on, and the role they played; but it was tales like the one below that really made it hit home.
‘People say that my father could actually have a conversation with the ice,’ Furdiki said. ‘He would carefully stick his ear against the ice, listen to the sounds coming from the inner core and tell how likely that particular bulk of ice was to stay stable, melt or shift.’
Honestly, there were so many elements of this book, so many details and anecdotes that stood out to me in this book, and I have a feeling it is one of those books that I will find new details in with each reread. It was a delight to read, and Sherpa is a valuable and insightful addition to the literature about this region and those who live and work there. I learned so much from this book, and it’s certainly one that I will be returning to. A must-read for anyone with an interest in the mountains, mountaineering and most importantly the Sherpa.
Ankit Babu Adhikari is a writer and social science researcher based in Kathmandu. He has worked with national dailies The Kathmandu Post and The Himalayan Times. His work has also appeared on The Washington Post and Asian Geographic. If you google him, you may come across some strange feeds to songs and profiles featuring ‘Ankit Babu Adhikari’. Don’t get confused, it’s the same person.
He rarely tweets @AnkitAdhikari01
Pradeep Bashyal is a BBC journalist based in Kathmandu. He has been covering mountains and mountaineering for nearly a decade. His work has also appeared in Nepal Magazine, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, Asian Geographic, National Geographic and The Diplomat, among others. After writing this book, his to-do list includes making a documentary on his toddler son and recording a song with Ankit. but no one has ever heard him sing.
He tweets @pdpbasyal
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.