The Lowest Climb the Highest Peaks

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Review of 'Tigers of the Snow', Jonathan Neale, Little, Brown £18.99

In the 1960s a generation of hippies rejected the emptiness of bourgeois Western values, and headed for Nepal, the home to the Sherpas farmers who migrated from Tibet to the Himalayan pastures below Mount Everest 500 years ago. They were Buddhists and were despised by most of the Hindu Nepalese elite. The British thought them more timid and subservient than the warlike Tibetans, and they became the 'natural' choice as porters for the gentlemen climbers in the heyday of capitalism--the late 19th century onwards.

It is these high-altitude Sherpa porters who are 'the Tigers of the Snow'. But there is nothing natural about their climbing prowess. Left to their own devices, Sherpas would never climb higher than the passes that separate one valley from the next. Like all people who live in the mountains, they think mountaineers are mad. They hated the work of carrying 50 or 60 pounds across ice and snow, sometimes barefoot, without proper food or protective clothing. But they needed the money.

The Sherpas were also frightened--of the mountains, and of their employers. They were right on both counts. On a notorious German expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1934, when the going got rough, two European climbers calmly unhitched themselves from the rope linking them to their porters, put on skis and glided to safety. As late as November 1997, a great storm trapped trekkers all over Nepal. The heavily insured westerners were airlifted out. The Sherpas were left to their fate.

The core of the book is the story of how an impoverished and lowly people, buoyed up by Indian independence, forced westerners to treat them as equals. It's a genuinely moving story. The Sherpas preferred to climb with the Swiss or the French. These climbers supplied porters with the same equipment that they used themselves.

Jonathan argues that the highest Himalayan peaks were conquered by farmers and workers, who were 'hungrier' than their gentleman predecessors. This seems an unlikely explanation to me. It seems likely that improvements in equipment and medical knowledge were more significant. Driven by insatiable rivalry, one nation or another was always going to get 'its' people to the top of Everest. Just like they were always going to get to the Moon. The individuals were irrelevant. The victorious 'British' expedition of 1953 put a New Zealander and an Indian on the top. Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing carried oxygen with them, a huge advantage over earlier rivals. But it was to be the last time the British were able to play the role of world leaders.

The author went to school in India, and was introduced to the Himalayas, and to the Sherpas, on a school trip. Tigers of the Snow is not the work of a clinically detached observer. It is carefully researched and it makes a fascinating read. But above all, Jonathan takes sides. It is shot through with his deep affection for his Sherpa friends.