I actually read two of the three while in Nepal, both considered classics of the genre: Edmund Hillary’s View from the Summit, and Jon Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air. The third, which I finished a week ago, is Jamling Norgay’s Touching My Father’s Soul.

Hillary’s book recounts his superhuman adventures through his whole life: the first to summit Everest (and come back alive), the first to drive overland across Antartica, riding a boat from the mouth of the Ganges to its source, and a later life committed to improving the life of the Himalayan people. What I love about these explorers stories is how it’s mostly about their skills and determination, and not so much about their background (a beekeeper from New Zealand in Hillary’s case). Many of them actually struggle financially for a long time, or barely make it, to keep their passion going. It’s either that, or the sense of grandeur they put themselves in, or maybe both that to me none of them ever comes off as conceited, which seems a lot more common in people that have achieved fame and riches in other endeavors. Hillary’s account is a clear reflection of the sharp mind of a climber/adventurer: he fully recognizes his achievements and which part is due to his own effort and which part is due to luck or circumstances.

Kraukauer’s focuses on the worst disaster in Everest history (at least in the media) in the 1996 spring season. As always he writes en engrossing story, meticulously researched and clearly explained, full of quotes and sources. But this time the difference is that he was actually a participant-observer, being a climber/media representative in the expedition with the highest loss. His account, largely praised, has definitely been accused of personal bias and putting blame on everyone except for himself; questions have been raised about the influence of media presence on expedition leaders to try and prove themselves and their team’s success and thus overturning safety decisions. Quite a few other books have been written but Kraukauer’s still the remains the definitive account to most people’s mind.

Touching My Father’s Soul is among the few rare books written by a Sherpa, the ethnic group instrumental to mountaineering in the Himalayas since its birth. The writer, Jamling Norgay, is the son of Tenzing Norgay, Hillary’s companion in the 1952 climb and the other first-summitter, an enormous pride to the people of the South Asian sub continent. Even more fascinating, Jamling was also present on Everest for the 1996 season, summiting for the first (and only) time with the IMAX film crew. His account to me is the perfect companion to the 2 previous books. He devotes substantial chapters to his father’s historic climb and later life, and to the 1996 incident. It’s always nice to see alternative views (especially for such a complex event; I tried to read another account The Climb from the perspective of the Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, but it was so poorly written in my opinion that I gave up after the first 10 pages). The thread that runs through the book is about Norgay trying to make sense of his relationship with his legendary even deified father. He also details many rituals concerning climbing (or any other daunting dangerous endeavors) for Sherpas and their families, from asking for divination to offering prayers to reciting mantra, as well as the changes that climbing has brought to the Sherpa way of life.

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