Monday, February 3, 2014

"We're not Sherpas!"

                Maurice Herzog and his team certainly made history with their climb of Annapurna, but I wanted to comment on the more understated heroes in the story: the Sherpas, and the mountain climbers’ relationships with the natives of Nepal. Herzog’s attitude towards the Nepalese varies throughout the novel. Sometimes he greatly appreciates what they do for him and his team, but at other times they seem to be no more than just a standard piece of equipment used in early mountain climbing.  Although Herzog continually states that the French were the first to conquer Annapurna, without the Sherpas this would not have been possible. The Sherpas are treated as lesser beings because of their nationality and their mercenary motivation, because unlike the Frenchmen they aren’t climbing for the glory.  On page 94, Lachenal says “We’re not Sherpas!” to which Rebuffat adds, “We didn’t come to the Himalaya to be beasts of burden.” This mindset extends even further than the Sherpas because Herzog demonstrates this mentality of superiority when coming across other native Nepalese. For example, when the natives come to Oudot for medical help, Herzog patronizingly describes the “touching simplicity of these creatures” because they view the doctor as “a sort of god” (201). On the next page, he goes onto describe the system of “voluntary recruitment” where they forced the “coolies” to carry their loads (203).  While I enjoyed parts of this novel, I kept coming back to the idea that for these men, the people they encounter are merely tools to help them achieve their grand goal: an ascent of Annapurna.


  1. I was so bothered by this while I read as well. I felt this most strongly when Herzog was telling of the descent and the following weeks of travel back to Katmandu. The fact that Herzog and Lachenel did not die on their return from summit was no doubt because of the Sherpas. I didn't feel that their importance was highlighted enough.

    And then Herzog was carried day after day on the back of a man from Annapurna to Katmandu he regarded as nothing other than his "bearer." I was so bothered by this: sure, the western Sahibs had the technical skills and equipment to reach the summit, but that they came back alive was due to the competency and willingness of the Sherpas and coolies who helped (saved) them.

    1. While I think everyone in this discussion made great points, I particularly wanted to comment on yours, because it most closely reflected what I felt about this point. I completely agree with you that "the fact that Herzog and Lachenal did not die on their return from the summit was no doubt because of the Sherpas." And not only is it not highlighted, but the French mountaineers are quite ungrateful. I was particularly horrified when Lachenal whines about how slow their progress down the mountain is, and exclaims "'Oh hell... I just can't stand all of these characters around us day in and day out, gesticulating, and bellowing a gibberish that you can't understand a single word of! You make signs to them to come near, and they put down their loads! You make signs you want to drink, so they bring you bananas!'" (206). Herzog makes no comment about this, except to say "how pleasant it was to complain!" (206), as though that justified their disrespectful behavior. After all that the Sherpas and coolies did for the Expedition, I was sorely disappointed in how like (to use your word, Alana!) mere tools these impressive people were treated.

  2. I agree with both of you, however, I still feel that of all of them, Herzog treated the sherpas the best. There were several times throughout the book that he marveled at the strength and fortitude of the sherpas, as well as seemed very appreciative of their work. I also believe that although he may never explicitly say that the sherpas made the expedition possible, Herzog knows what they did for them all.

    I also find it interesting that Herzog made sure that the reader knew the names as well as the faces (he included a picture of them in the book) of the sherpas. This furthers my belief that he did respect them enough to immortalize them in his story, why else include their names let alone their faces? Therefore although there were certainly times where the sherpas were neglected or looked down upon in the story, I felt that this was most likely do to the attitude of the time they lived in, rather than how the members of the expedition truly felt about them.

  3. I did not get the feeling that Herzog appreciated the sherpas any more than the other members of the group. We do not read writings from other members and therefore only hear their opinions on the matter in very heated and "important" moments when they verbalize quick thoughts. I think his lack of poor treatment of the coolies on the way back was due almost entirely to his physically and mentally debilitating injuries. The excuse that the treatment of the sherpas is normal is not an adequate excuse. Often their fears were completely disregarded and they were forced into experiences they found terrifying like the horse that was dragged across the flooded river. I think this ties to Herzog's disregard to his partner's masked call for a turn-around on the summit push. Being a good leader requires one to have the ability to observe and take into account the fears that your followers are experiencing.

  4. Despite the fact that I strongly agree with all of the points made in this discussion, I think that it’s worth noting the distinction (at least in Herzog’s mind) between “coolies” and “Sherpa.” Herzog considers coolies to be unskilled manual laborers. Sherpa are an ethnic group living in the Himalayas who are frequently hired for their experience with high altitude mountaineering. The contribution of coolies takes place off of the mountain itself. I found the vast majority of Herzog’s offensive derision, which has been pointed out, to be directed towards coolies, as opposed to the Sherpa guides, whom are comprehensively praised. In accordance with Scott’s points about Herzog being appreciative of the natives, it was the Sherpa guides that he included pictures of and addressed by name throughout the narrative.
    To this end, I believe that the discontinuity in Herzog’s appreciation for the aides of the expedition (Sherpa guides and coolies) is based on his respect for mountaineering ability, and his disrespect for a lack thereof. As opposed to a pervasive “attitude of the time” explaining his perspective, I think that it is as equally dependent on Annapurna itself as every other view expressed by Herzog in his narrative.

  5. Throughout Herzog's story it was interesting to see how his opinion of the Sherpa's evolved. In the beginning of the story Herzog appears to view the Sherpa's as a tool. He tends to look down on them as opposed to seeing them as equals. As the story progresses he appeared to gain more respect for their technical ability as they finished their reconnaissance and ascended. Most notably he appeared to gain a large amount respect and gratitude on the descent. It is clear in his discussion he recognizes that they were pivotal in his surviving the descent. It is also apparent that he respects the sherpa's in the way that he takes the Sarki and Pansy to Katmandu. He discusses the way in which they earned this journey and how thankful he is for Sarki's help. Despite his apparent growth in respect and gratitude towards the sherpa's Herzog continues to look at sherpa's and members of the expedition in different ways, however this is not surprising due to the fact that they serve different roles.