LIFE AND DEATH ON MT. EVEREST by Sherry B. Ortner

LIFE AND DEATH ON MT. EVEREST

Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Anthropologist Ortner’s (Columbia) ethnographic immersion into Sherpa life and how it has been affected by the international climbing culture is a remarkable display of agile fieldwork, sensitive to all the distinctive shadings that compose her subject. In the valleys and foothills of the Everest massif live the Sherpas, who for the last 100 years have had their remote outpost unsettled by the influx of mountaineering expeditions run by sahibs (a Sherpa term Ortner uses both ironically and as a handy tag). In an effort to gain a sense of how the two groups interrelate—how much each group’s perceptions of the other have validity and in what context—Ortner draws upon a substantial arsenal of ethnographic theory. The work of Clifford Geertz is brought to bear on both camps’ intentions and desires; so too Edward Said’s notion of orientalism and how it erects ideologically warped imagery. Althusser, Foucault, James Clifford, and Marshall Sahlins help her clear away the fog of colonial complicity and the asymmetries conjured by power and wealth: though she can’t slip into the Sherpa perspective like an old pair of shoes for reasons of cultural conditioning, she is ever attentive to it. Ortner is most interested in the nexus of the mountaineers’ and Sherpas’ values, beliefs, and ideals, and the various relationships that were spawned from their commingling, which often unwittingly reinforced misconceptions. In the records of the mountaineers, she seeks among the representations the allusions within the illusions, measuring the biases and fantasies against the touchstone of the “cumulative record of high-quality ethnographic work.” Ortner arrives at a complex but cohesive portrait of the century-long Sherpa association with the mountaineers, an elegant wedding of two distinct cultural strands—with all the inherent harmonies and tensions—a moving picture that shifts focus and emphasis as new elements, from identity politics to the counterculture, come into play. (30 b&w illustrations, 3 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-691-00689-X
Page count: 367pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999




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