Why are Sherpas always happy?

International mountain guide Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa of Happy Feet Mountaineers agency. Photo: HAPPY FEET MOUNTAINEERS

For decades, foreigners have noted and celebrated the good-natured cheerfulness of Nepal's Sherpas.  

One western climber, in a preface to Tenzing Norgay's autobiography, noted that Norgay epitomised ‘the tolerance and good humour … for which they [the Sherpa] are renowned … they are indeed a happy people, as anyone who has travelled with them will know, tolerant and good-humoured to a high degree, finding enjoyment in almost anything they do, interested in everything and with a strong sense of fun’.

As with any cross-cultural generalisation, this seemingly simple statement is actually far more complicated than it seems. Were the Sherpas really so cheerful, more so than any other group of people? Did the foreigners who repeatedly commented about Sherpa cheerfulness have a wide and deep enough view to make such a broad generalisation? 

Did they really understand the Sherpas? And was this a note of praise, as it seems, or actually a variety of backhanded compliment -- something that seemed positive but actually hid a more negative judgement, in this case of Sherpa as childlike? If Sherpas really were more cheerful than other groups, why was this so?

In the late 1990s, a fascinating and important debate broke out among anthropologists about Sherpa culture and western perceptions of Sherpas. Their cheerfulness became a key topic of conversation. 

In his book Tigers of the Snow (1996) Vincanne Adams outlined her view of ‘virtual’ Sherpas, and Sherpa culture as a complex reflection of Western ideas about Sherpas. Westerners had so much economic, political, and cultural power that their thinking about Sherpas -- based on their own hopes and dreams -- shaped actual Sherpa interactions with outsiders. 

‘Sherpas are produced both by a Western gaze and by Sherpas who are the object of that gaze,’ she wrote (p. 228).

Over the years working in expeditions, dating back to the early decades of the 20th century, the argument goes, Sherpas had learned what the foreign climbers valued and rewarded, what the climbers wanted to see -- loyalty, camaraderie, and cheerfulness -- and gave it to them.  

Sherpa culture involved a kind of performance, half deliberate but also unconscious, ultimately driven by a script written by outsiders. It was a kind of Sherpa play about Sherpas for the western climbers.

In Life and Death on Mt. Everest (2001), anthropologist Sherry Ortner took a different view. She did not deny the power gap between western climbers and Sherpas, noting that Sherpas would not have carried loads and risked their lives for outsiders if they had more economic power. 

But she felt that, despite these real power differentials, other factors -- particularly strong cultural and economic forces that spring from within an ever changing Sherpa society -- better explained Sherpa behaviour and meaning-making more than Western ideas about them.

One of the chief examples she gave was Sherpa cheerfulness. In the early years of climbing, western climbers noted again and again that Sherpa male climbers were friendly and liked to joke around. Even after a hard day's work carrying loads on steep, dangerous mountainsides, they smiled and cheerfully attacked challenging tasks.

Sahibs often commented, Ortner notes, on ‘a certain good-humoured or good-natured style of Sherpa 'character' or 'temperament,' including a tendency to smile or laugh easily, a willingness to enter into joking and teasing, and a generally affable manner that often made interacting with Sherpas pleasant and enjoyable’. (p. 58).

According to Vincanne Adams's framework, Sherpa cheerfulness should be understood as a kind of ‘virtual’ reflection of western hopes for what they wanted Sherpas to be. Western climbers liked to believe that in the Himalaya they had broken free from the corrupting influence of modern life, and found ‘real’ nature and ‘real’ people -- Sherpas who were as pure and untouched as the mountains of the westerners' Romantic imagination.

Certainly this Romanticism reflects a powerful current in western thought. There is a long history of outsiders creating an image of supposedly premodern or traditional ‘others’ who are happy, tough, and true. These depictions usually reveal less in fact about the 'noble savages’ and rural non-western places they presume to describe, and more about the desires and obsessions of Western society that created them. 

And certainly many Sherpas experienced in dealing with Westerners have picked up on these Romantic fantasies and know how to play to, and play with them. If anything, in recent decades, Nepali knowledge about Western Romantic fantasies about non-western people and places has grown more widespread, as tourism has spread deeper into Nepali culture. 

And ironically, Nepal's urban middle class, in their new excitement for rural tourism, has begun its own chase-your-tail search for the ‘authentic’ pre-modern that very much resembles what western climbers have searched for. Climbing money was ‘authentic’ because although real and deeply felt, these meanings were not fixed and unchanging but rather the result of shifting historical patterns. Adams helps us understand these complicated cross-cultural dynamics.

In Life and Death, Ortner agrees that Sherpa cheerfulness did in fact often match the illusions -- the fantasies -- that Westerner ‘sahibs’ liked to tell about non-European others. ‘The sahibs' intense romanticism, their desire to experience mountaineering as an escape from modernity,’ she writes, ‘link up with the view of the Sherpas (like the mountains) as untouched, innocent, unspoiled.’ (p. 45) Cheerfulness was an outward sign of innocence.

But the Sherpas smiled and joked, Ortner insists, not because of Western desires for premodern Asian ‘others’ to be happy but for their own reasons. In fact, she says they were actually happy. Not because Sherpas are essentially happy by nature, but because, in the early decades of the twentieth century, various historical factors had aligned to make the Sherpas, particularly the men who went into expedition work, genuinely happy.

Ortner walks us through these historical factors. One was their Buddhist faith, which celebrated peacefulness and a non-attachment to material desires, as anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf noted. Another was a tradition of trade, which had fostered an easy way with outsiders, as anthropologist Mike Thompson says.

But other historical factors played a big role as well, Ortner argues. Many porters came from poor Sherpa families, for whom life was extremely hard and, as Rana-era taxes grew steeper, growing harder. Portering was a good job, even though it involved strenuous physical labour, and good work was appreciated. And even if it was wage labour, it was better than what other early mountaineering groups faced.

In addition, Ortner notes how in the 1930s and 1940s, Sherpas had successfully pushed their Western bosses to improve wages and working conditions. These Sherpas could look back and see how their work situations had improved in part because of their own striving. It was hard not to feel good about that.

But to say Sherpas carried packs for the money, that they were cheerful because they were making good cash, was not to say they had been corrupted. Many Westerners thought of mountain climbing as idealistic ventures in pursuit of a higher vision, and liked to think that their Sherpas did it out of loyalty or because they subscribed to similar high-minded motivations. Some even went so far as to describe Sherpas who showed a perfectly natural desire for money as somehow ‘un-Sherpa’ or corrupted.

Instead, Ortner emphasises that Sherpa porters usually wanted money so they could pursue traditional Sherpa activities. Money to Sherpa climbers meant many many things, Ortner says: ‘It may mean simply making a financial profit; it may also mean supporting kin or sending kids to private schools in Darjeeling, or traveliing or sponsoring religious rituals, or contributing to the financing of a monastery.’ (p. 67)

The point was that, Ortner says, even though wealthy idealistic westerners may see climbing for money as an impure corruption, for Sherpas, money earned from climbing actually led to ‘something we may think of as an 'authentic' Sherpa cultural universe, a framework within which they articulate their own desires in something like their own terms’.

Climbing money was ‘authentic’ because although real and deeply felt, these meanings were not fixed and unchanging but rather the result of shifting historical patterns.

I like thinking about the happiness of Sherpa expedition porters in the early twentieth century because it helps us understand the complicated dynamics shaping the increasingly numerous encounters between Europeans and Asians during the twentieth century. 

The story of Sherpa climbing culture shows the very real but shifting power dynamics at work in these encounters, but also the real but shifting forces within Nepali (and other Asian) cultures that shaped how individual Nepalis gave their own meanings to the encounters.

Ortner provides a model for thinking about history, culture, power, meaning-making, and agency that is very useful. It is a model that I have used in my own writings to understand how different Nepalis -- from Kathmandu-based planners to field based program implementers to Tharu men and women of different ages -- gave their own meanings to the international development programs that transformed places like Chitwan in the 1950s and 1960s.

The debates about Sherpa happiness also help broaden our idea of history. So often in Nepal people think of history as merely political intrigues within Kathmandu. Those intrigues are, of course, important, but so are the difficult and dangerous work that mountain porters did carrying loads in remote areas and the rich, and the fascinating meanings they gave to that work.

Read also: Was Tenzing a Tibetan, Nepali, or Indian? It does not matter., Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa

Tom Robertson


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