Peace Corps Writers
Touching My Father’s Soul
A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest
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Other books by Broughton Coburn

Touching My Father's Soul
  by Jamling Tenzing Norgay,
     with Broughton Coburn (Nepal 1973–75)
Harper San Francisco
304 pages
April 2001

Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)

IMAGINE WALKING INTO A MEAT LOCKER for a month with a forty pound pack on your back. The air is kinda thin because thisPrinter friendly version particular meat locker is 25,000 feet high — so every so often you need this Nazi gas mask to help you breathe. And every day, just for the fun of it, you jump on the meat locker treadmill for 8 hours — cranked to the steepest incline. During your “off” hours you dodge strewn body parts and avoid the yaws of the buzz saw ever droning in the background.
     But at least you’re not alone. Four of your mates are with you, and the most fun comes towards the end of the month. That’s the day you play Russian roulette. With gas masks strapped into place with frostbitten fingers, you bring out the silver pistol. Nestled in one of the five chambers is a matching silver bullet. The five of you sit in a circle, icy puffs of breath escaping from your masks. You twirl the bullet chamber like a Las Vegas pro, then point the barrel at your icy temple. At the count of three, you pull the trigger.
     Welcome to Everest.
     The glamour and mystery that once shrouded the mighty mountain was blasted away forever by the ice-storm of 1996 that left 11 bodies sacrified to the mountain goddess Miyolangsangma. For more than half a century, the siren song of Everest has lured countless sailors to her shore — with one out of five summiteers smashing up upon her icy reef.
     This season brings three new accounts to add to the mountain lore. The first, The Kid Who Climbed Everest, stands out not because young Bear Grylls was a special forces bloke who broke his back parachuting and was told he’d never walk again — that’s the least of it. More importantly, Grylls is the only one whose daffy sense of humor translates onto the page in this grim genre. Then there’s Eric Weihenmayer, TIME’s cover boy, who became the first blind person to reach the summit — no laughing matter. And finally, we have Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa icon who, along with Edmond Hillary, was the first to summit the indomitable Chomolungma, or Everest, in 1953.
     Norgay’s story is worth reading on two accounts. One, it is a rare Sherpa’s eye view that goes a long way in revealing the spiritual aspects of the mountain that have been so rudely trampled by Western crampons over the past decades. “The more I witnessed the garish displays of ego and individualism in some of the foreign teams,” he writes, “the more I felt they were inviting misfortune.” Secondly, Touching My Father’s Soul is a classic tale of a son trying to measure up to his mythic father — a father who, ironically, was rarely there for him because of the gravitational pull of fame that made him belong instead, to the world.
     Jamling Tenzing Norgay did not grow up as an ordinary Sherpa — eeking out a living in the harsh foothills of the Himalayas. Because of his father’s position, the young boy was sent to India’s top boarding school, and then to Northland College in Wisconsin. There, he experienced a period of intense estrangement and culture shock not unlike that experienced by many a Peace Corps Volunteer.
     When Norgay was asked to join the 1996 IMAX film expedition to Everest, he questioned his motivation in agreeing to go. “I felt that only by following my father up the mountain, by standing where he had stood, by climbing where he had climbed, could I truly learn about him. I wanted to know what it was that drove him and what it was he had learned. Only then would I be able to assemble all the missing parts of a father’s life that a young man envisions and longs for but never formally inherits.”
     What he finds on the summit, of course, is permission to be himself. He has a conversation with his father, who is dressed in his 1953 jacket and goggles. “Both of our dreams have come true,” he tells his father. Norgay senior replies “Jamling, you didn’t have to climb this mountain in order to speak with me and to be with me.”
     Rather than choosing the easy life in the West, Jamling and his family follow in his father’s footsteps by devoting themselves to bettering the still marginal lives of the Nepali Sherpas. Though he continues to straddle both worlds, Jamling is philisophical about how the East and West each try to chase each other’s shadow. “Eastern and Western views, though often divergent, are not contradictory,” he writes. “The ‘mystery’ that Westerners have projected onto the East we see as little more than a simple and rather prosaic way of life. Conversely, the materialism of the West is an exotic wonder and enigma for us. Just as trekkers covet the simplicity and wholeness of our ancient lifestyles, Sherpas crave cars, clothes, and computers. Rather than pass each other going in opposite directions on the path of cultural evolution, I propose that we expand the healthy synergy that already exists — however latently — between the two hemispheres of thought.”
     Nearly half of all Himalayan climbers killed have been Sherpas. When Jamling Tenzing Norgay walked into the frozen meat locker that is Everest, and on the summit, put the silver pistol to his head — he dodged the bullet.
     With the proper puja in place, the goddess Miyolangsangma determined it was not his time. And for those of us who are able to learn from his inspirational tale, and for all the Sherpas he has helped -- this is indeed a good thing.
Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79) is Director of Publications for the National Association of Independent Schools as well as a freelance writer for The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor.
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