With K2, the world’s last remaining 8,000 m peak that had not yet been summited in winter now achieved, will the Nepali Sherpas who conquered it explore horizons beyond the Himalayas? If a team with roots in Third Pole reached the North or South Pole, that could herald the dawn of a new postcolonial era within the Age of Exploration.
In the history of exploration, yesterday was one for the books. A team of ten Nepali sherpas made the first-ever wintertime ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Nestled deep in the Himalayas, the pyramidal Pakistani peak juts 8,611 meters into the air, topping out just a shade under Everest (8,849 meters). The so-called “Savage Mountain” lies at the heart of the Third Pole, which, after the North and South Poles, holds more ice than anywhere else on earth.
While the Nepalis had started out on three separate teams, after a storm destroyed a large amount of equipment and wrecked existing plans, the night before attempting to summit, they combined efforts to create the so-called “Nepali Force.” Their decision paid dividends, and upon reaching the top of K2 around 5:00 pm on January 16, the ten sherpas gathered and sang the national anthem, “Sayaun Thunga Phulka” (“Made of Hundreds of Flowers”). “History made for mankind, History made for Nepal ! ??? ?” tweeted the team’s leader, Nirmal Purja MBE.
While white, Western males have long dominated exploration from the North Pole to Everest to the South Pole, their successes have often only been made possible thanks to local, Native, and Indigenous people and their knowledge. In 1953, as part of the ninth British expedition to the literal roof of the world (and the first successful one), two colonial subjects of the British Empire finally conquered Everest. That pair consisted of Sir Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper from New Zealand, and the indomitable sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali who lived in India. Norgay had supported a Swiss expedition which made it within 200 meters of the summit the year before, so he had intimate knowledge of the mountain. The British needed his services in order to realize their aspiration of beating all other nations to the top.
Once Norgay and Hillary summited Everest, the plan was for them to unfurl two flags: the Union Jack and the United Nations. The former is the most prominent one in the photo, but if you look closely enough, you might notice the flags of Nepal and India. In a discrete act of subversion, Norgay had attached the flags of his motherland and adopted nation.
Local people, along with their flags and the nations they symbolize, have been present at many of the most momentous occasions in the history of human exploration. Over the past few centuries, they have risked life and limb in support of an untold number of expeditions, carrying equipment and making repeat trips across ice falls and crevasses to set up paths and trails that their Western clients might only have to cross once. Sherpas account for a third of all deaths on Everest, a grave statistic that reflects that while they do make up a large proportion of people climbing the mountain, they are also disproportionately exposed to risks. (The book Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman tells the tale of several Sherpas on the deadliest day in K2’s history in 2008, when 11 people died in 24 hours.)
With the annals of exploration, colonial subjects and their postcolonial descendants have been cropped out of photos and left in the margins of history books while their fairer-skinned teammates receive awards and knighthoods from their imperial and national governments. All the while, it is people like the Sherpas – much like the Inuit in the Arctic – who have long made possible the redefinition of frontiers like the Himalayas into a “terrain for nationalist competition,” as Stephen Slemon writes in an essay on “Tenzing Norgay’s four flags.”
Sherpas even make smaller-scale exploration in distant lands possible for more casual hikers: for the better part of a decade, they have been building trails and staircases from the south of Norway all the way up to Tromsø in the Arctic, where they laid the “Sherpa Steps” up to the cable car. Long after the Sherpas have returned home, their manual labor continues to help people tread new paths.
The relegation of Indigenous, Native, and local expedition members to the role of supporting actors who barely even muster casting credits persists. One of the teams attempting to summit K2 this winter consists of American climbers Colin O’Brady (known for exaggerating the historic nature and difficulty of his “first-ever solo, unsupported, unassisted” in 2018) and Colin Kedrowski. Writing in the Financial Times, Simon Usborne observes, “Less visible in O’Brady’s Instagram photos and uplifting captions are the two sherpas helping the Americans.”
At other times, Sherpas are featured, but their nationality is erased. The below 2019 story in local English newspaper The Hampshire Echo described Purja, the accomplished Nepali Sherpa and mountaineer who led yesterday’s wintertime summit of K2, as a “Hampshire man.” While he has indeed lived in the English county for his military training since 2009, no mention of his Nepali origins was made. Illustrious immigrants are appropriated as a country’s own people, while unsuccessful ones are forever seen as alien “others.”
Like his father and grandfather before him, Purja served as a Gurkha. He is also soldier within an elite special forces unit of the United Kingdom Royal Navy and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in 2018 for his high altitude mountaineering feats.
Now, with the ten Nepalis’ first-ever wintertime ascent of K2, the red and blue triangles of their country’s pennant are the only ones fluttering in the extreme alpine breeze, save for the colorful Tibetan prayer flags encircling the summit. All the accoutrements of nationalism – the colors and flags, the patriotic songs, the bravado and masculinity – are visible and audible. It is an incredible moment in mountaineering, and also a fascinating juncture in the twinned histories of exploration and nationalism.
Nepal was never colonized: the British tried and failed in the 1800s and ultimately recognized its independence in 1923. The Himalayan country that maintained its sovereignty against the odds has now made its mark on the mountains in the same manner that so many imperial powers have done before. While the people living in the world’s harshest, remotest edges have always explored their own backyards, it is both joyous and jarring to see the ten Nepalis carrying out “exploration” in a way that reproduces some of the most problematic ideas of the 20th century: nationalism and the idea that man must conquer nature.
I write this not to detract from the sherpas’ accomplishment. They are deservedly proud of their feat as individuals and on behalf of their nation and are also graciously sharing their achievement with the rest of the world. In a statement issued at the top of K2, Purja, the Nepali Force’s accomplished leader who set a record by climbing all 14 of the world’s mountains over 8,000 meters tall in just six months, offered:
“What a journey. I’m humbled to say that as a team, we have summited the magnificent K2 in extreme winter conditions. We set out to make the impossible possible and we are honoured to be sharing this moment, not only with the Nepalese climbing community but with communities all across the world.
Mother nature always has bigger things to say and standing on the summit, witness to the sheer force of her extremities, we are proud to have been a part of history for humankind and to show that collaboration, teamwork and a positive mental attitude can push limits to what we feel might be possible.”Nirmal Purja, Nepali Sherpa, at the summit of K2 on the occasion of its first wintertime ascent, January 16, 2021
The question now is what comes next for the Nepali heroes. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary was feted around the world, most of all in England, where his ascent came just four days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He was knighted later that year, while Norgay only received an honorary medal – an oversight that still rankles his grandson, Tashi Tenzing, himself a legendary mountaineer.
After summiting Everest, Hillary returned to beekeeping in New Zealand. But he would still find opportunities to travel to many of the planet’s extremes. He made it to the the South Pole in 1958, and in 1985, he flew in a bush plane across the Canadian Arctic all the way up to the North Pole with another legendary explorer: American astronaut Neil Armstrong. Norgay led a quieter life, guiding in Nepal and Bhutan, and died in Nepal of a cerebral hemorrhage the year after Hillary stepped foot at the top of the planet.
With the world’s last remaining peak above 8,000 meters that had not yet been summited in winter now achieved, will the Nepali Sherpas continue guiding or will they, too, seek to push their own limits as individuals and as a collective and explore horizons beyond the Himalayas? If a team with roots in Third Pole reached the North or South Pole, that could herald the dawn of a new era within the Age of Exploration – a period we might call postcolonial exploration.
For now in celebration, I’ll tuck into some Nepali momos and curry from the comforts of sea level in Hong Kong. Hats off to these incredible mountaineers for overcoming the ice, and for now having made it back to basecamp in the dark, no less!
Correction: The article previously stated that Nepal was colonized. It was not. Sincere apologies, and many thanks to a reader for pointing out this important fact.
Interestingly though, the country’s successful evasion of colonization may have opened it up to somewhat parallel processes later on. Mary Des Chene writes in a 2007 article entitled The Condition of Non-Postcoloniality, for instance that in the 1950s, “The early anthropology of Nepal, the anthropology of the period of decolonization around the world, was an anthropology of discovery and mapping” – effectively since among Westerners, “because virtually nothing was known of the country, basic ethnographic facts had to be ascertained.”