The Barnes & Noble Review
I confess I am not a climber. I have been known to wander around mountains with bloody knees and a smile, but when it comes to serious climbing, my adventures are strictly facilitated by the many authors cashing in on Mt. Everest, its mystical associations, and risks. After books like Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, and Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains, I was beginning to think the genre of Everest lit had seen its last bracing account of the 1996 fateful climb. Then, along comes Jamling Tenzing Norgay with Touching My Father's Soul: A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest.
Norgay's tale is packed in credibility, like an Everest expertise sandwich. There's an introduction by Jon Krakauer, author of the awe-inspiring Into Thin Air, and it's co-written by Broughton Coburn, author of Everest: Mountain Without Mercy. Like many mountaineering books, this reads like a love story. Boy meets mountain, boy loses mountain, and boy gets mountain back. Substitute the word "mountain" with "father," "spiritual strength," or "cultural identity" and you're still outlining Norgay's endearing autobiographical tale.
It would have made a great book even if bad weather hadn't struck that season. Jamling Tenzing Norgay is the son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to reach Everest's summit with Edmund Hillary in 1953. Born in Darjeeling and college-educated in the United States, the author is candid about his tense relationship with his late father, who was worshiped, by some Hindus, as a manifestation of Shiva after his successful ascent. Burdened with the responsibilities of fame and notoriety, Tenzing Sr. denied his son the chance to climb Everest and, not surprisingly, Jamling's obsession with the mountain increased exponentially. After a humbling turn on trash detail for a climbing team a few years later, Norgay sprang at the chance to climb with David Breashears' IMAX filming expedition in 1996. Of course, the adventure was doomed.
Offering mountaineering facts (it's easier to climb rock that is covered in snow! Who knew?) and intelligent "Sherpa-tudes," Norgay is also unafraid to explore the socio-economic effects of Everest expeditions on the local culture. Hired by rich or well-sponsored, sometimes eccentric, and often inexperienced climbers who cough up between $30,000 - $60,000 for the trek, Sherpas evidently provide their services and hospitality for a pittance, with a mix of good-humored patience and incredulity thrown in at no extra cost. Tying him more strongly to the Sherpa culture is Norgay's refreshed Buddhist faith, which acts as ballast in increasingly intense physical and psychological conditions. His very participation in the Everest ascent relied on a divination, and Norgay clearly believes strongly in the rewards of prayers and chanting, as well as in the goddess of the mountain and the ghosts that reside there. The book's real glory is in the details of his conversations with lamas -- such as Geshe Rimpoche -- and readers won't want to miss the impressive forward by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
There are a few flaws in most autobiographical adventures, especially when there are two authors. This is Norgay's story but the language may belong to Coburn. Some of the writing feels stilted and waxes almost inappropriately poetic. The organization is scattered, as if you're getting the story in the Sherpa's oral tradition, with detours, switchbacks, and sudden progressions. A book like this could also use a glossary for terminology and Nepali phrases, and perhaps a better map than the one provided.
Aside from these lapses, the descriptions and imagery of high-altitude hardships are (pardon the pun) breathtaking. Most people who pick up this book will already know how it ends, but with the fresh cultural perspective and mildly funny voice of the narration, it's best to surrender to another telling of the story, strap on your crampons, and lie down on the sofa. The thought, care, and candor invested in Touching My Father's Soul make it, like Norgay's ascent, a labor of love. Jessie Hawkins
Read an Excerpt
An Ominous Forecast
Rimpoche bunched his mala rosary into his cupped hands and blew on it sharply. He withdrew the string of beads slowly and inspected it, turning his head slightly and squinting, as if trying to peer inside each individual bead. He looked up at me.
"Conditions do not look favorable. There is something malevolent about the mountain this coming season. "
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach a feeling that surprised me considering that I was nothing of a devout Buddhist.
Rimpoche sat on a wide, flat cushion, and he adjusted his robe and began to rock back and forth as if he, too, had been surprised by the divination. He clapped his hand loudly to call the attendant monk. His clap broke the silence the way a guru's clap in a Buddhist teaching is meant to trigger awakening to the nature of emptiness, sparking a flash of recognition that all life is impermanent, containing no inherent existence. I experienced a narrow, momentary space of calmness, a millisecond of emptiness, then felt my stomach again.
A monk padded in quietly and served us tea, gently lifting the filigree silver cover from Rimpoche's jade teacup, which sat on a silver stand. The monk then offered me some fried breads from a woven bamboo tray. I declined, then accepted after the third offer. Such trays are always kept heaping full, and I had to concentrate to avoid knocking off the other pieces. My hand was shaking.
In early January 1996, 1 had traveled here to Siliguri, West Bengal, for an audience with Chatral Rimpoche, a respected but reclusive lama of the Nyingma, or"ancient lineage," of Tibetan Buddhism. His principal monastery was located in Darjeeling, where I lived with my wife, but Rimpoche's patrons and supporters had built him a small monastic center in the northern plains of lndia, several hours away by jeep. The West Bengal landscape is relentlessly flat, far from the remote monasteries that the Nyingmapas established, beginning a millennium ago, across the Himalaya. I felt fortunate to have been born on the south side of the Himalaya, safe from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Since the late 1950s, Tibetans have been crossing their border into India, Sikkim, and Nepal seeking refuge. Partly as a result of their unerring devotion, Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish along the south side of the Himalaya, including among my people, the Sherpa.
Rimpoche's chapel and quarters are painted in the bright primary and earthen colors of Himalayan monasteries. Accented by the tall prayer flags on the roof, the compound looked invitingly familiar across a landscape of banana trees, Tata trucks, and blowing dust. It hardly seemed like a place to get a technical reading on the advisability of attempting to climb the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest.
I told Rimpoche that I was there to request a divination, then cautiously asked him about the coming season on the mountain.
I wondered how accurate such divinations really are, statistically speaking. The ability of some lamas to see into the future is remarkable, my parents always said, and their words can be frightening for some. Indeed, fear of prior knowledge of events is one reason why many Sherpas are careful about requesting divinations and one reason why lamas often shroud their counsel in generalities and aphorisms. The truth, especially when presented in advance, can be too much for some people to accept graciously. They tend to become angry or to deny it, only further exhibiting the "afflictive emotions" of anger and ignorance. Many lamas feel that laypeople don't use knowledge of the future properly. Seldom do people apply it to further their self-understanding or to aid noble causes. Again and again, people hope vainly to control events that have yet to occur, events that never seem to play out in the way they imagined.
Raised in a religious family, I was aware of the danger of asking questions of lamas. "When you request a divination, you must always be prepared to abide by the answer,"my father, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, had cautioned me. Fine, as long as it was a positive answer or even neutral. But this divination was unequivocally bad.
I was already firmly inextricably committed to climbing Mount Everest. Should I tell my teammates on the Everest IMAX Filming Expedition about Rimpoche's ominous forecast?
How could I? I was the Climbing Leader. Were I to drop out, and only three months before the start of the climb, it would cast a long shadow over the expedition and, I felt, over my father's name and my family legacy. My wife, Soyang, was the reason I was here. She is a young and educated Tibetan woman, yet traditional and reserved. She was against my plan to climb Everest unless a lama pronounced it safe.
A week earlier the veteran Himalayan mountaineer David Breashears had phoned me from the United States. He said that a modified IMAX movie camera had been successfully field-tested and that funding had been secured for an expedition that would try to haul the cumbersome forty-two-pound device to the summit. An extraordinarily ambitious goal. "I need you, Jamling,"he told me. "Your story, your father's story, and the story of the Sherpas will be important to the film. But I first wanted to make sure you haven't committed to another climb for this spring. If not, then welcome to the team. Let's talk details soon"
Soyang overheard the phone call. She had been uneasily quiet all afternoon. That night, lying in our bed at home in Darjeeling, she sat up and looked at me sternly. In a determined voice, she said that we had better talk about my Everest plans.
"You don't simply say you're going to climb Everest in the manner that you say you're going to see a movie." Her tone was imploring, but not entirely dissuasive.