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