Thursday, April 16, 2009

Climbing the highest mountain

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in May of 1959 by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide and companion.

However, I wasn't focusing on any of that when the name Wendy Booker first came to my attention. When Charles Osgood featured her last May on his "Sunday Morning" show, I was interested in hearing that a woman was trying to climb the tallest mountain on every continent. The Seven Summits, as they are called, with Everest being the highest at over 29,000 feet.

A woman, I thought, and not a 'young' woman at that. Hmmph! But then, I was completely drawn in by her unfolding story when the extensive feature went on to tell about Wendy having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ten years before and her determination to "push back" the progression of this disease, to not let it defeat her. "I must follow this woman's progress," I said to myself, and made some notes on my blog calendar.

Since Sunday Morning's feature almost a year ago, Wendy has ascended what she smilingly referred to as a "little bump" (Mount Koscuiszko in Australia, about 7,000 feet) in a 2008 interview which you can find here ... scroll down until you come to the actual interview; trained in Oregon for the Khumbu Ice Fields and on Mt. Ixta in Mexico, where the emphasis was placed on 'being at one with the mountain'. She is back in Nepal for the third time in a year, and is now in the long and slow process of climbing and resting, climbing and resting, acclimatizing all along the way to the ever-decreasing oxygen levels and allowing her body to gain strength for the final push to the top.

[A lot has been written about Wendy and her determined quest. I first published an extensive writeup about her last month, when I became a bit concerned that she hadn't posted on her blogsite since January. I was worried that she had either temporarily succumbed to some of the ravages of her disease or had become terribly discouraged by the arduous training and discipline required to succeed in her goal to conquer all of the Seven Summits. I needn't have worried.]

It will take about two months to complete the ascent. When I first read that, I thought it probably would take that long because she's a woman, is not young and has multiple sclerosis. Foolish me. There are 28 other teams registered to climb Everest this season, and they will all take that long! One of the other teams includes someone who is attempting to be the first woman ever to reach the summit without the aid of oxygen tanks. (Whaaat! Is she insane?)

Wendy wrote that all of the camps en route to the top, not to mention the trails themselves, will be full of other climbing teams. She attributed that to the fact that the northern route from Tibet has been closed to outsiders. I'm sure that's at least partially correct, altho I think the 50th anniversary of that first ascent has a lot to do with it, as well. (What I find kind of interesting is that Sir Edmund's route originated in northeast India and went through Tibet. Prior to 1949, it was Nepal that had been closed to outsiders! ... ... I know so little about that part of the world. This has been a real education for me.)

What I'd like to focus on today are the Sherpas, those unique people who originally migrated from Tibet to Nepal centuries ago and are now such an integral part of any mountain expedition in the Himalayas.

I don't know how much you have read or already knew about Sherpas. Wendy has written about them several times in her blog posts, and a couple of her 'beloved Sherpas' are almost like family to her, she says. My "Wendy's in Nepal!" post (already linked above) attracted an extensive comment recommending the book "Beyond the Summit", by Linda LeBlanc. Are you familiar with that book? I'd like to read it again. (Note to self to go to the library.)

In addition to all of those references, however, I want to recommend National Geographic's most recently-featured article*. It's well-researched and written by T.R. Reid (photographs by Robb Kendrick) and includes many insights into the main religion, language and politics of the region, as well as in depth interviews with families and conclusions based on the writer's personal observations. I found this article fascinating! It provided an added dimension to my understanding of the world of Sherpas.

*This article continues on for at least ten pages. If you have the time, I recommend that you read the whole thing.

I hope that I have been able to entice you into learning more about the Himalayas, the history of that part of the world and the Sherpas; following Wendy's and other teams' progress as they strive to reach Everest's summit and allowing a bit of today's politics, particularly as it pertains to Nepal and Tibet, to seep in to your conscious minds.


Linda said...

To learn more about the Sherpas of the Mt. Everest region, read Beyond the Summit by Linda LeBlanc. Sherpas are the true heroes of Everest. Without their assistance, very few would reach the summit. Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter’s point of view.

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to

Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
Richard Blake for Readers Views.

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest.

A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc’s vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there.

This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended.”
– John (college professor)

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialog. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

Such vividly depicted images of the Everest region and the Sherpa people are the perfect scenario for the romance and adventure feats narrated. It’s a page-turner, so engrossing you end up wanting to visit Nepal! Not just novel, but perfect for those seeking to get acquainted with the culture of this country.
By Claudia Fournier (América, Bs. As., Argentina)

Available through Barnes and Noble, Borders,,, and the web site

Goldenrod said...

Your extensive comment and recommendation was already referenced by me in this post, Linda, but thank you for the refresher.

Craig Peihopa said...

I have become a fan of wendy Goldenrod. I note that without the sherpas few would make the summit, a bit like life as well. Without certain people around to help and guide us, few of us would ascend the heights were capable of.

very informative post