Saturday, July 28, 2018

Dying Differently: Sherpa and Korean Mountaineers on Everest

My recent article on Sherpa and Korean Everest climbers has been published in the minnesota review.  The paper can be reached here.  In the article, I have argued that death is a precondition for mountaineering, although ways mountaineers experience death may differ widely.  The following is the abstract of the paper:


  • A Sherpa laughed off his colleague’s death, stunning a Korean teammate on Mt. Everest. In the face of their friends’ deaths, Korean and Sherpa mountaineers behave quite distinctively from each other. Based on anthropological research on Sherpa and Korean mountaineers on Himalayan peaks, this essay makes a case revealing a cross-cultural and prepsychological aspect of mountaineering that upholds death as a principal component of the sport. A combination of highlander lifestyle, quasi-matriarchy, Tantrist ontology, and neocolonial relationship has historically shaped the reciprocal processes of Sherpas’ success in the industry of Himalayan mountain tourism and their characteristic joviality, which discounts the negative side of the sport. In contrast, Korean mountaineers, being reticent and meditative with respect to mountaineering accidents, exhibit a longstanding tradition of Taoist idealism, Buddhist dualism, and Confucian hierarchy as the set of norms and values they bring to the highest mountain peaks.


This article is supposed to be read as a philosophical piece for an insight over (mountain) climbing, rather than a social-scientific and historical study.  I have employed a brief anthropological analysis using language of jargon in order to stress out the production of different cultural reactions to mountain experiences.

Six years have passed since the fieldwork, and the main idea of the contrast made between the Sherpas and the Koreans in the paper seems to me still valid in general.  However, I must admit that in the paper there are things unsaid yet maybe significant for a more realistic understanding of each group's perception of climbing and death.  These include, among many others, fear and antagonism against death and risks publicly shared by those and other Sherpas and Koreans.

It should also be entertained that "mountaineering" has never been a "vocation" for anyone in any cultural group.  It might be the case that at some points in mountaineering a mountaineer negotiates climbing problems as if a matter of life and death; however, I can't imagine anyone with some experiences in serious mountaineering who practically takes his/her life nothing but that of a mountaineer.  They know they have alternative options than mountaineering for their future life; they have family; they have things to take care of back home.  In short, when they negotiate in any stage of mountaineering, their choice is made first of all between mountaineering and not mountaineering rather than between life and death.  This aspect of a mountaineer-as-a-whole-person has been ignored so frequently.

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