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 Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay

Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Jon Krakauer (Introduction), His Holiness the Dalai Lama 


By Jamling Tenzing Norgay


By Jon Krakauer

Nearly five years have passed since the disturbing cascade of events that has come to be known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Hundreds of thousands of words on the subject have been committed to print in the interim. The most recent account of the tragedy, Touching My Father’s Soul, by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, is, by my rough calculation, the seventeenth book to be published about it. A half-decade after the fact, one would be forgiven for wondering why anybody other than the most obsessive Everest fanatic should bother reading yet another account of that infamous season on the world’s highest mountain.

But Jamling’s book should be read——it is in fact among the best of the bunch. There is much to marvel at in these pages. It taught me a great deal.

Jamling was the Climbing Leader of the 1996 expedition that made the hugely popular IMAX film, Everest. Although most of the other accounts of the Everest disaster were written by men and women who, like Jamling, witnessed the catastrophe firsthand, this is the only one authored by a Sherpa——the Buddhist people whose homeland surrounds Mount Everest, and who have played a singular, utterly crucial role in the great peak’s mountaineering history since the British first ventured onto its flanks in 1921.

Climbing Everest has always been an exceedingly hazardous undertaking, and the toll in Sherpa lives has from the beginning been disproportionately high——in large part because the non-Sherpa climbers responsible for hiring them have routinely subjected their Sherpa employees to significantly greater risks than they have taken themselves. Nevertheless, this is just the second book ever written about Himalayan mountaineering written from a Sherpa’s point of view. The only other, published thirty-seven years ago, has long been out of print and is now difficult to find. That book, as it happens, is the autobiography of Jamling’s father, the late, world-renowned Tenzing Norgay.

On May 29, 1953, it was Tenzing who, in the company of a New Zealand beekeeper, name of Ed Hillary, made the first ascent of Everest. The 1996 tragedy provides the narrative architecture that gives shape to Touching My Father’s Soul, but, as this title suggests, Jamling’s book is to no small degree about his larger-than-life father and the complicated, emotionally charged bond they shared. Its publication seems especially propitious now that Tenzing’s autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, has vanished from bookstore shelves.

In the heady months that followed his 1953 Everest climb, Tenzing was catapulted to the loftiest reaches of celebrity. He was lionized around the globe as one of the preeminent heroes of the post–World War II era. The newly crowned queen of England awarded the thirty-nine-year-old Sherpa the George Medal, the greatest honor that could be bestowed on a non-citizen of the United Kingdom. Feted throughout the world, he was befriended by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Throngs of adoring Hindus, convinced that Tenzing was a living embodiment of the deity Shiva, made pilgrimages to the Norgay home. Born in Tibet, raised in Nepal, and a resident of India since the age of nineteen, he had become a symbol of hope and inspiration for millions of caste-bound Indians, poverty-stricken Nepalese, and politically oppressed Tibetans——all of whom regarded him as a countryman.

Thirteen years after Tenzing stood atop Everest, Jamling was born in Darjeeling. According to Jamling, the relationship between father and son was “old-fashioned——he was strict and disciplined.” Jamling also reports that he and his siblings came to understand at a very tender age that their father wasn’t “an ordinary dad.” By this time Tenzing’s celebrity had long since become a burden, yet he considered fulfilling its obligations a duty that could not be shirked. Toward that end, he traveled prodigiously until his death in 1986, and his presence in the household was missed acutely by young Jamling. Tenzing left his family alone “for months at a time,” recalls Jamling. “His absence was what I resented when I was a boy——a boy who wanted to join him and be with him.”

As the son of such an eminent figure, Jamling, like his two brothers, was sent to one of India’s most elite private boarding schools, St. Paul’s. Everest loomed large in Jamling’s imagination as he was growing up, and he decided when still young that he would one day emulate his father by climbing it. When he was eighteen, with graduation from high school approaching, Jamling had an opportunity to join an Indian Everest expedition if he could convince his father to pull the necessary strings. Tenzing refused, sternly explaining, “I climbed Everest so that you wouldn’t have to.” Jamling was crushed.

Upon graduating from St. Paul’s, he traveled to the United States to attend Northland College, in Wisconsin, which had given his father an honorary degree many years earlier. Jamling would spend the next ten years in America, much of it in the flat suburban sprawl of New Jersey——virtually as far from the Himalaya as one can travel——but his dream of climbing Everest never vacated his thoughts. On May 9, 1986, while Jamling was still enrolled at Northland, he received word that his father had abruptly collapsed and died. It was a severe blow to the entire Norgay family, but, Jamling writes, “after my father’s death, my desire to climb Everest had only intensified.”

Ten years later, Jamling was finally given an opportunity to fulfill this long-deferred aspiration. The eminent mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears invited him to join the 1996 IMAX expedition, and Jamling accepted. His account of the ensuing events, including the disaster, is enthralling to read, largely because Jamling observes the behavior of his fellow climbers from a rare, inimitable perspective: He was intimately acquainted with both of the profoundly disparate cultures that met——and more than occasionally clashed——on the slopes of Everest that unfortunate spring: the Sherpas’ on the one hand, and on the other that of the wealthy “white eyes,” or mikaru (as the Sherpas called us), who hired them to risk their lives on our behalf.

The extent to which Jamling’s life has straddled these two wildly incongruent worlds is reinforced by passages in the book that delineate his religious beliefs. Like most Sherpas, he was raised as a practicing Buddhist, but throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, Jamling writes, “I imagined that my propitiations were little more than superstitious gestures…. Buddhism hadn’t fully captured my heart. It wasn’t a subject taught at St. Paul’s, and my father was off climbing and traveling too much to teach me.” He admits to feeling “cynical,” and “unsure of my belief in Buddhism——skeptical, in fact,” right up until the eve of the 1996 expedition. But then, arriving at the foot of Everest, he found himself drawn with surprising power by the traditions of his Buddhist ancestors.

The notorious storm that enveloped the peak on May 10, leaving nine dead climbers in its wake, played no small role in Jamling’s religious transformation. “[O]nce I arrived in the lap of the mountain,” he writes, “surrounded by Sherpas who believed, and confronted by a rich history of death——and death itself——I could no longer remain cynical.”

Touching My Father’s Soul is thus a story of spiritual evolution, with its concurrent struggles, failings, and irreconcilable contradictions. But more than that, it is the story of a son’s quest to make things right with a father who was both a living legend and a painfully fleeting presence, and who died when the son was still teetering on the cusp of adulthood. Probing his own heart, Jamling asks, “What, honestly, was my motivation to climb [Everest]? For my teammates the expedition was somewhere between a job and recreation, and those forces were drawing me, too. But I was driven primarily by a need for understanding. I felt that only by following my father up the mountain, by standing where he had stood, by climbing where he had climbed, could I truly learn about him. I wanted to know what it was that drove him and what it was he had learned. Only then would I be able to assemble all the missing parts of a father’s life that a young man envisions and longs for but never formally inherits.”

 Jon Krakauer February 2001

What others have to say about: Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Jon Krakauer (Introduction), His Holiness the Dalai Lama 

“Tenzing Norgay Sherpa was more than a highly motivated man.  His first ascent of Chomolungma is a story of passion, hardship and endurance.  In this book, his son Jamling engagingly illustrates his own passion to follow his father's route -- and his father's dreams -- to the roof of the world.”

—Reinhold Messner

“There is much to marvel at in these page.  It taught me a great deal....Enthralling to read.” 

—Jon Krakauer

“Jamling brought companionship and humanity to Mount Everest in 1996.  I came to greatly respect his professionalism, good humor and deeply spiritual nature.  While we reached the top together, in this book Jamling has gone beyond the summit.  He has successfully reached into our hearts, our souls and our dreams.  I am delighted and proud that he has given us this insightful meditation on climbing, spirituality and life -- a breath-taking and inspiring view from the other side of the mountain.”

—David Breashears

“Jamling Tenzing Norgay has given us a moving and deeply personal account of his life as a modern young man in the ancient family of the Sherpas. His pilgrimage to the top of the world reunites him spiritually with his famous father, the legendary Tenzing Norgay, and along the way he teaches us all the enduring lessons of faith and the humility evoked by high and wild places.”  

—Tom Brokaw

imax.gif (11898 bytes) Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, Jon Krakauer (Introduction), His Holiness the Dalai Lama 



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