Book review: Photos paying tribute to the Himalayan splendour of Solukhumbu

Taboche and Cholatse from a viewpoint above Dughla | Photos by Sujoy Das/Vajra books
After their highly acclaimed Nepal Himalaya: A Journey Through Time, which I had the privilege of reviewing for this paper (October 29, 2016), photographer Sujoy Das and travel writer Lisa Choegyal take us back to the breathtaking landscape and rich cultural traditions of Nepal in their new book, Everest: Reflections on the Solukhumbu. 

As its title suggests, the book zooms into the high mountain chain that is home to the Everest peak and Sherpa communities who inhabit the hills and valleys, known as Solukhumbu, which spread below it. While the earlier volume had only black-and-white photographs of rare texture and quality, the current one has both colour and monochrome images. These retain the sharpness, sensitivity to detail and careful composition that one has come to expect from Das. 

Everest: Reflections on the Solukhumbu Authors: Sujoy Das and Lisa Choegyal  Publisher: Vajra Books Pages: 147, Price: Rs 2,250
The book is offered as a tribute to the memory of Edmund Hillary, whose birth centenary is being observed this year. His ascent of the Everest in 1953, in the company of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, is well known. His life-long attachment to the awe-inspiring mountain range and to the people of Solukhumbu is less familiar. Over the years, Hillary raised funds to build schools, hospitals and training institutes for the Sherpa community and helped end their isolation.  Solukhumbu is the most popular destination for mountaineers and trekkers alike. The consequences of its fame are not always positive. The recent picture of a virtual traffic jam on the Everest as a long line of summiteers waited their turn at the peak conveys powerfully the downside of unrestrained human intrusion into a very fragile ecology. There is money to be made but the ecological costs are rarely totted up.

Even during the time I was assigned in Nepal as India’s ambassador (2002-04), I avoided the Everest trail and chose to trek to the Cho Oyu base camp instead with the pristine Gokyo lakes. One still had to traverse the path from the Lukla airport (built with Hillary’s assistance) up to Namche Bazaar, the take-off point for the Everest Base Camp. This was already one of the most congested tracks in all of Nepal. 

The peak of Cho Oyu, which dominates the Gokyo valley, reflected in the lake
Das’s incredible pictures are a welcome distraction from such depressing thoughts. The very first colour photograph of “A full moon illuminating Everest, Lhotse and Amla Dablam as seen from a ridge south of Kunde village”, is arresting. I was also struck by the play of light and shadow and intimate detail of the sun-bathed mountain peaks of “Taboche and Cholatse as seen from a viewpoint above Dughla”. It was a relief to see that Gokyo remains relatively untouched and the picture of the lake reflecting Cho Oyu evoked a nostalgic urge to return. 

The book has an informative write-up by Choegyal on Solukhumbu and its Sherpa communities. The Sherpas are originally from Tibet and follow Tibetan Buddhism. The word “Sherpa”, literally translated denotes, as Lisa Choegyal, explains, “a dweller in an Eastern country”. Sherpas gained fame as hardy and expert mountain guides and porters for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. Choegyal welcomes the fact that due to Hillary’s untiring efforts and contributions from travel promoters such as herself, the Sherpas are enjoying relative prosperity and new opportunities. They remain attached to their cultural roots and these aspects come alive in the photographs and accompanying texts related to Sherpa festivals, religious ceremonies and current lifestyles. However, there is more than a hint throughout that the old world is passing and with it, some of the magic and mystery that always attached to the high snow-capped mountains, steeped in myth and legend.

A Sherpa from the valley
The book has a brief foreword by the celebrated mountaineer Chris Bonington who has high word of praise for “the amazing Sherpa people of the Solukhumbu”. But he, too, refers to the challenges that lie ahead due to increased trekking and mountaineering expeditions. The preface by Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a community leader and promoter of mountain tourism, maintains an optimistic note, confident of the Sherpas’ ability to adapt to changes brought about by the “forces of globalization, mass tourism, haphazard development, human migration and climate change”. I am not so sure.

Kancha, the only surviving Sherpa of the 1953 Everest expedition

Choegyal’s chapter on Hillary is a sensitive portrayal of a shy individual deeply in love with the Himalayas and their often overpowering beauty. That he turned his ascent of the Everest into a life-long and passionate attachment to the mountains and the Sherpa community is an inspiring story, recounted well in this chapter. Hillary had a deep association with India where he represented New Zealand as High Commissioner from 1985-89 and was concurrently envoy to Nepal and Bhutan. I met him in Kathmandu on one of his trips to Nepal. At our Embassy residence, which used to be the premises of the British resident, he recalled how in 1953 he and his expeditionary team had camped for several days on the sprawling lawns, before heading off to the Everest. He was happy to have the chance to revisit the place where he spent, he recalled, several happy, anxious and anticipatory days.  

One should pay tribute to Hillary’s memory as this fine book has done and applaud his untiring efforts to improve the livelihoods of the poor and deprived Sherpa communities of Solukhumbu. But even he may have been deeply concerned about the traffic jam on the Everest that he may have inadvertently triggered with his ascent of the Everest on May 29, 1953. It is now just another box to be ticked on one’s bucket list.  The haunting photographs of Himalayan splendour in this book reminds us why we must do everything in our power to sustain the fragile ecology of these precious mountains.

The reviewer is a former foreign secretary and served as India’s ambassador to Nepal (2004-06). 
He is a keen trekker and visits the Himalayas frequently

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