Social Connectivity: ‘New’ Sherpas and the Recent Evolution of Himalayan Mountaineering
In the past decade Himalayan mountaineering witnessed a new chapter of its evolution. Accompanied by the overall rapid growth of Himalayan mountain tourism industry, proliferation of massive-scale agency expeditions, admired for being cheaper, more efficient, and arguably better communicative between clients and guides, have successfully supported a greater number of aspirants from worldwide seeking their disenchanted selves on highest peaks in remote places. At the heart of this change lies a handful of tourism agencies recently founded and run by Sherpas from northern Sankhuwasabha in northeastern Nepal. Who are these, and how do they differ from Solukhumbu predecessors? While the combined perspective of tourism and ethnicity in the context of Nepal is nothing new, this paper considers an aspect barely addressed, namely, social connectivity as the key juncture between the industrial and the ethno-regional. In particular, the paper focuses on relational dynamics patterns that in effect govern intricacy of the extensive social and economic chain of the mountain tourism industry. Attending to ethnographic and ethnohistorical material collected since 2012, in this paper I will argue that social connectivity is a crucial dimension where Sherpas and other Nepalis actively explore and negotiate for industrial and personal success. As a concept, I also argue, social connectivity is a useful tool to analyze dynamics and evolution of the tourism industry in comprehensive terms. Nonetheless, the significance of social connectivity in the industrial field has been largely neglected in scholarly discourses. This is due partly to, I further suggest, an assumption of methodological individualism still widespread in the tourism-ethnicity studies and in the study of Himalayan mountaineering.
Social connectivity captures both duty and dynamicity, the dual fundaments for ethics and vision. This logic explains both the industrial success of the Sankhuwasabha Sherpas and the recent evolution of Himalayan mountaineering. Dynamically have the Sherpas in general (re-)formulated connections with other climbing Sherpas, agency managers, influential clients, hoteliers, government officials, porter leaders, among others. Dutifully have the Sherpas assisted efforts of those they are connected—be they, for example, managers by nodding at delayed salary, clients by assisting their chores as needed rather than as paid, and fellow villagers by hiring/recommending them first. Duty and dynamicity combined, social connectivity is a time-honored strategy that proves to work for Sherpa achievements of visions and attainments of ethics. Pervasive is the lack of understanding about the dutiful and dynamic social connectivism in the Sherpa and Nepali social worlds vis-à-vis Himalayan mountaineering. The perspectival disjuncture keeps both foreign mountaineers and mountaineering pundits from viewing how, albeit in local ways, risk is controlled, benefits distributed, fraud accounted, and the quality of climbing experience augmented. Therefore, challenges remain for the Sherpas: how could they meet the requests for accountability and rationalization? Would they turn moments of internal fission into opportunities for mutual supports and understanding? If so, then how? Can they move beyond the imperialist trap that mountaineering both originates from Europe and be best advised from Europeans, to tell their own visions and solutions from the mountains?