Ms Evelyn Beck
10 March 2007
“Into Thin Air”: Spirituality on and concerning Mount Everest
There is a great deal of discussion regarding Mount Everest, especially concerning the highest peak on Earth as a symbol of ultimate achievement. But Mount Everest is more than just a symbol of personal achievement. To the people of Nepal and Tibet, where the dominant religion is Buddhism, the mountain takes on important spiritual aspects, both as the embodiment of Goddesses important to the native religions, and as an entity with a spirit of its own. While Jon Krakauer doesn’t focus on the spiritual aspects in Into Thin Air, it is impossible to read the book without learning of the spiritual importance of Mount Everest, especially to the native people of the region.
Even as the modern age begins to invade the peoples that live in the unforgiving lands around the forbidding mountain, the religion of the people remains rooted in tradition. Early in the book Krakauer tells of meeting with the rimpoche, the “head lama of all Nepal” (Krakauer 49) before they began their ascent. This is a tradition for all climbers of Mount Everest, obtaining the blessing of the “living reincarnation of an ancient and illustrious lama” (Krakauer 50). In an interesting juxtaposition, in the same passage he then tells how the lama brought out an old photo album, filled with photographs of his travels to the United States, and how excited the elderly man was to show off his treasures (Krakauer 50). Despite this glimpse of what we consider normalcy, the lama remains a central figure to the lives of Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhists, something Krakauer is quick to point out whenever possible.
We also see how animistic the local religions are, in regards to the mountain. Animism in a religious sense is based upon the belief that personalized souls are found in animals, plants, and other material objects, governing, to some degree, their existence. Mount Everest is alive to the Sherpa and the Buddhist peoples of Tibet and Nepal. It has a spirit of its own, which explains why they became upset when they would find the various climbers occasionally engaging in unclean behaviors. Even Rob Hall, the lead guide and owner of Adventure Consultants, complained, “Americans were violating the spirit of the hills” (Krakauer 80). And Krakauer himself says, “Buddhism as it is practiced in the high reaches of the Khumbu has a distinctly animistic flavor” (132).
In addition to the animistic beliefs of the native people, the Buddhists associated Everest with a number of different deities. Though there isn’t too much about them, Krakauer doesn’t ignore them as he writes about the trip. When one of the Sherpa on Scott Fischer’s team fell ill with a severe case of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), the others were convinced that someone on Fischer’s team had angered Everest, in the guise of Sagarmatha, a goddess of the sky (Krakauer 131). More mention of Sagarmatha comes as Krakauer tells of the traditional ritual, the puja, was not performed. Betraying the malleable customs and non-dogmatic nature of the Sherpa, when the local lama was unable to make the trip to camp Ang Tshering declared that it would be okay to climb, “because Sagarmatha understood that we intended to perform the puja very soon thereafter” (Krakauer 133). When he quotes a blog entry by climber Sandy Pittman, we learn of another goddess associated with the mountain. “The goddess Chomolungma, they claimed, doesn’t tolerate ‘jiggy jiggy’ – anything unclean – on her sacred mountain” (Krakauer 132) wrote Pittman from Base camp.
In reading Krakauer’s tale of the climb and the disaster that occurred high atop the forbidding landscape, there is a sense of the ‘aliveness’ of the mountain, of the spiritual significance, despite the book not being intended for that purpose. He shows us, through various comments and anecdotes, that the Sherpa see the mountain as a feminine goddess, a mother figure. The characterization of the mountain in the book even speaks of a feminine force in the names that the Sherpa give when they speak of her. The little glimpses into the spiritual significance of Mount Everest to the people of Tibet and Nepal, while perhaps unintentional, gave the reader a refreshing look into another side of the Everest experience.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. New York: Anchor Books. 1997.