Footnotes in History? Not This Time
Sherpas who helped youngest Everest climber deserve their due
Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Jordan Romero made history as the youngest climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He reached the top with his father, his father’s girlfriends and three Sherpa guides.
While Romero has gotten his just due for his accomplishment–he has now climbed seven of the tallest mountains in the world–the anonymity of the Sherpas has led some to question if it’s another case of ethnic people being a footnote in history.
It’s a common practice that happened throughout most of history–ethnic peoples who helped Whites accomplish something significant but whose value was ignored in later retellings.
Consider Matthew Henson, the associate of Admiral Robert Peary, who led the first believed expedition to reach the North Pole in 1909. While Peary was showered with honors, it took Henson over three decades to receive any recognition from the United States government.
York was a Black slave of William Clark who traveled on the famed Lewis and Clark expedition. Despite being the only African-American in the group, he was given equal status such as being armed and voting where to set up quarters once they group reached the Pacific Ocean.
When he returned from the exhibition, he remained a slave for several years before Clark freed him. His history remains a mystery but his value to the corps went largely unrecognized.
It was only in the past two decades via Ken Burns’ excellent documentary on the expedition that York finally received his due. Before his departure from the White House, President Bill Clinton made York an honorary sergeant in the U.S. army in 2001
Most famous is the case of Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay who, despite his honors and recognitions, has been left out of most stories and retellings of the first expedition to climb Mount Everest.
Many are told that Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. What is overlooked is that Norgay accompanied him the entire way and both reached the summit together.
In fact, the only photo at the top of the summit is of Norgay because Hillary took the photo. Hillary admitted that it was because he knew how to work the camera and it would take too long to teach his friend to do it.
Despite the honors showered on him by England and his native lands of Nepal and India, Norgay is often cast as the second fiddle to Hillary. This is no fault of the famed British explorer who remained friends with Norgay and always gave him full credit in interviews.
Rather it is history looking to honor someone at the expense of devaluing others. A culture of humanity that has celebrated the leader and not the supporting cast around them.
In naming the most influential people of the 20th century, TIME Magazine named both Hillary and Norgay as a team on their list. However LIFE Magazine only named Hillary on their recent list of 100 People Who Change the World.
To be fair, Norgay was mentioned frequently in their write up and it cited Hillary’s using his celebrity to helping the Sherpas of Nepal and being England’s ambassador to Nepal and India.
But the solo picture of Hillary was a reminder that one is often chosen as the face of history and rarely is it the person of color chosen.
Sherpas know the mountain trail better than anyone as they live around the base of the mountain. They know the mountain so well, two recently held a competition to race to the summit on Everest and reached it in 10 hours.
So as Romero is rightly celebrated for his historical achievement–which by the way broke the record set by a 16 year old Sherpa–let’s not overlook the people of color who helped him and his family get there.
A good start would be finding out what their names are and giving them their due.