For over three decades keen photographer and mountaineer Peter Laurenson has been a frequent visitor to Khumbu, the Nepalese gateway to Mount Everest and home to the Sherpa people.
As I leafed through his book, I was entranced by the many splendid panoramic views of majestic snow-covered mountains, as well as his photographs of markets, temples, strings of fluttering prayer flags and ancient inscriptions carved in stone. There are pictures too of Pasang Dorje Sherpa and his wife Nina Sherpa who he met by chance on his second visit and with whose family he formed a deep and lasting friendship. His feeling of kinship with them keeps drawing him back to Khumbu, along with his passion for climbing in this remote and beautiful part of the world.
Peter Laurenson is a consummate storyteller who makes us feel we are right there as we follow him on his seven journeys. There were many challenges not least of which was the dreaded Khumbu cough, which is a common curse for many visitors, experiences of altitude sickness, and sometimes treacherous and dangerous terrain. At times he almost reached the limit of his endurance.
‘Snowfall on our descent made route finding difficult. We crashed through sometimes thigh deep drifts in plummeting temperatures. It wasn’t long, maybe at the 5,100-metre mark, when my body seemed to cry ‘enough’. I just wanted to sit down in the snow, sometimes collapsing when soft deep snow gave way and my heavy pack pitched me forward out of control. I coughed heavily, my throat burned, my feet throbbed…”
When they turned fifteen, he took each of his three sons in turn to Khumbu for a coming-of-age adventure. I did feel conflicted about a father exposing his teenagers to the real dangers of mountaineering, but they proved to be very memorable journeys. As well testing their physical endurance it was a chance to bond more deeply with their father. And it opened their eyes to the vast difference between their cushy suburban lifestyle and that of the much humbler lives of their Sherpa ‘family’ who welcomed them with such warmth and hospitality.
Peter Laurenson also writes perceptively about the politics and culture of the Sherpas. He traces the history of Buddhism and how spirituality infuses their lives. But with the recent introduction of modern technology, he has observed that you are now more likely to see people holding cellphones rather than the mini prayer wheels carried by believers as they go about their daily business.
The impact of the large increase in tourist numbers concerns him. The wealth this has created is not evenly spread. Only some have benefitted, most are still struggling to eke out a living at a substance level.
He fervently hopes that administrators in Khumbu and all of Nepal will make their decisions about tourism not just on economic grounds, but also with concern for the preservation of the environment and Sherpa culture. And that tourists too will show respect for the culture and environment.
On the seventh journey, before COVID made travel impossible, he was once again accompanied by his son Will. As they climbed there was a noticeable role reversal. Age is starting to slow him down. Will had become the hare and Peter was now the tortoise. But there may be further visits yet, he would love to fulfil a promise to bring Cathy his partner to meet his Sherpa family.
For those who are inspired to follow in his footsteps the detailed maps included in the book clearly show the trails he climbed. But most of us will be more than satisfied with taking a thrilling armchair journey to Khumbu with Peter Laurenson.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter