I am generally no great fan of books about mountaineering disasters, but Buried in the Sky really got its hooks into me. That’s partly because of its unique narrative viewpoint: the tale’s protagonists are not the Western adventurers who met with bitter fates on K2, but rather those adventurers’ Sherpa guides. The authors did a fantastic job not only of recounting the guides’ life stories, but also of explaining the nuances of Sherpa culture that help explain why these men were drawn to such perilous work. One such explanatory triumph is the book’s breakdown of the difference between Sherpas and Bhotes, a Nepalese ethnic group to which one of the protagonists belonged—a fact he often concealed, since it make more professional sense for mountain guides to masquerade as famed Sherpas. As it turns out, Bhotes share something rather unsavory with the more traditional residents of Kyrgyzstan:
Bhote, pronounced BOE-tay, stems from Bhot (Sanskrit for “Tibet”), and the Bhotes in Hungung observe many Tibetan customs. With marriage, for instance, the Bhotes of the Upper Arun Valley, like other Tibetan tribal groups, practice bride abduction. When Pasang’s cousin Lahmu Bhote was fourteen, the groom’s brother secured permission from her father, seized her in the night, and dragged her to the wedding. This break from her paternal household may have been ritualized, but it was hard on the bride. “I was miserable for years,” Lahmu said. It took a long time for her resentment to wear off. “When I was twenty-three,” she added, “I finally realized I loved my husband.” Sherpa marriage rites, by contrast, are public-relations campaigns. Before betrothal, a Sherpa couple consults all stakeholders—families and gods—and gets a horoscope cross-check. Sherpas widely consider the Bhote approach, which is less common nowadays, a brutal and primitive practice.
It is puzzling why two such closely related ethnic groups, which have existed in close proximity to one another for centuries, would have such wildly divergent approaches to an essential life event. Perhaps human societies do not influence one another quite as much as those who fear McDonald’s-ization have led us to believe.
Check out more about the excellent Buried in the Sky here.