A climber wishing to summit Mount Everest must pass through a series of five ascending camps. Base Camp sits at an altitude of 5400m, and the mountain’s summit at 8850m. Between these points are Camps 1 through 4, each variously equipped with sleeping tents, portable kitchens and toilets, and the near-ubiquitous oxygen tanks that have made high-altitude mountaineering a considerably less dangerous activity – at least for Western climbers – than it was in 1953, when mountaineers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first people to summit Everest.
Each piece of equipment that supports a Western climber on their push to the summit must be carried up and then back down the mountain, and it is rarely – if ever – carried by the climbers (or ‘clients’, in the terminology of Everest tourism) themselves. That work is done by Sherpa mountaineers, who, as Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom tells me, shoulder a ‘disproportionate risk’ in climbing. Peedom has a long-standing relationship with the Sherpa community, dating back to a Lateline story, ‘The Sherpa’s Burden’, which she filmed in 2004. A decade later, she was in Nepal to make another film about the Sherpa, with a particular focus on mountaineer Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who, in 2014, before the annual climbing season on Everest began, had summited the world’s highest peak an astonishing twenty-one times. He shared that achievement with another mountaineer, Apa Sherpa, and one more successful summit would have have given Phurba Tashi the world record in his own right.
Peedom’s resulting feature-length documentary, Sherpa – which premiered at last year’s Sydney Film Festival and is now in commercial release – is not a film about that record-breaking climb, because it never took place. Early on the morning of April 18, 2014, a multi-million-tonne block of ice ‘the size of a Beverly Hills mansion’ (to quote climber and writer Jon Krakauer) broke loose and crashed through the Khumbu Icefall. The Icefall is a notoriously dangerous section of the Everest climbing route situated between Base Camp and Camp 1, a shifting glacier where crevasses open up at speed and avalanches occur frequently. The mansion-sized block of ice that fell in 2014 killed sixteen people, all of them Sherpas. When the avalanche happened most of the Western climbers were, Peedom says, ‘still asleep in their tents’.
Phurba Tashi and his team, employed by New Zealand expedition leader Russell Brice, were unharmed. But the Sherpa are a close-knit community: they are not only skilled mountaineers but a minority ethnic group within Nepal, with their own language and religious practices. After the avalanche, the Sherpa made an unprecedented request for Western clients and tour operators to ‘respect the dead and ourselves’ by cancelling the entire climbing season. The disaster, says Peedom, placed the existing tensions between Sherpa mountaineers and Western climbers ‘under a microscope’. She and her crew – which included high-altitude director and cinematographer Renan Ozturk and two Sherpa camera operators, Nima and Narwang Sherpa – ‘no longer had a climbing film about getting to the summit of Everest, we had a political film.’
There is a long history of filmmaking on Everest… but few films about the mountain have included the Sherpa in any substantive way.
There is a long history of filmmaking on Everest, dating back to Captain John Noel’s The Epic of Everest, a documentary about the mysterious and fatal 1924 expedition undertaken by British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. (Both climbers disappeared. Mallory’s body was found in 1999, but Irvine’s remains have never been found.)
Few films about the mountain have included the Sherpa in any substantive way. Particularly egregious is the 2015 feature film Everest, a fictionalised account of a 1996 climbing disaster during which eight people died in a blizzard, based on Jon Krakauer’s eyewitness account Into Thin Air. The film includes only one Sherpa character, who is negatively portrayed.
‘I’ve witnessed how things really work on Everest,’ Peedom tells me, ‘and then witnessed the resulting films, none of which really show that work, because it somehow lessens the hero narrative or the achievement.’ Sherpa, by contrast, reconceptualises Everest: in Peedom’s film we see a mountain that is both workplace and sacred site, integral to both the economic livelihood and the religious beliefs of the surrounding Sherpa community. For the Sherpa, Everest is Chomolungma, the mother of the Earth, a living deity who must be respected. To climb her is, for some Sherpa people, a sign of disrespect; Phurba Tashi’s mother describes it as ‘shameful’.
The community’s religious faith conflicts with their economic dependence on Western tourism. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and a Sherpa mountain guide, though they are paid a mere fraction of what Western clients pay to climb the mountain, can earn more in one climbing season than they otherwise would in a year of subsistence farming or herding. Phurba Tashi’s village, Khumjung, relies on this income, which also means that the village has mourned several generations of Sherpa guides who have died on the mountain. In Sherpa, we see the villagers burning juniper bushes in order to restore karma. And we see grieving widows, including one young mother who gave birth the night that her partner departed for Everest. He was one of the sixteen killed in the avalanche.
These scenes, says Peedom, were the hardest to film. It had always been her intention to document village life, but after the avalanche, she wondered if she and her crew had become ‘ambulance chasers’. Eventually, and with the agreement of the villagers, Peedom went ahead with these scenes, in order that the deceased Sherpas might be seen as more than ‘faceless statistics’. The film’s integration of community life with the Sherpas’ work on the mountain is its signal achievement. And though the circumstances are highly emotional, Peedom and her crew film patiently, utilising everything from aerial helicopter shots to GoPro footage in order to tell the story.
Back when The Epic of Everest was filmed, Nepal was forbidden to foreign visitors, so expeditions departed from Tibet, on the mountain’s northern side. But in more recent years the situation has been reversed: the unstable political situation in Tibet makes that access route less appealing to Western clients and tour operators, so they approach the mountain from the southern, Nepalese side, which means climbing through the Khumbu Icefall.
The Sherpas must carry loads of equipment through this treacherous terrain up to thirty times per climbing season. Each trip brings the risk of death.
A Western client may, on average, traverse the Icefall two or three times during their expedition, but the Sherpas must carry loads of equipment through this treacherous terrain up to thirty times per climbing season. Each trip brings the risk of death. As Russell Brice observes in Peedom’s film, sending the Sherpa guides through the Icefall is like sending them ‘off to war’. There is no knowing who will come back alive.
Brice appears in Sherpa as a conflicted and somewhat curmudgeonly figure. He is a highly experienced guide who cancelled his 2012 expedition because of an overhanging ice cliff that he thought represented a grave danger to both clients and Sherpas – an unusual decision, and one that attracted criticism from other tour operators. Among his clients in 2014 were several return climbers who had lost out, financially, because of that cancelled climb, and both they and Brice seem at times impatient with the Sherpas’ grief and anger. Brice grows increasingly frustrated, blaming the unrest among the Sherpas upon a ‘militant’ minority.
But Brice, at least, has an ongoing connection with the Sherpa community, whereas the attitude on display from some of his clients represents the worst of Western entitlement. One furious American climber first wonders whether the Sherpas’ ‘owners’ can bring them back into line, and then declares that his thwarted climbing plans mean he is ‘being held captive by terrorists’.
The Sherpas’ ultimately successful call to cancel the 2014 climbing season was a form of labour dispute, one in which, says Peedom, they were asking for ‘better rights, better compensation, better insurance’. But it was also a demand for the recognition and respect of the community’s cultural and spiritual beliefs. Three of the sixteen Sherpas killed in the avalanche were buried under ice, and could not be retrieved from the mountain – without proper funeral rites, the Sherpa believe, the dead will not be able to reincarnate, and their souls will never find peace. To climb Chomolungma in such circumstances would have violated the Sherpas’ deepest proprieties.
For a film about a terrible human tragedy, Sherpa arrives with an even sadder epilogue. On April 25, 2015, an earthquake struck Nepal, resulting in the deaths of more than 8,000 people. An avalanche on Everest triggered by the earthquake killed twenty-two climbers, including ten Sherpas – surpassing the total death toll of the 2014 disaster. The 2015 climbing season was also cancelled.
Phurba Tashi has not returned to the summit of Everest. ‘I would rather not hold the record and live with a healthy body and a happy family,’ he says, during the course of the film. ‘So I will stop climbing now.’
Sherpa is released nationally today, and we have ten double passes to give away thanks to Transmission Films. To enter, send your name and email address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Sherpa giveaway’ before 9am Monday 4 April.