Directed by Jennifer Peedom
We’ve already had a movie about climbing Mount Everest in the last year – in point of fact, it was called Everest – but although it was a good film, like so many before it, it told its story from the point of view of the wealthy first-worlders who pay fabulous amounts of cash to adventure companies in order to summit the world’s tallest mountain. However, there’s another angle on the mountain, and it’s genuinely surprising that nobody has thought of taking it before: director Jennifer Peedham takes a look at Everest through the eyes of the Sherpas.
“Sherpa” has become synonymous with “mountain guide” to the Western world, but the Sherpas are in truth an ethnic group who became inextricably linked with climbing Everest when Tenzing Norgay summited the peak with Edmund Hillary in 1953. Since that time, pretty much every Everest expedition has been accompanied by Sherpa guides and porters, and with the rise of adventure tourism, the money generated by such activities has become extremely important to the Sherpa economy.
Still, the power dynamic between Sherpas, climbers and tour organisers is a complex and uneven one, with Sherpa accomplishments and labour largely being hidden from the public eye while wealthy mountaineering tourists are lauded. All this came to a head on April 18, 2014, when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas who were ascending the mountain by night to prepare base camps for the upcoming climbing season.
Director Jennifer Peedom and her crew happened to be at Everest Base Camp for other reasons at the time* and were perfectly positioned to capture the aftermath of the disaster. Focusing largely on the experiences of one guide, Phurba Tashi Sherpa, Peedom gives us an up close look at how the rise of commercial mountaineering has affected the Sherpa people. Although the existence of such an industry makes it seem like climbing Everest is now a commonplace thing, the film takes pains to illustrate the danger inherent in every attempt, and also points out that, for every guided ascent by paying customers, Sherpa team must brave the mountain 20 to 30 times to prepare the way.
The essential tension on the film is money versus safety. Following the avalanche, the various mountaineering companies are keen to press on with their planned ascents, while the Sherpa community revolts at the idea of continuing in the wake of the tragedy. Angry Sherpas rally their fellow guides to strike, while tour operators such as New Zealander Russell Brice struggle to comprehend why their smiling, uncomplaining workforce are suddenly so angry.
The film is firmly on the side of the Sherpa people and, frankly, that’s as it should be: by and large the adventure tourists and company honchos come across as naive at beat, hopelessly drunk on privilege at worst. At one point a would-be mountain climber, frustrated that he may be kissing his $75,000 holiday goodbye and hearing that some Sherpas are encouraging others to quit, queries whether it would be possible to speak to the offending Sherpa’s “owner.”
Peedom’s film is clear eyed and thoughtful. While the essential narrative throughline is fairly simple, she manages to guide us through a tricky area of conflicting morals and agendas, where personal determination conflicts with harsh economic realities. In the end what really lingers is the crass, ugly commercialism of the mountaineering industry and the question that remains is not why the Sherpa people reacted so angrily to Western attitudes to their tragedy, but how they managed to keep their calm for so long in the face what appears to be longstanding, if unwitting, disdain.
*Oddly enough, the second unit for Everest was there too.
Sherpa is playing as part of the Lotterywest Festival Films Season from Monday, February until Sunday, January 21. Go here for tickets and session times.