18th April 2014. Mount Everest.
A massive avalanche on the treacherous Khumbu ice fall takes the lives of 13 Sherpa, leaving three more missing under the fallen ice.
This film documents the reaction of the eponymous Sherpa and the unprecedented situation that arises between them, the government of Nepal and the thriving tourist industry to which Everest is home.
Sweeping panoramic vistas stunningly captured from the air, beautifully stylised slow-motion footage and conventional straight-to-camera interviews are all combined with fly-on-the-wall observations to create a very engaging documentary film with a cinematic peak of its own.
The inclusion of some footage filmed from one of the victim’s helmet cameras is questionable but arguably necessary to convey the reality of what the film is about: the loss of life.
Sherpa lifts the curtain on yet another example of the exploitation of an indigenous people by ‘westerners’ for their own benefit. With that curtain raised, it then proceeds to open our eyes. For example, the fact that Sherpa are a distinct ethnic group of people not just Himalayan locals who are good at carrying stuff. This is their story.
And our access to their story comes through our protagonist Phurba, a highly experienced Sherpa and veteran of the mountain, looking for his record-breaking 22nd successful summit. He illustrates perfectly the unacceptable risks taken by the Sherpa. He has a wife and two young children, who don’t want him to climb anymore, yet he knows it is his best option for bringing home a decent wage for his family.
The fatalities occur because the Sherpa do all the heavy work, and do so traversing the deadly Khumbu ice fall numerous times on every expedition, something which the westerners are limited to only crossing twice per climb – once on the way up and once on the way down – which allows them to make the summit of Mount Everest, with minimal risk, and take a share of the glory.
There is nothing glorious about those risks the Sherpa must take every day and they’ve become increasingly aware of the stark disparity between the millions of dollars that the industry generates for both the tour operators and their government and the relatively small share they get to take home. The proliferation of technology and increasing access to modern education has only served to galvanise the young Sherpa workers and fuel their frustration. Indeed, in 2013 tourist climbers and Sherpa came to physical blows on the mountain for the first time. A clear display of the shifting tide.
The internationally recognised face of the Sherpa was coined back in 1953 by the talismanic Tenzing Norgay, when he joined Edmund Hillary in being the first men to reach the highest point on planet Earth. Tenzing was made a celebrity overnight and became the poster boy of the Sherpa community around the world. He was all smiles; quiet, helpful, there to support the western expedition. Times have changed, as we see in Jennifer Peedom’s film; the young Sherpa of today are more aware of, and connected to, the global community, meaning they aren’t as easily exploited. Facebook has no limits apparently, even thousands of feet above sea level, signal is probably quite good actually.
Enter Russell Brice, long time commercial Everest tour operator and champion of improving climbing conditions on the mountain. Brice is an interesting character in the midst of this tragedy. He’s torn between his obvious connection to the Sherpa and, in turn, their spiritual connection to Everest and the reality that he’s running a highly profitable commercial enterprise. Brice is one of the most experienced men on Everest and in his time he’s seen death on the mountain many times over. His pragmatic approach: death is a part of climbing the mountain, you have to mourn but move on. The problem arises when the Sherpa refuse to climb the tragic section of the ascent, where the remains of three of their lost brothers are still to be recovered.
Now, you have western (mostly American) tourists who have paid thousands upon thousands of dollars for their adventure of a lifetime wanting to continue their climb, after all it’s a huge undertaking to plan, finance, train for and then finally attempt a summit, up against a deeply upset group of Sherpa, increasingly a young educated majority, who do not want to climb again. This would mean coming back again next year, at the same cost, or, for some, losing their dream altogether. It’s understandable for the expedition members, losing your lifelong dream is a set back, no doubt, but losing your life is permanent. It’s this section of the film that really hits home, as you see some of the would-be adventurers’ frustration at their own selfish fantasies being denied them by the very real loss of human life, and on a large scale. The worst human tragedy, in fact, in Everest’s history.
Peedom plays this subtly and to her credit, allowing the audience to come down on whichever side of the moral fence they choose. One can’t help but feel perturbed by the colonial arrogance on display. The question, as so often repeated in today’s global society: western happiness, success and profit but at what cost?