A Review of 'Sherpa' (Jennifer Peedom, 2015)
The world of climbing and mountaineering has always displayed particular superhero-esque individuals capable of herculean feats that are of singular interest to the general public. The first successful and complete ascent of Everest (Chomolungma in the Nepalese culture) was achieved by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 and their names have been synonyms with the mountain, and indeed with climbing ever since. If I were to simply list the huge achievements made by mountaineers and climbers over the history of climbing then I would probably need another blog! So why have I singled out Sherpa? Why not write on Kormakur’s Everest, or Chin’s Free Solo? Both are successful films in their own right, one tells of an unimaginable tragedy whilst the other documents an incredible success. Well, Sherpa is that rare gem in the film world that claims to tell the other side to a story, and really does it. This article focuses on Sherpa because I believe this to be the gold standard for filmmaking in this genre
Directed by Australian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, Sherpa dedicates itself from its title to the film in its entirety, to the perspective of the Sherpas’ points of view. The film has fallen foul of audience reviews who have judged the film to be about the 2015 avalanche, and simply chose to take advantage of the situation that occurred there after 13 Sherpas were announced dead and 3 missing. This is a mistake. The film certainly does cover the events that took place in Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Icefall, however, Peedom’s clear and central priority is focussed upon the lives, the heritage and traditions of the Sherpas’ and the individuals that leave home and risk their lives with every single step. The film had originally been intended as an insight into the thoughts and opinions of the Sherpas’, particularly following the confrontations that had broken out on Everest the year before. Western media had made the Sherpa community out to be bad actors in the clashes, often ignoring or downplaying the insults that had been hurled at the Sherpas’ by foreigner climbers. What Peedom uncovered, and is surely the legacy of the film itself, is the culture of ignorance, arrogance and greed, not by the Sherpas’ but by foreign climbing companies and clients.
Opening scenes within the documentary show moving interviews with the wife of Phurba, and her misgivings with his employment as Lead Sherpa on Mount Everest. She tells of how she had lost her brother on the mountain the previous year, and the dire consequences to Phurba’s family should he die are not lost upon the viewer. These insights into the Sherpas’ community and their attitudes towards climbing are entirely at odds with most Western accounts and archival footage. All too often do we hear climbers returning home proclaiming how proud the Sherpas’ that climbed are to have been involved, how grateful and happy they were to serve and what honour and legacy they were honoured to take home to their families. Peedom allows the Sherpas’ to speak for themselves, and it’s an entirely different story that we hear. Phurba is only one ascent away from being the man to have successfully climbed Everest more than anyone else in the world. He claims to continue to climb merely because the living is good (some ten times more than the average Sherpa income). His wife and children desperately want him to stop climbing as they fear for his life every time he leaves - it does not appear that the glory of his ascents would do anything for them in place of his life. Indeed, by the end of the film, Phurba has decided to stop climbing, despite not reaching this record, and instead determines to prioritise his life and his family.
Images of Sherpas’ setting up a luxurious basecamp fitted out with a working television, a bookcase stacked with books, tables surrounded by plastic red chairs and other homely furnishings are not swept over as in retellings gone before. Peedom emphasises the fact detail by detail, so that it is impossible for the viewer to ignore the agony which Sherpas’ are subjected to by carrying this mountain of materialism to the base of their sacred Mother Mountain. In past accounts I have even heard of clients forcing Sherpas’ to carry satellite telephones and computers up Everest itself. When every breath is a struggle, and conditions are like nowhere else on Earth, the greed and selfishness displayed by foreigner climbers and the commercial companies that are enabling their climb is astounding. The Sherpas’ have long been dismissed as uneducated or as a ‘simple’ people, and it is somewhat satisfying to see that there is a new generation coming through the community who have been to high school, who understand how their talents and genetic abilities have been exploited and furthermore, who recognise that their government is hugely shortchanging them and their families financially.
Let us be clear, the risk in climbing Everest lies almost entirely in the safety of the rigging of the equipment, and the crossing of the Khumbu icefall. Anything after that falls predominantly to dangerous weather or altitude related illness. In this case then, the Sherpas’ are the ones most at risk, as it is their task to rig the ladders and ropes and ensure their safety, and it is they who must cross the treacherous Khumbu Icefall 22-30 odd times (as opposed to once or twice in the case of the clients led by Russell Brice and his company Himex). Knowing this, the odds are largely against the Sherpas’ every single season, and we can understand how it is possible that 16 Sherpas’ were killed in one day (at the time the worst recorded event in Everest history) when there was an icefall in the Khumbu.
The resulting anger and fear on the part of the Sherpas’, who had watched their friends die and knew that they would be expected to get on with the season and not create a fuss, is entirely justified. The level of disgust I experienced as a viewer watching foreign climbers try to justify their desire to climb Everest and complain of their disappointment at the Sherpas’ inability to carry on and be more reasonable, was enormous. The disregard for the devastating, and let’s not forget, continuous loss of life by the Sherpas’ in order to help wealthy foreign climbers tick off a bucket list emphasises an all time low for humanity and compassion. Not one climber, leader or organiser stood in solidarity with the Sherpas’ and asked for the season to be ended. In fact, Russell Brice will surely have lost a great deal of future clients for his attitude and comments in the film, as he refers to some of the Sherpas’ as ‘militants’ and ‘renegades’. It is clear that his primary concern is finances, and not the wellbeing of his Sherpa workers.
The film uncovers an anathema of complex problems regarding the Sherpa/foreigner climbing dynamic. It is far too simple to see the film as telling one singular event, primarily because the fallout of the event itself is clearly and inextricably linked to the treatment of Sherpas’ tracing back to Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent so many decades ago. Whilst Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary were knighted by the Queen for their efforts, Tenzing Norgay was awarded the George Medal; this medal is actually a rank below the prestigious George Cross, and thus indicated that Norgay's achievements was not properly awarded and recognised. The slight upon him is indicative of how we in developed countries have more generally treated this peaceful and welcoming community. If there were any moments of unsavoury behaviour by the Sherpas’ we can only see it as a reflection of how we have continually used them, and financially exploited their labour and good will.
It is high time that developed countries truly make efforts to step away from underlying colonialist attitudes; we do not own these people, they have just as much right to believe that their best interests and safety are mirrored in us, especially if they are to do the grunt work on Everest. Respect for their culture and practices would go a long way. Too long now has Everest been treated as a circus, with traffic jams of people queueing, verbal abuse hurled at guides and financial exploitation of a country that cannot rely on their government to prioritise their people’s best interests. Chomolungma is sacred to the Nepalese and she demands their respect. When we consider how far foreign climbers would have gotten without the Sherpas’ help, it’s a wonder that we don’t revere them in much the same way.