Words by Sam Haddad
There are heaps of Hollywood movies about mountaineering. Until now they’ve stuck to a similar template. Western* climber takes on a mighty peak. He, and it always is a he, overcomes adversity in a wild and spectacular setting. Rousing, dramatic music plays at key moments. He’ll nearly die a couple of times, and almost certainly lose a friend or loved one before the final credits roll. [*for want of a better word]
But Sherpa, an award-winning new film about Everest and the Sherpas, the ethnic group who live and work in Nepal’s eastern regions, takes that tired old narrative and tramples it into the ice. Directed by Jennifer Peedom from Australia, it’s the story of the world’s highest mountain, from the previously untold perspective of the Sherpas. It shines a light on how dangerous their work is and how that risk feels for them and their family members waiting at home for their safe return.
"We climb the mountain because it’s a holy place…western people approach it as a physical challenge…to see how close you can get to death"
The film also asks questions as to how complicit western climbers are in causing that danger, with their ever-increasing demands for a “comfortable" Everest experience. And it looks more broadly at the clash of cultures played out between westerners and Sherpas.
As Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of Tenzing Norgay, who was one of the first two people to climb Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary, says in the film: “Over here we climb the mountain because it’s a holy place. There’s a huge difference in the attitude, the feeling. Western people approach it as a physical challenge, to push a limit, to see how close you can get to death."
I spoke to one of the producers of Sherpa, John Smithson, who also produced Touching the Void and 127 Hours and asked him why it was important to tell the Sherpas’ story? “It was [the director] Jen’s original idea. She felt incredibly strongly that it was an untold story that needed to be told," he said.
“The books, films and stories are all from the non-Sherpa adventurer/climber/tourist point of view. Of course we didn’t realise the story would evolve the way it did…"
The crew planned to start filming in 2014, anchoring the documentary on Phurba Tashi, a lead Sherpa guide who had climbed Everest 21 times and would be going for a 22rd record-breaking summit. They would also focus on a female Sherpa who was planning to climb Everest for the first time. But while on a recce in 2013 they witnessed a scuffle between the climbers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith and a group of Sherpas.
The argument was ostensibly about rope fixing but it showed a deeper tension between Sherpas and western climbers and a changing dynamic in that relationship. Of the fight Smithson said: “We thought, what’s that saying about what’s happening on the mountain? It gave us an interesting way to tell the story…"
The film team went back to Everest in 2014. But the story changed again when a deadly avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas. As Smithson says: “Suddenly we had this dreadful avalanche and Sherpas dead and a dramatically different story. We ended up having to make a completely different film from the one we planned."
"I’m totally shit scared every time I send a Sherpa up in the mountain. It’s like sending them off to war…"
Even before the avalanche, the Khumbu Icefall was considered the most dangerous and unpredictable section of the Everest climb as the ice moves so quickly that crevasses can appear suddenly from nowhere and large seracs, or ice towers, can fall from above at any time.
Russell Brice, owner of the guiding company Himalayan Experience, who has been running expeditions on Everest since 1994, says in the film: “I’m totally shit scared every time I send a Sherpa up in the mountain. It’s like sending them off to war. I don’t know who’s going to come home…[There’s] nowhere else in the world where a mountaineer would go through an icefall like this but because it’s the only access to the south side of Everest people do."
In 2012, having listened to his Sherpa guides crossing the Khumbu Icefall at night and “running away from avalanches and blocks of ice" he deemed it too unsafe and cancelled that year’s expeditions at great financial and professional cost. The climber and writer Ed Douglas says in the film that decision “put into perspective the risks that people were making the Sherpas take."
Douglas goes on to say the Khumbu Icefall is “uncontrollable and perilous" and that climate change is making it worse. Crucially he also says while a foreign climber would only have to climb it twice a season, a Sherpa could make up to 30 trips carrying supplies and kit to make the western climbers’ ascent run as smoothly as possible. For him the question is: “What is the moral justification for that?"
Smithson hopes the film will help people understand that tension at the heart of Everest more deeply. He says: “People can be guided to the very top now. They need to be fit but they don’t need to be a super-experienced mountaineer…we wanted people to understand the reality of what’s involved to make that happen. We hope it is eye opening on what an incredibly dangerous job it is being a Sherpa…because of all those extra journeys up through the [Khumbu] Icefall to carry all the kit that everybody needs now."
"A Sherpa could make 30 trips on the Khumbu Icefall… to make the western climbers’ ascent run as smoothly as possible… 'What is the moral justification for that?'"
But as more Sherpas became educated, plus active on social media and conscious of how much of the expedition pie they were getting compared to the western guides for the risks they were taking, the cracks in the relationship were beginning to appear. Then as Smithson says: “The aftermath of the tragedy blew out into the open all the emotion and anger. So you could really see that potential clashing of cultures. No one would have predicted the tragic avalanche or the outcome [of that], where Sherpas essentially shut down the mountain."
Yet the film paints a balanced portrait of both sides. We’re reminded that Sherpas who work on Everest make 10 times the average wage in their homeland. Sherpa Phurba Tashi, who has been working with Russell Brice since 1998 says: “If it wasn’t for Russell I wouldn’t have a job. None of my Sherpa team would have jobs either." They'd be working as farmers. We also hear from climbers who’ve sacrificed a great deal financially and personally to climb Everest, for many of them it’s their life’s work. As Brice says: “We bring people here to help them fulfil their dreams."
Smithson says: “It’s a very complex issue as we’ve tried to show. Everest has been really good for the Sherpas, it’s helped a lot of them get education. They’ve earned more money than they could have done just in the fields and so on. It’s not a black and white issue."
I ask Smithson what the response has been to the film from the climbing community. He says: “We’ve done lots of Q & As at Film Festivals and people say it makes them feel quite bad about climbing up in the Himalayas or being at base camp. It’s provoked a lot of thoughtful reaction and sparked debate."
And what do the Sherpas think? “Our high altitude cameraman could speak Nepali so there was a lot of communication throughout. And we really felt, both before and after the avalanche, that they respected the fact we were trying to follow the story from their perspective. Phurba Tashi and some of the others Sherpas have seen it and the reaction has been brilliant and incredibly positive."
“The son of Tenzing Norgay was there when it premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and he said he liked it and that was very satisfying. Time and again the message that comes back is thank you for telling our story."
I ask Smithson what’s the next chapter for Everest and the Sherpas? “It’s going to be really interesting in 2016, especially after the earthquake this year. I just hope it’s a safe and normal season."
A few months ago I’d asked Britain’s top mountaineer Kenton Cool the same question. He’d said: “Next year on Everest is going to be crucial. Everyone said this year would be crucial then the earthquake came along. I would hope that the Sherpas realise there is a lot of love and support for them following the earthquake from western climbers."
“The outpouring of relief and money and donations pouring into Nepal after the earthquake really does show that people love that country and they love the people. And I hope that even the younger slightly more militant Sherpas realise that they need us as much as we need them."
In the film Ed Douglas says: “When climbing began [in the Himalayas] the Sherpas had no conception of what mountaineering might be, yet suddenly there were on this journey. From being people who were just genetically really good at climbing at altitude to becoming international mountain guides 100 years later."
“They might not still fully understand what it is that compels us to climb mountains but they are fantastically good at delivering the experience."
It’s important we reflect on the physical and mental toll Everest-guiding inflicts on the Sherpa people and this film is an excellent place to start that conversation.
SHERPA is in cinemas from Friday December 18. It will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016, visit www.sherpafilm.com for more info.