The tension on Mount Everest had been building for years. Rich Westerners pay a fortune to climb the world’s highest peak, but the Sherpas — a Nepalese ethnic minority who live in the shadow of the mountain — do most of the hardest and most dangerous work paving the path for the adventure climbers, and are paid little and get next to no recognition for achieving the same high-altitude feats. There have been literal traffic jams — of foot traffic, that is — on the mountain in recent years as the experience has drawn more and more outsiders. In 2013 it all came to actual fisticuffs between the Sherpas and Westerners on Everest. In the wake of this, during the 2014 climbing season (in April and May, when the weather is most propitious), Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom went to the mountain to document the experience from the Sherpas’ point of view, and got much more than she anticipated when an avalanche — some of which she captured on film — in the constantly shifting glacier known as the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas, and prompted the surviving Sherpas to go on strike just as wealthy tourists — paying customers — were expecting to be led to the top of the world.
The result, Sherpa — which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at this year’s London Film Festival — is an extraordinary film for how it gives us the other side of a story we have seen more than a few times before, but only ever from the outside angle. (The “Hollywood feature film” team mentioned by someone here as also being at Base Camp in 2014 is the crew from this year’s based-on-fact IMAX disaster adventure Everest. Sherpa is an essential companion to that film.) Peedom is no Everest neophyte — she also made 2008’s Miracle on Everest — and she makes a palpable connection with the man who is her primary subject, Phurba Tashi Sherpa, whom you have never heard of even though he holds world records for extreme mountaineering. (We also get some much needed perspective from the children of Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Edmund Hillary on his first ascent of Everest in 1953, and who often gets overlooked despite Hillary’s own efforts to underscore the feat as a joint effort.) The paying Western climbers don’t come off very well — they are generally unsympathetic to the Sherpas’ grieving in the wake of the avalanche, and selfishly upset over their adventure being interrupted — but they aren’t demonized, merely cast as ignorant visitors to a place where the mountain has religious significance for the locals, and who cannot appreciate the balancing act the Sherpas have long been enacting between the danger of their mountaineering work and the necessity of the regular influx of tourist money into the Nepalese economy.
There is soaring beauty in the landscape here, which Peedom does not neglect — this is a breathtaking film to look at. But it is even more powerful for how it captures a burgeoning revolutionary spirit among a people who have been ignored, when they aren’t being taken advantage of, for too long. As journalist Ed Douglas describes the Sherpas’ attitude here, honed by the 2013 and 2014 climbing seasons, they are not willing to “[play] out the role of the faithful servant anymore.” Sherpa ends by noting that the 2015 season was aborted after another deadly avalanche; no one made the summit this year, something that hasn’t happened in decades. I am very curious to see what happens in April 2016, if the combination of nature’s caprice and a local culture’s rising ire will finally curtail — or even put an end to — an annual mountaineering ritual that has been likened to a “circus.”
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival
Sherpa will air on the Discovery Channel around the world in 2016.