Giving a voice to the sherpas who risk life and limb to make a living on Everest, Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa finds itself caught between two camps.
The Holy Mountainby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Dedicated to the memory of all the sherpas who have died working on Everest, and who’ve long been overlooked by history since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest in 1953, Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa is a long-overdue monument to the Nepalese locals who do most of the gruntwork for Western mountaineers seeking fame and glory. (A coolness even supported by the British establishment it turns out, who decided to knight New Zealand mountaineer Hillary, while only awarding Sherpa Tenzing the George Medal.) And with nearly 300 deaths on Everest since the first expedition in 1922 – and over a third of them Nepalese sherpas, ascending and descending the holy mountain over thirty times a season, lugging goods and equipment across the perilous Khumbu icefall – it’s perhaps time that the image of that smiling, friendly, heroic – and above all subservient – sherpa was shaken.
What’s perhaps most intriguing though, is our persistent fascination with Everest. Ever since J.B.L. Noel’s 1924 silent documentary The Epic Of Everest recounting Andrew Irvine and George Mallory’s fatal attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain, to Leanne Pooley’s Beyond The Edge and Baltasar Kormákur’s 3D Everest, Everest has captivated the imagination – the final frontier perhaps of human achievement. And while Kormákur’s Everest does a fine job of exposing the barely describable reasons for legions of amateur mountaineers from all over the world to take on Chomolungma, for the sherpa (an ethnic group from Nepal’s Himalayas rather than a mountain porter) it’s a question of earning enough money to see their families through the winter.
Through Peedom’s documentary we follow in the footsteps of Phurba Tashi, the lead sherpa in Russell Brice’s Everest expedition, accused by his wife of loving the mountain more than his family. And fundamentally, there is a difference in the way the sherpa people view Chomolungma – the mother god of Earth – not as a mountain to be conquered (even if the 2014 ascent would make Tashi a world record holder, summiting Everest 22 times) but rather as a holy mountain, venerated with prayer wheels, pujas, blessings and juniper smoke. According to Tenzing Norgay, it’s not a mountain to be climbed, but rather a mother’s lap to be crawled into. And so when an avalanche strikes on 18th April 2014, and 16 Nepalese mountaineers are killed – the worst day in the mountain’s history – the sherpas call a halt to climbing for the rest of the season – forsaking their wages for the right to be properly compensated for their risky employ – both now and in the event of their death.
It’s at this knotty end of Sherpa however, that Peedom’s documentary becomes unstuck. And while it takes great pains to give the sherpas a voice – even if their interviews to camera are always conducted while working or on the move, unable to afford the same sedentary luxury as the white folk at leisure on the mountain – the context behind the sherpas’ demands isn’t made clear, and Peedom’s retreat into even-handed reporting unearths what seems to be an insurmountable cultural difference – as resentment between the paying clients and the grieving sherpas builds, their outspoken cries for respect somewhere between rabble-rousing and their newly democratic freedom of speech. And while the Everest industry is keen to keep the money rolling in, it’s no match for the Nepalis’ implacably Buddhist attitude towards money and their humble respect for both death and their families.
Like so many other Everest films before it, in which the sherpas are mostly out of the picture, what’s surprisingly missing from Sherpa – apart from footage of the notorious fight in 2013 in which a European climber insults one of the Nepali guides – is the Nepalis’ interaction with the rich mountaineers. And while Peedom’s documentary may fail to uncover entirely the sherpas’ perspective, we are left questioning the strange hubris of man – risking not only his life to conquer the world’s highest mountain, but also those of hundreds of others – risking their lives on their behalf while getting none of the credit.
SHERPA is in cinemas now and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016 http://sherpafilm.com/