On the 18th of April, 2014, an avalanche on the slopes of Mount Everest claimed sixteen lives; the worst accident in Everest history until the recent devastation of the Nepalese earthquake. The sixteen men that died were all Sherpas – underpaid Nepalese who risked and, ultimately, lost their lives on the treacherous Khumbu Icefall so that rich foreigners could tick ‘Everest’ off their bucket list.
Jennifer Peedom and a modest crew were stationed not far from the Icefall when the accident occurred, filming Sherpa, a documentary centred – for once – on the Sherpa’s perspective. As Peedom commented at the film’s world premiere (in competition at the Sydney Film Festival), Sherpas tended to end up on the cutting room floor of Everest films, and she wanted to change that. Weeks before the avalanche occurred, Peedom had already surveyed the rifts opening up in the Everest economy – an industry earning the Nepalese government and climb operators hundreds of millions of dollars off the effort and endangerment of Sherpas who earn five thousand dollars for two months of gruelling work. The tragic avalanche simply cracked those rifts open, dividing those involved with the Everest industry – expedition operators, clients, government ministers and Sherpas – across jagged fault lines.
But let’s backtrack. Sherpa eventually treks toward incipient revolution, as angry Sherpas protest their treatment in the wake of tragedy, but it begins with a small human story in an immense, inhuman environment. We meet Phurba Tashi, who has been summiting Everest since 1999; if he summits again, he will have reached the top of the world’s highest mountain twenty-two times – a world record. We learn of his family’s reservations about his continue trips, and of the great financial benefits of his perilous career (that aforementioned five thousand dollars is ten times the average annual Nepalese income). “Phurba,” a relative explains, “loves the mountain more than his family.”
Peedom expands her focus to include the wider Sherpa community, with Tashi its representative. We hear about the brawl that ensued on the slopes of the mountain the previous year, when Sherpas clashed with loutish foreign clients and came to blows. Everest has become “a very necessary part of the Nepalese economy” – but the benefits it brings to the Nepalese people – for example, high school education – also contributes to a community increasingly cognisant of their exploitation. “It’s about Sherpas no longer feeling they have to be subservient or deferent.” The contrast between the simple yet dangerous lives of the Sherpas and the creature comforts of their rich clients – widescreen TVs, warm towels to wake them in the morning – is played for laughs … but the inequity is unmistakable.
The second protagonist of the film is one Russell Brice, an expedition leader. Tashi – and dozens of other Sherpas – earn their living working for his company, trafficking ‘necessary’ camp equipment up the precarious icefall for their pampered clients. We begin to sympathise with Brice; he truly seems to respect his workers, and fear for their safety. “I’m totally shit-scared,” laments Brice. “Every time I send the Sherpas up the mountain, it’s like I’m sending them off to war.”
The fallout from the avalanche is devastating. Even in the hours afterwards, conflict flares between Brice and the Sherpas. They demand that Brice sends two Nepali guide to try and help recover the injured. “Foreigners act smart,” one comments, “but they can’t do anything.” The focus narrows – the spectacular, large-scale photography of icy peaks replaced by shaky recordings of heated conversations; expensive cameras replaced by iPhones and Go-Pros. Tensions reach a breaking point – exacerbated after the Nepalese government offers meagre compensation to the families of the dead, not even enough to pay for their funeral – and the Sherpas band together. A resistance – a rejection of unfairness, a rejection of risk.
All this was unexpected – Peedom had set out to chronicle Tashi’s world record summit, not small-scale political upheaval – but it feels somehow inevitable. A tragic accident was always going to occur – Sherpas traverse the unstable icefall as many as thirty times each expedition, and climate change has rendered it increasingly unsafe. The crew’s adaptability is astonishing. They’re able to obtain intimate access to public demonstrations and private conversations alike, composing an inclusive and empathetic portrait despite strained circumstances.
As this unfolds, the hypocrisy and self-interest of the expedition leaders – in particular, Brice – comes into sharp focus. Brice begins to construct a false narrative about renegade Sherpas threatening their compatriots with violence if they refuse to ascend the mountain. The sympathy Brice expresses proves false: “Before it was always smiling, friendly Sherpas,” he explains to his tight-lipped workers. “These guys have ruined your reputation.” As though their reputation as friendly was more important than their lives. (The real villain of the piece, though, proves to be an American client who demands that the Sherpa’s “owners” bring them into line and rants about terrorism and “nine-eleven.” He’s a cliché – but a terrifyingly real one.)
The biggest questions of Sherpa remain unasked, lurking in the film’s darkened crevices. It’s near impossible to walk out of the film without recognising the need for better rights for those Sherpas that risk their lives scaling the mountain. But remember, the meagre amount they’re paid already dwarves the income of their countrymen. Our lives – our luxuries, our holidays – are constructed from the toil of thousands of individuals from the developing world. Are we prepared to give up those luxuries for global equity? Are we prepared to give up on Everest?
Sherpa points towards change; or rather, the Sherpas do. The documentary chronicles their first steps towards a more just, more equitable, safer Everest. The wonder portrayed here is not the harsh beauty of the world’s tallest mountain, but of the human capacity for reform.