Australian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom has spent much of the past decade telling stories about Mount Everest. After cutting her teeth as a high-altitude filmmaker on the TV series Everest: Beyond the Limit (2006), she began her directorial career with the documentary Miracle on Everest (2008), which chronicled Lincoln Hall’s astonishing brush with death on the famous mountain.
Her latest film, Sherpa, forges an unfamiliar route to the summit, providing a new perspective on the mountaineering industry that has built up around it. As the title suggests, this is a film about the Nepalese Sherpa people (who hail from the country’s mountainous east) rather than the tourists who employ them. So associated is this group with the role they’ve been allocated, that Westerners see ‘Sherpa’ as synonymous with ‘trekking guide’. The Sherpa people’s story is inextricably part of the story of Everest, which they call ‘Chomolungma’ and revere as a deity.
“Having worked on a number of those big Discovery [Channel]-style docos and watched a whole lot of other Everest films, it always surprised me the extent the Sherpas were edited out of the story,” says Peedom. “On the film crew for these other projects, I would often try to shoot the Sherpa angle and do little interviews with them. At best, it would end up as a little DVD extra that would never make the main story.”
Sherpa centres on Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who Peedom describes as “the most accomplished high-altitude climber in the world”, preparing to set a world record by reaching the summit for the 22nd time. But an ominous prologue – GoPro footage of an unidentified climber consumed by an immense avalanche – reveals that this time Tashi’s ascent won’t be routine. Everest’s deadliest avalanche to date occurred in April 2014, claiming the lives of 16 men – all Sherpa.
Rather than exploit the unexpected avalanche for drama, Peedom situates the disaster as a by-product of an inequitable industry. The Westerners spending big bucks for bragging rights are not the rugged mountaineers we expect, but rather tourists expecting “creature comforts” like big-screen TVs in their tents. Those comforts are ferried to camps by Sherpas, who regularly risk their lives travelling through the melting Khumbu Icefall – where the fateful avalanche ultimately occurs.
“[The avalanche] just highlighted what we were there to talk about in the first place,” Peedom says. “The disproportionate risks were suddenly thrown under a microscope.”
The events that follow only serve to clarify Sherpa’s careful interrogation of the industry’s injustice. Mourning turns to anger when the Nepalese government offer the dead men’s families meagre compensation, only sufficient to cover funeral costs. Local Sherpa guides react by refusing to work until the government’s offer is improved – even at the expense of wages that would feed their families. In stark contrast to initial gorgeous cinematography, the Sherpa’s protests are decidedly lo-fi.
“If something like this happens – the biggest disaster in the history of Everest – you can’t spend time making your shots look beautiful. You just have to get the drama,” explains Peedom. “If those Sherpas hadn’t gone down and filmed that meeting on their iPhone then it wouldn’t have been in the film, and we probably wouldn’t have had enough coverage to really get the sense of their emotion and their anger and their grief.”
Filming coincided with the production of last year’s Everest, which turned a 1996 climbing tragedy into a Hollywood blockbuster starring the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke. That film might’ve shared the mountain with Peedom’s production team – even losing Sherpas in the avalanche – but it reinforces the minimisation of the Sherpa people’s role in the Everest industry.
“Around the time of [Everest’s] release I started getting all these messages from the Sherpas on Facebook saying, ‘This Everest movie isn’t showing any Sherpa faces! When will the Sherpa movie come out?’” says Peedom. “After everything that had happened, their timing was really bad. You know, 16 Sherpas had just died – including three that were working for that production – and they just had this one composite Sherpa character.”
It was witnessing such omissions firsthand that spurred Peedom on. “People that I had been on expeditions with, whose lives had been saved by Sherpas – some of whom had literally been carried off the mountain – and then they go and do their public speaking tours and they write their books and they never mention that. And that really sticks in my craw. That was part of my motivation, to right that wrong a little bit.
“I think [Sherpas are omitted] because it somehow lessens the hero narrative – because to show that five or six people actually helped you to get to the top of that mountain, in their mind it lessens the achievement… Why not just acknowledge on whose shoulders you climbed to get there?”
Sherpa emphasises the role of the Sherpa people, both in the achievements of individual mountaineers and within a profoundly unjust industry: the Sherpas who risk their lives earn as little as $5000 a year. Yet the documentary also offers a glimmer of hope.
“What happened on the mountain in 2014 really changed things,” says Peedom. “It did make people realise that you can’t climb the mountain without the Sherpas. I don’t think people will take them for granted again in a hurry.”
This interview was originally published in Edition 508 of The Big Issue.