In the same year as their hiking drama Everest, it’s ironic that Universal would produce Sherpa, a documentary telling relatively the same story, but focusing more on the political aspects that the former film only glossed over. But just how much access director Jennifer Peedom got to a situation that typifies and expands what the film wished to convey is a pure stroke of coincidence, a miracle of documentary.
In the opening minutes, Sherpa is framed as the story of Phurba Tashi. He’s one summit of Everest away from 22, a world record. His small community at the base of the mountain is supported by the booming tourism industry mountaineering has brought. While Phurba loves his job (his wage is ten times the average in Nepal), his family are not so pleased, saying that he is disrespecting the spiritual aspects of the mountain and greatly endangering himself.
But some time around when Peedom followed Phurba to base camp to begin this year’s eight week long trek, something unexpected happened. In hindsight, as the film shows, it was a long time coming. Tracing back to 1953, where Edmund Hillary and fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first to summit Everest, there have been rightful tensions brewing between the Sherpas, for whom the area is not only a home, but also a place integral to the Buddhist faith. Hillary took all of the credit for the summit, with Norgay, the climber who actually reached the top first, being forgotten by history. But these tensions were set to only get worse in the coming decades, as Hillary’s achievement and a world now fascinated by dangerous experiences would descend on the mountain, making an extreme place even more unstable, and continuing to disregard the wellbeing of the Sherpas. They’re seen as little more than a means of transportation, the leg up to a goal that the rich foreigners (who even have tents featuring widescreen televisions, couches and bookshelves) wish to achieve, regardless of the danger involved.
It’s this that gives rise to the central event the film portrays. Tensions were still simmering after 2013s brawl on the mountain, but on April 18, 2014, they were only made worse. A 14 million tonne block of ice crashed down onto Khumbu Icefall, the climbing route to camp one. 16 Sherpas were killed in the disaster.
What Peedom conveys becomes a whole lot more urgent after this event. What started as a simple document of one man’s last climb becomes a portrait of the state of Western entitlement. Interviewing both Sherpas and Western mountaineers who have made Everest their business, charging up to $100 000 per person, Peedom uncovers the history of the situation. The leaders immediately reveal themselves as contradictory. As protests by Sherpas are playing out behind them against the conditions they work in and their pay (which pales in comparison to their Western counterparts), they lament the loss of the ‘traditional’ image of the Sherpa that was splashed across TV screens and newspapers in the 1950s when Hillary and Norgay summited – smiling and committed to getting clients to the summit at all costs, including their own lives. They’re “owned”, to quote one climber in a horrifying moment, an object and a means to an end, not another person who needs to get back safely.
Peedom matches her gripping storytelling, which the accidental nature makes it feel like an immersive, unguarded expose on an entire industry, with some thrilling camerawork. Capturing Everest at its most beautiful but also unsettled (both in terms of the landscape and the human drama), her camera is immersive. The scene where the avalanche occurs, conveyed with a crushing amount of immediacy, is just as thrilling as the scenes where Peedom is miraculously allowed access into meetings with the Sherpas as the precarious system that existed for 60 or so years is quickly unravelling. It’s truly not one to miss on the largest screen one can find.
But while Sherpa informs the audience of the changes in terms of safety and equal pay that have been made since the avalanche and subsequent unrest, Sherpa makes a point in its closing act that there are no easy answers to the situation at hand. The amount of danger associated with tourism on Everest, which is only set to get worse due to increasing numbers of aspiring climbers which only cause more overcrowding and upsetting of an already fragile landscape, is great, but it is also an economic backbone for Nepal, too attractive for the government and many Sherpas to refuse. It’s here, that Peedom’s documentary posits its most interesting insight: what is most important, progress or preservation?