Since 1953 and Edmund Hillary’s legendary ascent with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit, Everest has fascinated the world. The arduous yet rewarding journey has been added to many a bucket list, and Westerners the world over have also attempted to “knock the bastard off”. It seems like a magical goal in a brutal but beautiful place, but the scene of a fight? Unheard of.
But it happened, and back in 2013 news channels around the world reported an ugly brawl at 6400 m (21,000 ft) as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas. What had happened to the smiling local guides from Eastern Nepal, their faces so common to many summit snaps, and their dedication to getting foreigners to the top of the mountain they held so sacred? Something was amiss, and it clearly had been for a long time.
Determined to explore what was going on, filmmaker Jennifer Peedom and her crew set out to make a film about the 2014 Everest climbing season, but this time from the Sherpas' point of view as opposed to the Western climbers’. Whilst there, they also witnessed a tragedy that would change the world’s view of Everest forever.
Peedom had reportedly always been interested in the lives of the Sherpa guides, having worked as a camera operator in the Himalayas filming two Everest expeditions with guide teams. She was fascinated by the risks the local men took, and had become frustrated at how their lives and stories were so often excluded from narratives about the mountain. As well as guiding their charges, they set up the tents, prepare the food, carry equipment, prepare routes, and ensure that crucial pieces of equipment like oxygen tanks are in working order. With this in mind, when she set out to make what would become tonight’s documentary, SHERPA. Peedom went in with the goal of turning the spotlight on what a Sherpa guide actually does - and how high the costs of their job can be to them and their families.
The latter is bought to the fore even more keenly when the documentary takes a tragic turn. Peedom and her crew had been filming a group of Sherpas as they left camp in the dark hours of the very early morning to fix ropes and prepare the next route for climbers they were assisting. It is the time when ice is apparently most stable, but at around 6:30 am, Peedom heard a noise and realised that there has been an avalanche of sorts. A 14 million-tonne block of ice had crashed on to the Khumbu Icefall, crushing the guides below. Chaos ensues as it emerges that 25 men have been buried by snow, ice, and rocks. Devastatingly, 16 are declared dead in what has become the worst disaster in the history of Everest.
It was the final straw for the tight-knit Sherpa community, who had quite frankly had enough of their treatment by Westerners and the dangers they faced every day. Peedom reveals how mistreated and disrespected by their clients the group feels, and how underpaid they are. While Western climbers routinely pay sums like USD$75,000 to climb Everest, the Sherpas are paid little and expected to undertake massive risks. The documentary also demonstrates the spiritual toll of working on a mountain they see as equivalent to a god. "We see the mountain as a holy place," one Sherpa says. "The Western people, they see it as a physical challenge."
After the April 2014 avalanche, the Sherpa guides held meetings and announced that they would not be climbing for the rest of the season in honour of those who died. Peedom follows what happens next, talking to members of the community and their families. We also see Western climbers frustrated that their long-awaited expeditions would not go as planned, including one who complains that the Sherpas should just do what "their owners" want. Ugh.
Anyway, it’s an important tale that needed to be told, and Peedom does that well. One would hope that if people are thinking of climbing Everest, they will watch it – and you should too.
SHERPA premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 19 January at 8.30pm