Many people will be familiar with the events of 18 April 2014 – a tragically historic day for Mount Everest. Until the Nepal earthquake 12 months later, this was to be the deadliest day in the mountain’s history, as 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche while attaching ropes through the famously-dangerous Khumbu Icefall, ahead of the imminent climbing season.
One does slightly wonder what Jennifer Peedom’s documentary would have really been about were it not for the events of this day and the spiralling controversy which followed. The first section of the film gives us an intimate and engaging glimpse into the lives of the Sherpa, focusing principally on the village of Khumjung and local celebrity Phurba, a man who is aiming to reach the summit for a record-breaking 22nd time. It’s a very human portrait of the culture and attitudes of these people, who speak with a religious vigour about their respect for the mountain (known locally as Chomolungma, meaning ‘Mother Goddess of Mountains’), but also how they fear the dangers facing Phurba and the other young men and women required to risk their lives to climb it (or, ‘her’, as Everest is repeatedly referred to) just to make a decent wage. Stunning, sweeping cinematography and slow motion shots paint a powerful picture of what daily life in this part of the world is like.
Then, tragedy strikes. Just as we see the young Sherpas transition from family life into the intense world of the Everest ‘machine’ – where they are joined by white faces and their luxuriously expensive camping gear – incredible heart-stopping POV camera footage captures the moment the avalanche struck, and the instant confused reactions by guides and other Sherpas back at Base Camp, trying to find out what was happening and trying to reach the injured stuck on the mountainside.
The fact that no foreigners were caught up in the avalanche, only Sherpas, created immediate political tension, harking back to fights between Sherpas and foreign climbers which had broken out at altitude the previous year. As the Sherpas controversially go on strike over the dangerous working conditions they feel they are placed in, with equipment ill-suited to the task at hand, arguments repeatedly break out between the Sherpas, foreign tour company owners, foreign climbers, and even the Nepali government. What became a rolling news story around the world for weeks was captured by the Sherpa camera crew from beginning to end.
What the film provides, beyond the usual dramatic scenes of aspiring Everest ‘conquerors’, is the clear conclusion that the Sherpa stereotype – the smiling, happy, helpful mountain man, a role inadvertently played so perfectly by Tenzing Norgay back in 1953, and which has somehow persisted into the 21st century – is at a truly pivotal moment. New, young Sherpas have now been considerably more formally educated than their predecessors, and are no longer awed by their wealthy visitors, or willing to wait on them any more than is necessary in order to get them safely up the mountain and back. As Phurba tells the camera, ‘None of us Sherpas want to climb’ – but it is only now they feel they have the power to run against the stereotype and make their own demands. The avalanche became the trigger which unleashed these feelings.
Everest-themed films can often gloss over the details of the mountain, with a peculiar assumption that the audience will already understand such specifics as where exactly Base Camp is, how the process of acclimatisation works, or – crucially – who the Sherpas actually are. Sherpa instead offers a slick explanation of these details, making the film highly accessible. Moving shots of bodies being helicoptered off the mountainside certainly show a willingness to confront the grim reality of the events which took place on that day, while a collection of soundbites from all the conflicting parties wrestling for control of the situation allows the debate over the moral arguments for and against continuing to climb up the mountain to take place very much on-screen.
What we are reminded of throughout, again and again, is how the Sherpas enable all foreign climbs to happen. In fixing all the guideropes and ladders which their clients use to make their way to the top, Sherpas may have to cross dangerous sections of the mountain up to 30 times, as opposed to the single crossings each way made by their paying guests. Clearly, with all the perilous situations they are placed in, the likelihood of such a tragedy specifically hitting Sherpas was disproportionally more likely, and it is the attempted reversing of this subservient relationship which is powerfully depicted here.