The word Sherpa has two meanings. The first, perhaps most familiar, describes a job - that of an exceptionally skilled and experienced high-altitude worker based in the Himalayas. The second meaning of the word 'Sherpa' describes a distinct ethnic group of Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet.
One of the most famous Sherpas is, of course, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who in 1953 reached the summit of Mount Everest for the first time with New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary. Since then, for better or worse, Everest has become an increasingly popular “tourist” destination - largely thanks to the Sherpa community.
Sherpas help organise routes and assemble the ropes up the mountain. Meanwhile, as foreign climbers demand more creature comforts, they carry huge loads of equipment and provisions.
The Sherpas also take far greater risks than the other climbers. For example, while foreign climbers typically only tackle the Khumbu Icefall - one of the most dangerous places on Everest - two or three times, the Sherpas make up to 30 such dangerous journeys per season.
Many in the Buddhist Sherpa community consider it blasphemous to climb Everest, a mountain they call Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the Earth). However, assisting foreign climbers is incredibly lucrative. During the two month climbing season, they can earn up to ten times the average annual income in Nepal.
However, prosperity has a price of its own.
In 2013, relations between foreign climbers and Sherpas soured and an ugly brawl erupted at 21,000ft. Determined to explore the cause of this incident, a group of filmmakers - led by director Jennifer Peedom and cinematographer / high altitude director Renan Ozturk (the subject of superb climbing documentary, Meru) - set out to make a gripping documentary about the 2014 Everest climbing season, from the Sherpa’s point of view.
The crew joined Himalayan climbing veteran, Russell Brice, and his team of 25 Sherpas. They intended to focus on Brice’s Sherpa leader, Phurba Tashi, as he attempted a world record breaking attempt to summit Everest for the 22nd time.
This is not what happened.
At 6.45am on 18th April, 2014, a 14 million ton block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route through the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas. It was the worst tragedy in the history of Everest.
The documentary filmmakers were left with hundreds of hours of footage from the disaster - including the understandably angry reaction of the Sherpas themselves. Their fury only escalated when the Nepalese government (which takes a substantial cut out of each climber’s summit fee) announced that only $400 was to be given to the families of the dead Sherpas in compensation.
As a result, Peedom’s movie became a record of the growing unease felt by Sherpa climbers regarding the risks they take and their perceived value in Everest’s growing tourism industry. Sherpa became a story about how they sought change and demanded better working conditions for doing what is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
As an experienced climber and high altitude director, Sherpa was the culmination of a ten year journey for Jennifer Peedom. In 2004, she directed a 30 minute television documentary called The Sherpa’s Burden.
“I’ve always been interested in Sherpas,” the director explains. “I find the interrelationship between the expedition clients that come to climb Mt Everest and the Sherpas who don’t understand their dreams fascinating.”
While high altitude directing the series Everest: Beyond The Limit in 2006, Peedom witnessed a Sherpa team save the life of three foreign climbers. However, news coverage of the event barely mentioned the Sherpas’ involvement. “It was as if it would somehow lessen their achievement to acknowledge the role of the Sherpas,” Peedom says. “I found it deeply disturbing.”
This inspired her to make a documentary about the Sherpas experience of Everest’s annual climbing season. “I wanted to tell the story of a people making a choice about their future, so it was important to go back to capture this new era of Everest.”
Having assembled her film crew, Peedom trained a team of highly skilled climbing Sherpas as additional camera operators. “If we are making a film from the Sherpa’s point of view, it was crucial that we involved them in the filmmaking process - literally seeing things through their eyes,” she explains.
As a result, Sherpa gives us incredible access to the fascinating (and gruelling) behind the scenes preparation that goes into establishing Base Camp (5,364m above sea level) and organising the climbing routes.
Meanwhile, some of the documentary’s stunning and dramatic sweeping aerial shots were taken by Renan Ozturk on a helicopter. “When you’re strapped in a harness and hanging out the door with a camera, it certainly makes you feel alive,” Ozturk recalls.
Follow The Story...
In the devastating aftermath of the accident on Everest, tensions rose to boiling point. Amid the grief and anger, Peedom decided to keep filming. “My instinct as a documentary filmmaker is just to follow the story,” she says. “If you’re not getting it fresh in the moment while it’s happening, you’ve just got a bunch of talking heads later which is very different to the emotion in the moment.”
This was no easy feat. “Base Camp in the days after the accident was a huge task,” says Ozturk. “It looks all warm and sunny up there but it’s actually really hard. Even to run 20 feet across Base Camp to run after a shot and hold these heavy cameras is a huge task and you find yourself out of breath. All these simple tasks on a normal production become so much harder.”
Thankfully, the Sherpas understood that Peedom wanted to tell their story. “I think they realised that our presence could be a good thing,” says Peedom. After the avalanche, once the foreign climbers had left, the documentary team stayed and travelled to one of the communities that had been rocked by the tragedy.
“It was very emotional but a very important part of the filmmaking process,” Peedom explains. “You’re always not sure if you’re crossing the line or not, you know, is it an intrusion? Is it too soon? But ultimately I think, like anything in life, the hard things are often the things that end up being the most important and I think somehow allowing people to express those emotions can be cathartic and, ultimately, I hope via this film, healing.”
Eventually, under pressure from the international climbing community, the Nepalese government raised the minimum insurance cover from $10,000 to $15,000 and increased the $400 compensation payout to $5,000.
“For some Sherpas, the tragedy has caused them to re-evaluate their role in the industry,” adds Peedom. “For others, it remains a financial necessity and they will continue to roll the dice. We certainly hope that the film will shed some light on the true role of the Sherpas on Everest, a deeper insight into their lives and that this tragedy will result in some meaningful change for the Sherpas.”
Climbing Documentary Recommendations
Sherpa is part of the Climbing sub-genre of Documentary 7.
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Do you have any climbing documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.