In 2013, a fight broke out on Mount Everest between European climbers and the Sherpas they had hired to help them achieve their once-in-a-lifetime experience. Clearly much had changed since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first descended from the peak sixty years earlier, their smiling faces coming to represent the spirit of cooperation that had underpinned their great feat. In setting out to create this documentary, Jennifer Peedom intended to find out what had happened in the intervening years, by filming the 2014 Everest climbing season from the point of view of the Sherpas. It is unlikely that she imagined that in doing so she would capture on film what was then the worst tragedy in the history of Everest (sadly surpassed just one year later). On 18th April 2014, as a team of Sherpas climbed the unpredictable and often deadly Khumba icefall, one of many trips they take through this dangerous path in order to transport the increasing loads of their clients, a 14 million ton block of ice came crashing down, killing 16 of them.
Despite this footage, the film remains true to its initial purpose; it is not a disaster documentary, and the icefall does not necessarily take centre stage. Rather it serves as a catalyst to the already increasing tensions between Sherpa and foreigner, and its aftermath provides deep insight into the broader politics and cultural conflicts inherent in the climbing industry. Shortly after the ice fall, amid heated debates over whether any climbs should continue that year, a team of Sherpas sit quietly around a table as their expedition leader, the New Zealander Russell Brice, asks them what they want to do. Either unable or unwilling to articulate their thoughts and feelings, the Sherpas follow Russell’s lead. This is in stark contrast to the debate held between Russell and the mountaineering foreigners, who are clear in their demands, eager to express their anger and disappointment, and (it would seem) equipped with a sense of entitlement and belief in their own authority. The Sherpas are being asked to negotiate their terms in a style dictated to them by the outsiders, a style they are not experienced in.
Herein lies the drama – not within the tumbling ice, but rather the (often silent) struggle for power. The cause of the Sherpas’ small revolt is not just the tragedy, but the steady development of an industry that uses their labour while dictating all of the conditions. The Sherpas have had no agency, and despite taking the biggest risks they earn only a tiny fraction of the huge amounts of money generated. Unfortunately even this tiny fraction is too large to walk away from easily, when compared to the average wage at the base of the mountain. But the issue is not merely about the danger and the money, and to talk about it in these terms is to adopt the Western framework of thinking, for these are the two barriers to a foreigner reaching the summit of Everest.
For the Sherpas, Chomolungma (as they refer to the mountain) is a sacred landscape. Thus, when making a film about Everest from their point of view, it must be told in a very different way, a calmer and quieter representation of this region. Peedom has succeeded, creating a fascinating and sensitive account of a group of people struggling to reclaim both their mountain and their lives. The Sherpas’ story is not one of life-changing experiences, of battling nature, and emerging victorious. It is a story of quiet respect towards an environment that is a permanent and crucial part of their lives and their culture. It is a story of imposition not only on their land but also on the way they must behave in order to gain back what has been taken from them. And at its heart are some of today’s most crucial global issues, about money, imperialism, and a growing sense that the deaths of some are seen as less important than the deaths of others.
Sherpa is in UK cinemas from December 18.