Sherpa

March 31, 2016
'Sherpa' (2015)
'Sherpa' (2015)

One wonders if our addiction to the ludicrous disaster fantasies of superhero films makes us more or less susceptible to real disaster stories? Jennifer Peedom’s documentary, Sherpa, was filmed one year before the earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, but it shows a community that had already endured its share of trauma.

Peedom had gone to the Himalayas to make a film about Sirdar Phurba Tashi Sherpa, a descendent of Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary was first to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Phurba has been to the summit on 21 occasions, and needs only one more visit to break the all-time record.

We meet Phurba when he is preparing for the expedition, driven not by dreams of glory but by the simple need to provide for his family. There is but a small window every year in which Everest may be scaled and the Sherpas have to earn as much as they can during that season. They take all the risks and are poorly remunerated for their efforts. Phurba’s wife, Karma Doma Sherpa, says she is terrified each time he sets out on one of these trips.

The first shock for the viewer is the outlandish amount of traffic to which Everest now plays host. There is a procession of wealthy amateurs being led on tours up the mountain, with the Sherpas carring all the camping and cooking gear. Some of these “clients” have paid sums in excess of $100,000 to go on this trip, which makes them reluctant to accept the idea that the route might be too dangerous to proceed. In the group led by veteran tour-leader, Russell Brice, there are clients who are back for a second attempt after having been turned away in 2012.

From interviews with Brice and mountaineering journalist, Ed Douglas, we learn about the history of the Everest expeditions, and the growing unrest of the Sherpas, who are beginning to shake off the image of happy, uncomplaining natives and rebel against their exploitation.

Everest, which the Sherpas call Chomolungma, is believed to be a sacred place, meaning that the Earth goddess has to be appeased before any ascent. A death or accident is proof of Divine anger. In 2014, as Peedom was filming, an accident at a particularly dangerous section called the Khumbu Icefall cost the lives of 16 Sherpas. Never before had so many died, and the reactions were dramatic.

There had already been altercations between Sherpas and climbers in 2013, but this new catastrophe sends the guides into meltdown. Their grief and anger rise to the surface and they effectively go on strike. The focus of the documentary shifts to the Nepalese fight for justice, and the realisation by their western employers that things will never be the same again.

Many will have followed this story from the western point of view in the fictionalised, Everest (2015). In this spectacular, uncompromising documentary we get the view not from the summit, but from the ground.

Sherpa
Written & directed by Jennifer Peedom
Starring Sirdar Phurba Tashi Sherpa, Karma Doma Sherpa, Ed Douglas, Russell Brice Sherpa
Australia/Nepal, rated M, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd April, 2016.