Sherpa (M). Director: Jennifer Peedom. 96 minutes
In April 2013, an altercation broke out between Sherpa and Western climbers on the middle slopes of Mt Everest. While accounts conflicted in their specifics, it seems the catalyst was a breach of etiquette by the Europeans, with the potential to hinder or endanger the Sherpa as they worked. Longstanding resentment based in a perception that Sherpa assume the bulk of the risk but a fraction of the credit for Western climbers' achievements on the world's highest peak boiled over, with dangerous results.
A year later and with those events as a jumping off point, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom travelled to Everest, to document the sizeable tourist industry at the mountain from the perspective of its often unspoken heroes, the Sherpa. She sets her sights on Phurba Tashi, from the village of Khumjung, Nepal, who works as a guide for New Zealander Russell Brice's expedition company. At the time Phurba had summited Everest 21 times — once shy of a world record.
Her film explores Phurba's home and family life: the spiritual dimensions of his and other Sherpa's relationship with Chomolungma, Everest; and his wife's fear for his safety in what is an extremely dangerous (if well-paid, by ordinary Nepalese standards), profession. It also charts the often-fraught relationship between Western climbers and Sherpa, from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay up to today's half-billion-dollar industry, dominated by Western tour companies and largely staffed by Sherpa.
If Peedom was expecting to find signs of a growing sense of self-agency behind the docile facade of the legendary 'Smiling Sherpa', she couldn't have predicted a rawer or more tragic scenario against which it would play out. The film details the risks endured by Sherpa working for the tour companies in Everest's notorious Khumbu Icefall; then, when an avalanche comes through and kills 16 Sherpa doing just that, Peedom and her crew are there to capture the aftermath.
"Peedom was expecting to find signs of a growing sense of self-agency behind the docile facade of the legendary 'Smiling Sherpa'."
It is a harrowing and politically provocative account. After confronting the initial grief and shock, the other Sherpa on the mountain become outraged at the meagre compensation offered by the Nepalese government to the dead Sherpa's families. They feel that the industry on Everest is a cash cow for the government, yet has been poorly regulated by them. What's more, they collectively don't wish to keep climbing that season, out of respect for their deceased friends and colleagues.
This predictably does not sit will with the Western climbers and tour operators. For some members of Brice's group, this year marks their second tilt at the summit, after a previous tour several years earlier was cancelled due to dangerous conditions. They feel the outlay of time and money, not to mention the 'bucket-list' imperative to conquer the peak, entitle them to proceed. Their sense of injustice is directed at the striking Sherpa, as is that of some tour operators (with at least one eye on the bottom line).
Polite facades peel away to reveal ugly attitudes. The indignant Sherpa are dismissed as 'hot-headed' by one tour operator, and compared disparagingly to the Arab Spring. One American climber, responding to a dubious claim that some Sherpa have threatened others with violence if they keep climbing, dubs them 'terrorists' and refers inanely to September 11. So readily is the cage of privilege rattled by the sound of marginalised voices amplified by unity and conviction.
Tim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.