By Last Caress.
Sherpa is in cinemas now and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016
Pop quiz, everyone: Since Sir Edmund Hillary and his faithful Sherpa Tensing Norgay became the first people to scale the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, how many other people have managed to do likewise? Is it six? Ten? A couple of dozen? No more than that, surely?
Actually, it’s thousands.
Precise figures are uncertain at this point but it’s likely to be as many as 3,100+ climbers, and over 5,000 climbs. Not so much a voyage into the unknown anymore, it’s become a bucket-list item for those wealthy enough to pay for the experience and, as in the case of Sir Edmund all those years ago, the Sherpa people of the Himalayan region of Nepal are there guiding the way and making the trip as comfortable and comparatively easy as it can be.
In April 2013 international media outlets reported a fight which had broken out between a crew of Sherpas and a trio of European climbers. Exactly what had happened to trigger a brawl in such a perilous part of the world is unclear, depending as it does on which eyewitness is doing the explaining, but what’s clear is that Sherpas don’t appreciate being referred to as “Motherf*ckers”, and that something seems not to be sitting right with them. In 2014 Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom, a specialist in “intimate portraits of people in extreme circumstances” as her website very aptly puts it, decided to head to Nepal to take a Sherpa’s-POV look at the Everest-climbing industry as it stands today and how it’s affecting them. This documentary, Sherpa, is the result and, as with so many documentaries, she got more than she bargained for.
Let’s stop for a brief lesson in the logistics of Mount Everest.
My ignorant assumption of scaling the world’s highest mountain was that it was probably the subject of a couple of expeditions per year, made up of no more than maybe three or four guys plus a couple of Sherpas acting as happy human pack-mules, and that these expeditions took maybe three or four days on the way up, plus another couple coming down. Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? About right?
It takes WEEKS to scale Everest. Climbers have to remain at each base camp for weeks just to acclimatise to the height. It takes ten days just to hike to Base camp at the foot of the mountain. And whilst it’s true that a mountain will, for obvious reasons, become ever more perilous the further up the mountain you climb, in the case of Mount Everest the most perilous section by some way is the 600ft route from Base camp to Camp 1. It’s called the Khumbu Icefall, and it’s a constantly-shifting tumble of enormous ice boulders at the head of a glacier at the southern foot of the mountain. Ms. Peedom makes great use of time-lapse photography to demonstrate just how fast and dramatically this area shifts. It really shifts. Because of this, the Sherpas can’t map it. No matter how experienced they are up that mountain, this section is new to them every time. It shifts so fast that it’s different on the way down than it was when they went up past it. Huge crevasses and ravines can open up at any moment, and in seconds. Huge blocks of ice could fall from the glacier above in the blink of an eye. There is no way around it. And as hazardous as that sounds for the western climbers who, in their desire to conquer the mountain, have to traverse it once going up and once again going down, the Sherpas have to traverse it again and again as they bring supplies from Base Camp to Camp 1. Maybe as many as a dozen times more than the tourists. And there aren’t three or four explorers at a time; there are entire caravans, dozens of travellers taken by each of several tour operators, many at the same time.
While Jennifer Peedom and her crew were on the mountain in April of 2014, largely following the travails of experienced Himalayan guide operator, the New Zealander Russell Brice and his Sherpa crew led by Phurba Tashi Sherpa, an avalanche fell into the Khumbu Icefall, killing sixteen Sherpas making supply runs from Base Camp to Camp 1 for the paying customers.
Sherpa begins as it was intended: Looking at the Sherpa’s lot. Phurba is proud that he has scaled Everest (or Chomolungma as they call it) 21 times already. His family are somewhat more reticent. They’re mindful of the dangers mountaineering presents, and the risks in constantly traversing the Khumbu Icefall. Many Sherpa are increasingly aware of how much harder they’re expected to work each year to make the experience as wonderful as possible for the tourists; we see them stocking the delightful-looking Base Camp with shelves of books, and widescreen televisions. They’re not scared of a bit of graft by any means, but the exorbitant amounts of money being kicked around from the tourists to the tour operators and on to the Nepalese government, doesn’t appear to be spilling down to the Sherpas themselves. Increasing risks to safety puts the operators in a bind, too. Russell Brice cancelled his tour in 2012, costing everyone a lot of money. Now he’s feeling the pressure to go on no matter what even when, halfway through the movie, the worst tragedy in Everest’s history happens. Naturally the focus of the documentary shifts past this point – although not by much of course; the potential for this sort of horror represent a large part of the resentment bubbling up on the part of the Sherpas, and now here it is. Now, not only is there uncertainty as to whether the climb will continue, there’s a chance that this expedition isn’t going to pass without angry conflict, and this is the last place on Earth where you want to start butting heads with the people around you, upon whom you’re depending to get you home alive.
Jennifer Peedom co-directed the quite remarkable National Geographic/BBC co-production Solo, about the doomed attempt by Andrew McAuley to kayak 1000 miles across the Tasman sea. With that, her other Everest-based docs Miracle on Everest and Everest: Beyond the Limit and now Sherpa, Ms. Peedom is becoming an important voice in the study of human beings at the very edge of their capabilities, and Sherpa is likely to be one of the finest documentaries you will see this year.
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