Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa is successfully encapsulated early in the film: Sherpas are an ethnic group living in the Himalayas, not simply guides helping Western climbers summit Everest.
The theater briefly descended into whispers when this was explained, and I could relate because for a long time I thought “Sherpa” was synonymous with the words mountain guide too. The fact that Everest is such a visible and familiar endeavour in Western popular culture, while little is known about the people who assume much of the work and risk, is what’s at play in Sherpa. The film brilliantly delves into the relationship between the guides and the adventure tourism industry.
It was hard to watch Sherpa without thinking of my own superficial relationship to mountaineering and Everest… and my many misconceptions. As a teeneager I spent a week in Nepal with a view of the Himalayas (from a great distance). Those mountains are my most significant memory.
During the 2014 climbing season, I worked at a rock climbing gym with a colleague who was a Sherpa and had worked on Everest. I only discovered that this guy had been an Everest guide when I lazily spied him watching an amateur video of people actually on the mountain. I asked him about it and he said that one of the climbers was his cousin, and of course my colleague was the one behind the camera. He’d been planning to work the 2015 season when the avalanche seen in Sherpa derailed his plans. Sadly, a friend was one of the 16 guides caught in the avalanche of snow.
The film largely follows Phurba Tashi, a Sherpa mountaineer who is setting out as the head guide of an Everest expedition company. This is his 22nd ascent of the tallest mountain in the world. He already holds the record for the most ascents of mountains over eight thousand meters, of which most are in the Himalaya Mountain Range. The number is significant because above that height is the “death zone” where there isn’t enough oxygen to support human life.
The company Tashi works for is run by Russell Brice who had cancelled an expedition to summit Everest in the 2012 climbing season due to concerns about the conditions. He was forced to recall his guides and his clients who had paid significant amounts of money for the opportunity.
The play of risk and reward is an ongoing theme in the film. Filming took place just one year after widely reported fist fights broke out between a group of guides and European climbers. Matters are further complicated when we learn that Sherpa guides often assume far more risk by making repeated trips between camps to provide the supplies for the climbers who are paying exorbitant amounts of money - at times more than $75,000 USD.
A memorable scene involves Sherpas carrying a large flat screen tv into basecamp among other recreational items for use by clients.
What is simultaneously compelling and harrowing about the film is that shooting was taking place when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides as they were stocking advanced camps. The incident was the most deadly event on the mountain in its history until the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal.
The incident is foreshadowed early in the film. The audience knows it’s coming while the guides and climbers do not. It was impossible to divorce myself from the very real suspense that the looming avalanche creates, exacerbated by how intimately Sherpa documents its characters.
The first half of the movie is devoted to beautiful cinematography of the mountain and climbing with helmet mounted cameras of climbers navigating ladders suspended over truly treacherous crevasses. Then the avalanche happens and the film very quickly steps up the intimacy.
It’s a somber turn that rightly highlights the disproportionate dangers that the Sherpas undertake for little reward and no glory.
Sherpa is awesome; it’s engaging, the cinematography is awe-inspiring and it’s moving. It’s also a great portrait of the forces at play in the tourism industry of Everest, the Himalayan culture and the skewed perspectives that are popularly held.
As a footnote, my friend had to post-pone climbing Everest again after the 2015 earthquake, so his sights are now on the 2017 season.