Two years ago, I interviewed a man who was planning to jump off of Mount Everest wearing a wingsuit for one of Discovery Channel’s live event specials. The Discovery crew was one of many groups that were at a base camp of Everest at the time, which has actually developed over the years into a little village of sorts during climbing season, hosting everyone from TV crews like this, to Hollywood filmmakers to, most often, adventurous Westerners who strive to scale the mountain and pay up to $75,000 to make the attempt.
They all would be on hand for the horrific tragedy that took place on April 18, 2014, when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa workers at the infamous Khumbu Icefall — one of the deadliest single-day incidents on the mountain. The Discovery special was scrapped in respect of those who lost their lives, and a documentary that filmmaker Jennifer Peedom had been working on — which appears to have started as an already fascinating look at the Sherpa ethnic group and the perilous living they make guiding people up Everest — clearly expanded in the wake of this incident. The resulting film, Sherpa, has thus become not only a gripping and powerful look at the history of the Sherpa people and their deadly jobs, but also at their future, which came more into focus through reflection of the event of April 18.
What begins as a very interesting and beautifully shot travelogue of sorts (there are some dizzying and nerve-wracking climbing shots that put to shame anything Hollywood has created) becomes, in the second half of the movie, the chronicle of a labor dispute, where a newly democratized people (absolute monarchy ended in Nepal during the 1990s) begin to use their voices against unequal working conditions. We see them start to inwardly and outwardly fight against the traditional stereotype of the smiling, friendly Sherpa, as exemplified by Tenzing Norgay, who led the 1953 British expedition up Everest, but didn’t receive the same kind of acclaim as those he guided.
Sherpa begins 12 days before the tragedy, when we meet a Sherpa named Phurba Tashi, who bookends the film pre- and post-tragedy, and appears throughout it as sort of our frame of reference into the Sherpa world. His wife, children and parents are not very happy at the dangerous living he makes, and would like him to stop, but Tashi thinks the risk is worth the money he earns for his family — a scenario common among Sherpas. There are lovely and touching scenes among Tashi and his family that likely represent similar scenes among other Sherpa families, where the father is going off to a war, albeit against nature, and they are unsure if he will make it back.
During such scenes we get a peek into the cultural world of Sherpas in their small Nepalese villages, and Peedom nicely captures the color of the villages beautifully offset against the snowy rocks, as well as the rituals of the people who live there. They are generally Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, and an additional element of what makes the ensuing tragedy so heartbreaking is how many of them believe the deceased left on the mountain will be unable to be reincarnated or find peace.
This spiritual nature of the Sherpas regarding the mountain, which they call Chomolungma, and their reverence for it, is sometimes put into contrast with the encroaching Westerners and their view of the peak as something to master. Some of the Westerners featured in the film don’t come off too well, frankly, but others are sympathetic to the Sherpas’ plight, realizing that their expedition businesses can’t survive without the Sherpas’ expertise and hard work, and grappling with the moral question of basically playing Russian roulette with the lives of people who are asked to make the Everest climb 20-30 times a year.
Brilliantly and colorfully filmed, Sherpa, like the people it follows, has taken something useful from tragedy. The documentary is a fascinating combination of history of all sorts — natural history, ethnic history, labor history, political history. “It will always be here,” says Tashi at one point about Chomolungma. So will the issues confronted in and chronicled by the film. The documentary makes a nice base from which to slowly climb ahead.
Sherpa airs April 23 at 9pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel.
Photos courtesy of Discovery Channel