Film Reviews

SHERPA

By • Dec 11th, 2015 •

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Poses a moral conundrum – if a Mount Everest Sherpa dies bringing you a thermos of hot chocolate, are you responsible?

I visited Mount Everest Base Camp (from the Chinese side) while trekking through Tibet. For all of its renown, I was shocked how filthy and run-down it was. Since only the rich can afford the cost of joining a group – $100,000 – not including the cost of all the necessary personal equipment and freedom to spend 3 or 4 months to acclimatize, you would think there would be hotels, restaurants and shops for the rich foreigners.

While it would be impressive dinner conversation to say you summited Everest (with supplementary oxygen and Sherpas holding your extra oxygen canisters), little is said about the men who work the mountain to prepare it for wealthy foreigners.

The path to the summit must be roped and ladders put in place so inexperienced climbers have a successful, enjoyable, and comfortable adventure.

Imagine how impressive it would be to have Phurba Tashi Sherpa as a dinner companion. He has summited 21 times! And I doubt, given the cost, he did it every time with oxygen. Filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, who had altitude filmmaking experience, decided to go to the mountain to document Phurba Tashi’s 22nd bid for the summit.

As filmmaking began, a block of ice fell from the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous and feared section of the Everest route. The Khumbu Icefall is notorious since it is between camps and climbers must traverse it twice during the acclimatization process. A Sherpa might have to go through the Khumbu thirty to forty times a season with heavy equipment to provide as much luxury as can be imagined. A flat-screen TV for your insulated tent?

Should you care that your favorite wine was carried by a man who risked his life to bring it to your tent?

Would you insult a Sherpa who might be the only one to help you down the mountain?

Sherpas must fix the ropes so paying customers have something to hold on to. And then there is the most treacherous part of the climb – going across the ladder that has been placed along the Khumbu Icefall. It is so dangerous that Sherpas are paid extra – but not much – every time they cross the Khumbu.

Did Sir Edmund have Sherpas to lug a ladder up to the Khumbu and secure it?

Last year, eighteen Sherpas died on the Khumbu, and Peedom and her film crew was there and filmed what happened immediately after the crisis.

Astonishingly, Peedom has footage from a climber’s helmet camera capturing the noise on the Icefall. Then we see snow covering the camera.

Peedom leaves us at that horrific moment and goes back twelve days to Phurba Tashi’s village. The season is beginning and the amount of money a Sherpa can make during a season can provide for his family for a year. Tashi’s wife’s brother died on Everest the year before. Peedom weaves interviews with mountaineering writer Ed Douglas and Tenzing Norgay’s sons. Norgay was Edmund Hillary’s Sherpa during his historic ascent.

Hillary and Norgay agreed never to reveal who stepped on the summit first.
I say it was Norgay.

Hillary was knighted and a section of the route to the summit was named for him – the Hillary Step. What did Norgay get? Norgay was given a second-class medal from the crown.

Was the medal for Norgay’s tagging along, being Hillary’s guide, or for his silence?
In the infamous 1996 Everest climb, made famous by Jon Krakauer in his best-selling book, INTO THIN AIR, he documents how the Sherpas were nothing but shadow servants carrying delicacies, equipment and luxuries for the rich clients. Krakauer even accused one Sherpa of critically neglecting his responsibility to fix ropes by short-roping (dragging) a client to the summit and then down the mountain to safety.*

In all fairness, Sherpas are not guardian angels and certain demands do come with a price tag. If a client wants a guarantee that another oxygen canister will be available on their descent, a good relationship with one’s Sherpa is indeed of utmost importance. But not every foreigner appreciates the Sherpas. In 2013, a white foreigner swore at a Sherpa and a fight broke out. Peedom shows the footage of their violent confrontation.

With the popularity of climbing Everest and summiting a near-certainty by operators and thousands making the climb every year, the young Sherpa community has become aware of their importance to companies getting clients to the summit. When the eighteen Sherpas died on the Khumbu the clients wanted to proceed. The Sherpas wanted to honor the dead by ending the season.

The high-paying clients and the expedition leaders could not continue without the Sherpa community’s support.

Here is where Peedom’s film changes course. The Sherpas are no longer humble servants. They are fully aware of the cost their employers have charged clients for the experience. They know that their government has charged an exorbitant fee for a license to climb Everest.

While the communities around the mountain have begun to establish guest houses, restaurants and other commodities that rich foreigners want, is it worth their men possibly dying bringing up chilled champagne?

This is the moral issue that became the documentary’s focus.

Having read many books about climbing Everest and having watched the many documentaries on this subject, SHERPA captures the behind-the-scenes chaos.

Peedom’s crew were altitude cinematographers (Renan Ozturk and Ken Sauls), a base camp DP (Hugh Miller), assorted camera phones and GoPro and exciting helicopter photography.

*Krakauer offered a scenario that there was “client speculation that Lopsang was short-roping (i.e. pulling) Sandy Hill Pitman up the mountain for a ‘hefty cash bonus’.” Lopsang – instead of preparing the ropes – chose to make sure Pittman made the summit. In a letter to Outside Online in 1996, Lopsang disputed Krakauer’s charge saying that he had often climbed Everest without oxygen; that he had short-roped clients on at least 10 prior expeditions and that he had not received a “hefty cash bonus to help [Pittman] reach the top’.” My thanks to Michael Elmes for allowing me to quote from “Into hot air: A critical perspective on Everest” written with Bob Frame. Elmes and Frame conclude that Krakauer’s account – “the dominant account” is seriously flawed and essentially a “myth”.

The online version can be found at: http://hum.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/61/2/213

Member of Boadcast Film Critics Association: www.bfca.org

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society:www.lvfcs.org

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at masauu@aol.com.

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