Review: Sherpa

Into Thin AirI’ve never ever even remotely been able to comprehend westerners’ fascination with ‘conquering’ Mt Everest. In fact, I’ve found the concept of ‘conquering’ it fairly ridiculously offensive. And I’ve often wondered about the people who get those westerners to the summit: the Sherpas.

Because with the exception of the yaks forced to carry loads of gear up and down the treacherous landscape, Sherpas seem to get the rawest deal. They don’t get paid well, yet they take the lion’s share of the load and risk.

The inequity and moral vacuum fuelled by aspiration surrounding summiting Everest was cemented for me years back when I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which documented the then worst accident on Everest.

The book was startling in what it captured: greed and ambition combined to see people pushing themselves way past their limits; one experienced guide died on the mountain through altitude-induced kind of magical thinking as his wife tried to cajole him down via a satellite phone; a climber left for dead—twice—who somehow eventually got themselves up and walking back into Base Camp…

And yet the Sherpas who were working furiously behind the scenes to aid these expeditions were only briefly discussed. I wanted to know more.

One of the first things I learnt from Jen Peedom’s Sherpa documentary, which I was fortunate enough to preview this week, is that the term Sherpa has been popularised as someone who climbs mountains—more specifically, someone who helps entitled westerners ascend Everest. But Sherpas are actually a distinct ethnic group with a long, rich history.

The most famous of all Sherpas is, of course, Tenzing Norgay, the amendable man who steered New Zealander Edmund Hillary to the peak in 1953 and then wasn’t entirely recognised for his work (he received a secondary honour to Edmund’s adulation).

Fast forward to 2013 and fisticuffs on the mountain, and the stereotypical smiling, subservient Sherpa is nowhere to be seen. Peedom and her crew set out to discover what had changed and to explore Everest ascents from the Sherpas’ perspectives.

But they didn’t end up producing quite the documentary they had planned—and it shows because the film’s narrative isn’t, through no fault of the documentary makers, on as sure footing as you’d hope. Instead, they captured the moment and aftermath of an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas.

The incident has arguably changed Everest expeditioning forever. It was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back, with the Sherpas demanding better pay, better recognition, and better compensation for the danger they face every day.

That’s because they risk their lives a whole lot more than the climbers, particularly by carrying gear back and forth over an especially unstable section known as the Ice Fall, but which is the only access point. The climbers themselves traverse the Ice Fall perhaps twice. The Sherpas more like 30 times. Disturbingly, the Sherpas actually draw straws to determine who will carry what across this part.

The government won’t allow anything to be flown up the mountain, so everything must be carried up. And westerners these days expect comfort, so the Sherpas are literally carrying things like TVs. Yes, TVs. And so, with a mountain further destabilised by climate change, the Sherpas’ lives are ruled by prayer, superstition, and luck. As one interviewee asks halfway through the film: ‘What is the moral justification for this?’

Phurba Tashi is the main Sherpa the documentary follows. Had he ascended Everest in 2014, it would be his 22nd summit and a new world record. His family was less than enthused about it. ‘I’m often scared,’ his wife told the documentary makers. ‘He loves the mountain more than his family.’ His mother said: ‘How many times can he climb? I’m over this.’

Sherpa isn’t the most successful documentary ever created—the sudden but necessary switch in subject matter kind of put paid to that. But it is solid. It warrants watching, whether you’re a cynic like me who finds the whole mountain-scaling circus unethical and depressing or an avid mountaineer thinking of setting crampon on this peak.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.