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.

The Devil Reads Vogue?

The Devil Wears PradaI’ve never understood the obsession with and reverence to Vogue. Frankly, I’ve always found there to be too many ads and not enough coherently-strung-together words. That and the ‘fashion’ contained within the pages is so preposterous, expensive, and un-wearable I’ve never been convinced that they’re not taking the p&%s.

I did, however, surprisingly enjoy both the book and the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada—guilty, simple-carbohydrate reading and viewing pleasures that both appealed to my sense of Vogue’s over-the-top ridiculousness and indulged my abject, albeit disconnected, fascination with magazines in general.

This impression was probably helped by the fact that I was at the time having my own devil-wears-Prada moment in an all-consuming, high-pressure work situation that I thankfully extricated myself from some months later.

But even I couldn’t resist gaining some insight into the arctic Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour courtesy of The September Issue. I mean, who doesn’t want to know if she’s really as influential and as scary as they make out?

It took me until this Friday night just past to get round to watching the fly-on-the-wall documentary, and I was desperate to know how close The Devil Wears Prada was to the ‘real’ story of Wintour. And I say ‘real’, because you never can know how much the camera got to see or how much the documentary shows.

What struck me first was how the positioning of Wintour’s desk was identical. Small stuff, yes, but striking for me nonetheless. I quickly realised what a Vogue rookie I was, though—the September issue is not just one of 12 they do a year; it’s a full-blown, highly anticipated magazine extravaganza.

Fans and media alike salivate over the ultimate annual issue, which grows in size and scale each year and which one designer quipped would soon be a ‘phone book’. I kind of think that’s not an entirely bad thing and that the breathless excitement that surrounds it is not dissimilar to that that accompanies the release of a Harry Potter (or similarly popular installation of a long-running series).

I was also amazed that despite Wintour getting all the press, she was far from the most talented or even the star of the show. That mantle is held by Grace Coddington, the creative genius behind the best of Vogue and whose brilliant work Wintour seemingly regularly threw out. Was it just me, or did you start to doubt Wintour’s taste watching the film? Did you start to wonder just how good the magazine could be were Coddington at the helm?

What also amazed me was that despite my meh-ness about Vogue (seriously, they won’t ever attract me as a reader unless they ditch some ads and couture and deliver some intelligent, world-changing content) was how caught up I got in the work that goes into the making of the publication. It’s something I’m a part of daily, but the amount of work that goes into something that appears small or seamless and that in coming together often in the nick of time continues to blow my mind.

I was also reminded that my jury’s still out when it comes to magazine reading. I see it as a secret (and secretively-carried-out) indulgence that’s slotted in ever so occasionally between reading ‘serious’ non-fiction tomes that skewer the world’s problems and that often simultaneously depress and inspire me.

But I’m wondering if that view is misguided or misplaced? We all enjoy a good mag (even if Vogue isn’t my first or ever choice) and I perhaps shouldn’t consider such reading devilish. After all, any reading is good reading, isn’t it? Can we have our books and mags and read them too?