Did you know that the Sherpa people are an ethnic group? I didn’t, I thought sherpa was an occupational term for the Nepalese people who assist climbers on Everest. This Australian documentary delves in to the lives of the Sherpa people and how the bloated industry that has grown to enable wealthy foreigners to summit Everest affects their lives and community. We follow Phurba Tashi Sherpa as he leaves his family to lead a team of 25 Sherpa people who will assist an international group led by experienced expedition leader Russell Brice. If Phurba summits this year, it will be his 22nd time, a record.
There is some breathtaking cinematography in the film. Of course the grandeur of the mountains and the beauty of the landscape are to be expected but the filmmakers use slow-motion and time-lapse to allow us to really see what makes this region so remarkable. It is the footage of the Sherpa people in their homes that affected me most, though. The smoke blanketing the town as juniper burns from every house, the tears on the face of Karma Dopa Sherpa, Phurba’s wife, as she talks about her brother’s death on Everest the year before and her fear that Phurba will not come home.
Although there is sometimes a bit too much exposition, intrusive music and over-dramatisation, what this documentary does well is quietly show us the inequity of the relationships between Sherpa people and the mountaineers, businessmen and clients who yearly crowd the mountain. The visitors are given free reign to speak their mind to camera and several times there was a gasp from the audience at the audacity and condescension shown by the climbers. They regularly refer to the Sherpa men as boys, talk of the risks they are taking, ignoring the much greater risk taken by the Sherpa, and accept the level of comfort being provided for them as if it is their right. I was shocked by the level of luxury – flat screen tvs, bars, portable showers, a library, hot towels and tea delivered to their tent each morning. Every part of this is carried up the mountain by Sherpa before the climbers arrive.
This inequity is highlighted when an accident on the most treacherous part of the route kills an unprecedented number of people, all Sherpa. The usually reticent Sherpa people begin to speak out, demanding better rights, more support from the Nepalese government who pocket millions each year in fees, better equipment and more than the $5,000 they receive per climb. They also ask that all climbs be cancelled for the rest of the season, something that brings out the worst in Russell Brice and his clients.
I’m not sure that this documentary completely worked for me. It was a little bombastic and would have been much improved with the removal of the narration and unsubtle music, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the strange circus on Everest and draw our own conclusions.