You know those sinewy and muscled – and mostly Western – climbers wearing advanced gear and gadgets worth more than most people’s monthly wages who go after the glory of living out a lifelong dream to ascend the summit of Mount Everest (aka Chomolungma in the local vernacular)? Well did you ever stop to wonder who’s actually lugging their loads up the mountain, trekking through ice fields in the dead of night to ensure a safe passage for their clients the next day, and generally doing all the logistic and grunt work for these elite climbers? Those would be the Sherpas.
The term Sherpa refers both to the ethnic group of Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet and to the high-skill, high-altitude mountain guide work undertaken by so many of them. It’s also the name of a new film documenting Everest activity, mostly from the perspective of the guides, at an especially volatile time as more and more foreigners seek to ascend the world’s highest mountain … and as global climate change makes this momentous task trickier and more perilous than ever.
Sherpa aptly captures the increasingly acrimonious tension between foreign climbers and their guides while highlighting the codependence between the two parties and awing the eyes with stunning cinematography featuring the world’s most majestic mountains as a backdrop.
I don’t mean to disparage rich folks who get the chance to cross off world wonders from bucket lists of major achievements (if I had a lot more time and money, I – as I reckon anybody – might consider doing similar), but such mountaineers don’t come across as very kindly in Sherpa, especially when it comes to the wellbeing of their guides and the livelihoods of Sherpa families.
A couple of the foreign climbers in the film (and one egregiously obnoxious so-n-so in particular) refer to their guides in the most dehumanizing of terms as if Sherpas were chattel with no concern but to get their masters to the top of the mountain at any cost. And when, in April 2014, 16 Sherpas died as a 14 million ton block of ice crashed down upon them, those same climbers express little sympathy for the deceased or those who also very likely could have been killed that day.
Still, there’s potential for a somewhat and rather bittersweet happy ending to Sherpa and for some optimism to be drawn from watching it. The tragic events of April 2014 provoked a drastic reappraisal about the role of the Sherpas in the Everest industry and through collective action, their jobs are safer and more secure. But what does the future hold and will the Nepalese government continue to take the necessarily precautions to minimize Sherpa risk and human-caused degradation of its most famous landmark?
Sherpa is directed by Jennifer Peedom (Solo, Life at 7, Living the End) and produced by Bridget Ikin (An Angel At My Table, Look Both Ways) and BAFTA-winning John Smithson (Touching the Void, 127 Hours).
Sherpa is in cinemas from 15 December and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016. Visit sherpafilm.com for listings.