I expect not too many people have found themselves in a movie theatre watching a two-hour film about a real life drama for which they have been an eyewitness. In December I had that experience for the first, and perhaps the only, time in my life.
Sherpa was released in a few select cinemas here in the UK just before Christmas. It kind of slipped past the radar and didn’t get much coverage in the press. The day before I left for Ecuador I managed to catch a matinee screening at the Bertha Dochouse, a tiny arts cinema tucked away in the basement of the Curzon in Bloomsbury.
The film is a documentary focusing on the events of 18 April 2014, when a huge avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest killed 16 Sherpas and mountain workers. The tragedy was followed by a labour dispute which effectively closed the mountain for climbing a week later.
I was on my way into the Khumbu Icefall that morning, and around two hours away from the site of the accident. I witnessed the avalanche as it fell, and I witnessed many of the events which followed. I went to see this film with a certain amount of trepidation. A media frenzy followed the tragedy, during which western climbers like myself were presented as heartless egotists who exploit Sherpas for our own gain, with little appreciation for the dangers they face on our behalf.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that the politics and economics of mountaineering in Nepal is a complex subject, and that dissecting this popular caricature of the modern Everest climber is a favourite hobby of mine. While I have an emotional attachment to the events and strong opinions about it, I’m going to try and keep this blog post focused as a simple film review.
Happily this has been made easier for me, because Sherpa is an excellent film which manages to achieve the difficult balance of being powerful and emotionally heart-rending, while remaining objective and factually accurate.
I believe the film does great credit to Sherpas not by simply presenting them as oppressed heroes (as they are in the popular media caricature), but by steering an enlightened path through the politics, culture and economics of the mountaineering industry that forms such an important part of their lives.
But before I continue, here’s a little taster.
The leading character in the story is Phurba Tashi Sherpa, sirdar (or Sherpa leader) of the expedition operator Himex. He is one of the best-known of all Sherpas. He holds the record for the most number of ascents of Everest (21, held jointly with Apa Sherpa) and was one of my 10 great Sherpa mountaineers of a previous blog post.
The most important supporting character is Phurba Tashi’s boss Russell Brice, owner of Himex, a western operator at the luxury end of the market, and one of the pioneers of commercial mountaineering on Everest.
Perhaps the most inspired piece of casting is that of the narrator, Ed Douglas. A journalist and mountaineering historian, we hear his voice throughout the film, providing background to the drama and helping to describe the events as they unfold. As a journalist he is not afraid to provide a critical eye where necessary, and as a historian his knowledge and love of Nepal and mountaineering shine through, providing a balance which the complexity of the story requires. We even get to see him from time to time, huddled inside his down jacket at base camp, like a storyteller recounting his tale beside the camp fire.
The film begins in Khumjung, the Sherpa village near Namche Bazaar which is Phurba Tashi’s home. The Everest season is about start, and his family don’t want him to go. His wife lost her brother in a climbing accident the previous year and she can’t believe Phurba still wishes to climb.
As footage of mountains and Buddhist stupas pan across the screen we hear Phurba’s voice presenting the other side. He says he likes his job, and he talks about how important it is for him to earn money. He describes how Everest work benefits everyone in the Sherpa community, including cooks, porters and teahouse owners.
Ed Douglas then provides some historical background. He tells us how Sherpas knew nothing about mountaineering in the early days; they just happened to be strong at high altitude, and were employed by European climbers exploring the Himalayas.
A hybrid perspective is provided by Jamling Tenzing, son of the great Tenzing Norgay. He is an ethnic Sherpa who has climbed Everest, but he received a western education and lives in the United States. He talks about how everybody in the West assumes that all Sherpas climb Everest and have no idea that Sherpas are an ethnic race of people.
He contrasts the difference in perspective between Sherpas and westerners. For Sherpas Chomolungma [Everest] is holy, but to most westerners it is just an extreme physical challenge.
“Not all westerners understand this,” he says, “but some do.”
Russell Brice is introduced. Phurba Tashi explains how he wouldn’t have his job were it not for Russell and neither would any of the 25 Sherpas working for him, all of whom he hired.
We are given a smaller taste of the frequently-overlooked commercial clients’ perspective. As footage is shown of Sherpas working hard at base camp, setting up a plasma screen telly, bookshelves and comfy lounge seats, some of Russell’s clients are interviewed and talk about their reasons for wanting to climb Everest.
The Khumbu Icefall
If Sherpa were a horror movie, the Khumbu Icefall would be the chainsaw-wielding psychopath, lurking in the background, never understood but always feared.
As we watch time lapse footage of the Khumbu Icefall moving down from the Western Cwm like a river of ice, Ed Douglas explains how the Icefall is constantly moving, with crevasses opening up and towers of ice toppling over. It requires constant maintenance, and while the dangers can be lessened, there is no way of avoiding it.
“Is it worth the risk?” he says directly to camera.
“On no other mountain in the world would anyone think about going through a place like the Khumbu Icefall,” says Russell Brice, “but on Everest it’s normal. Every time my Sherpas go up there I feel like I’m sending them into a war zone.”
He explains that while his clients go off to acclimatise on Lobuje East and will pass through the Icefall only twice, some of his Sherpas will be going through it 20 to 30 times.
The Khumbu Icefall is not the only malevolent force running through this story. It is also a story of conflict involving workers, their bosses, their clients and government. The next part of the film focuses on the Sherpa dissatisfaction bubbling beneath the surface.
Sumit Joshi of the Nepali expedition operator Himalayan Ascent explains how 80% of Sherpas are now educated, a recent development. Dawa Steven Sherpa of the Nepali operator Asian Trekking talks about the Facebook generation, and how younger Sherpas are seeing western clients taking the glory for climbing Everest and feeling resentful.
We see footage of a fight which occurred between Sherpas and western climbers at Camp 2 on Everest in 2013, after the Italian mountaineer Simone Moro called one of the Sherpa rope fixing team a motherfucker. We see Sherpas throwing rocks at a tent, Moro being given a slap, and we hear the voice of Swiss climber Ueli Steck describing how he thought they were going to be killed.
Russell Brice explains how the younger generation of Sherpas are less deferential, and sometimes that concerns him.
At this point in the film, there is no mention of the political background, or how it contributes to the resentment.
The 18 April avalanche
We come to the moment when all this fuel is ignited.
We see head camera footage of a climber (presumably a Sherpa) walking along a snow bridge and becoming engulfed in darkness. Russell Brice is shown with his radio asking Phil Crampton, another expedition operator, if his Sherpas are OK.
Next we see Russell arguing with Pasang Tenzing Sherpa and the “mountain guides”. We are not told who the mountain guides are, but I presume they are members of the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association (NNMGA). Around 30 Nepalis are UIAGM-qualified mountain guides. I understand only about four of these (including Pasang Tenzing) work on Everest. The remainder, it seemed from the film, had been flown into base camp that morning by helicopter.
Russell wants to send two doctors up to the accident site by helicopter, but the mountain guides believe they should be flown up first. Russell speaks to a western voice in the Icefall who says they would like the doctors to be sent up first (this would make sense – I can confirm there were plenty of uninjured and experienced Sherpas up in the Icefall who were able to help with a rescue).
We see dramatic footage of the rescue, with bodies brought down by helicopters on long lines. The casualties come first, followed by the dead.
After my expedition was cancelled in 2014 I remember returning to Kathmandu and sitting in cafés and bars in a state of bewilderment, unable to make sense of what had happened.
The next part of the film brought a part of that back to me. In some ways it was enlightening. The protests were mostly conducted in Nepali, and though we were witnesses, we could only guess at what was happening. By providing English subtitles the film provided some answers for me, but it also raised more questions too.
In some ways I expect viewers who watch Sherpa without the background and deeper understanding that I have will be given a taste of the same. The film is enlightening, but the sheer complexity is also bewildering.
We see the protestors at work: Pasang Bhote with his colourful purple beanie, Pasang Tenzing in his distinctive camouflage baseball cap, and Sumit Joshi, who with his fluent command of English is the main spokesman when westerners are being addressed. This is consistent with who I perceived to be the main leaders of the protest in my position as an eyewitness.
We see how government action helped to fuel the protest, when they offered derisory compensation to the victims’ families, and we see how government inaction failed to prevent a strike, when officials flew into base camp and provided no assurances.
We see the utter confusion of the Himex clients as they ask their western guides to explain what is happening. The guides have no idea either. The anger of some of them is illustrated by one client who rants into the camera, likening the protesters to terrorists (I should point out that while I shared some of his frustration, his interpretation of events lies at the extreme end of the spectrum).
The helplessness of operators, and the unwillingness of the majority of Sherpas to get involved in the dispute, is beautifully illustrated by a single meeting between Russell and his Sherpas. Russell asks if they want to continue with the expedition; none of them, not even Phurba Tashi, is willing to offer an opinion; Russell interprets their silence in the only way he can. He cancels the expedition, Phurba nods and the meeting ends.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling factor of all is whether the strike was enforced by the threat of violence. To this day I am yet to meet a single person who is willing to admit that they were threatened with violence. But one thing I know for sure: base camp was rife with rumours of the threat of violence. Does this in itself constitute a threat? I have no idea.
Anyone watching Sherpa will be left convinced that the threat of violence was completely fabricated, and they will conclude this from two successive sequences.
At the meeting with his Sherpas Russell asks if they have been threatened. There is silence, but Phurba eventually admits that he himself has not been threatened (unlike most teams Russell’s Sherpas returned to Khumjung immediately after the avalanche to see their families, and were not at base camp during the protests).
In the very next sequence we see Russell explaining to his clients that he is reluctantly having to cancel their expedition because Phurba and his Sherpas have been threatened with violence.
This was a mistake on Russell’s part. I’m none the wiser about whether expeditions had to be cancelled because of the threat of violence. He wasn’t in an easy position and I’m sure he tried hard to keep climbing, but one thing I know for certain is that as a commercial client I prefer my operator to be honest with me.
“My father said he climbed Everest so that we wouldn’t have to,” says Norbu Tenzing, oldest son of Tenzing Norgay, in the closing sequences.
This sentiment was echoed by the Sherpas in our team who I spoke to after my own ascent of Everest in 2012. None of them wanted their children to follow in their footsteps, and they hoped that by providing them with a good education they would be able to take up other careers.
“I hope there will now be a calm about Everest, instead of all the madness,” we hear Ed Douglas say.
I felt myself nodding in agreement when I heard this, but I’m not hopeful of it happening.
The conclusion of the film is probably its weakest part. In trying to tie up some of the loose ends I believe it lets viewers down a little. There are no easy answers to the Everest conundrum, and in many ways the situation has become even worse.
The makers of the film could not have predicted the earthquake the following year which killed around 9,000 people, or the political dispute and border blockade which only came to an end earlier this month and has had an even more devastating effect on Nepal.
The earthquake is mentioned in a single sentence of text which appears on screen. Another sentence asserts that the “The government eventually agreed to all Sherpa demands”.
At the end of the film Phurba Tashi says that he will not climb again, but sadly for Phurba, one of the greats among Sherpas and a true hero, there has been no happy ending. The earthquake destroyed his home, and with no insurance he will have to work again to rebuild it.
Everest is just a small part of the bigger tragedy that is today’s Nepal. The wider political context is not discussed in the film, understandably.
There is a culture of strikes and corruption which has dogged the country for many years. The border blockade deprived ordinary Nepalis of essential supplies and fuelled a damaging black market economy. The majority of the $4 billion pledged in international donations after the earthquake remains unspent. Many people have died in temporary accommodation over the winter.
This film can only touch upon a small part of that, but it does so with skill and sensitivity. It deserves to be watched more widely, and I extend my thanks to its makers.
I’m no film maker myself, but here’s my own short video of the week that I will never forget.
For more insight into mountaineering on Everest from the commercial client’s perspective, please consider reading my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, about my ten-year journey from hill walker to Everest climber.