“We Nepali won’t trouble you like this again. We hope the foreigners will listen to us this time, and mourn 2014 as a black year.”Palden Namgyal Sherpa
Jennifer Peedom’s absorbing documentary puts the Sherpa front and centre, not just as mountaineers but as a people. She notes that the Western impression of Sherpas is almost entirely fuelled by the image of the cheerfully smiling and seemingly subservient Tenzing Norgay, which no longer fits the more educated youths now working on Everest. Peedom’s original intention was to film the 2014 climbing season following the violent confrontation between Sherpas and European climbers that had occurred the year before. There is a stark contrast between the Western concept of conquering a mountain and the Sherpas’ reverence of the peak, which they know as Chomolungma. Much of the early footage features grandly sweeping shots of snow-capped peaks and the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, whilst showing a glimpse of the huge undertaking to prepare the camps up the mountainside in advance of climbing tourists. Foreigners attempting the climb might cross the icefall twice, but the Sherpas have to cross it twenty or thirty times, carrying heavy equipment. This disproportionate allocation of risk in order to make Westerners’ climb more comfortable is troubling. When a deadly ice avalanche killed sixteen, Sherpa‘s focus shifts to follow the human and political fallout as the Sherpas refuse to climb, seeking better protections and remuneration. There is a challenge for the filmmakers in that culturally the Sherpas appear reserved rather than prone to public displays of strong emotion. Instead, Peedom enables the viewer to feel the Sherpas’ frustration by juxtaposing what they say against the galling Western selfishness on display. One operator describes the Sherpa response as “totally irrational” whilst acknowledging in the same breath that they fear for their lives. An American climber exposes his reprehensibly colonial mindset when referring to the dissenting Sherpas’ employers as their “owners”; because he had paid money — of which the Sherpas would see virtually none — he felt entitled to the servitude of the locals. These attitudes, if nothing else, cannot survive viewing this documentary.