'Sherpa' documentary 2015: A review
Phurba Tashi: Gentle Hero
There will be differing opinions about Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Peedom's latest documentary 'Sherpa' - set in the rarified world of commercial expeditions to Everest, depending on who you talk to, but on one thing I suspect everyone who's seen it will agree - that the gentle, gracious Sherpa sirdar Phurba Tashi is the real hero of this movie.
The documentary's nearly 2 hours in length, and at times treads a difficult line between balancing the views and concerns of the Sherpa guides and their families, with those of Russell Brice, the pragmatic Kiwi HiMex Expedition leader, and his team of paying Western clients from a variety of different countries (each of whom has paid $65,000 to Brice for the privilege of setting foot on the summit).
What does that $65,000 buy? It buys you two months of camping and intense training and acclimatisation at Base Camp, plenty of oxygen and other vital equipment and supplies, and most crucially, a one-to-one ratio of Sherpas to clients (i.e. you get your own personal Sherpa assistant who will pull you up the mountain if need be).
However if you put all of that socio-political polemic to one side, this film beautifully showcases, better than any other I've seen, the humble, gracious kindness, combined with a simple but deep spirituality that typifies the Sherpa temperament. This is shown in vignettes such as the way in which Phurba interacts with his wife, kids, and parents, and life in the Khumjung village, which is home to Phurba and his family.
Director Peedom, in winning the trust of the entire Sherpa community involved in the filming, has been able to present an intimate Sherpa perspective in a way no other Everest filmmaker has achieved in the past. She combines this with skilful production and cinematography -such as the timelapse footage of day and night over the South face of Everest, and Go Pro photography from the heart of the Khumbu icefall.
By the time the avalanche hits Base Camp (just before half way through the film), we feel completely invested in the life and concerns of Phurba and his family. We are rooting for him as he treks up the mountain to Base camp ahead of Russell Brice's paying clients in order to marshall his newly appointed team of climbing and cooking sherpas, and set up all the luxuries expected of a commercial expedition at Mt Everest before the clients arrive.
Then...at 6.45am on 18th April 2016, the climbing world at Everest changes forever, when a serac of ice breaks off the Western cwm above the Khumbu icefall, and causes 16 Sherpa to be buried and others injured in a devastating avalanche. The chaos that follows (which combines actual filming and radio excerpts with voice over commentary), is hard to watch and listen to. Scenes of the avalanche, and dead Sherpa guides and porters being airlifted out on longlines, brought tears to my eyes. I thought of the young Sherpa guide with a family, whose wife had given birth to their first child the night he left for the expedition.
I came away with a jumble of thoughts and emotions - trying hard not to rush to judgment about some of what I'd seen. Here are some random thoughts (in no particular order):
* It can't be disputed that climbing any 8000 metre peak, let alone Everest, is a very perilous business at the best of times, but I couldn't help coming away with the feeling that Western climbing expeditions, whether they admit it or not, have more or less come to regard Sherpa deaths and injuries as 'collateral damage' - or, if you prefer, a necessary evil of the business of running Everest commercial expeditions. Russell Brice states that every Sherpa death is like losing a member of his family, but would you go back to work a day or two after losing a close member of your family? It seemed to me that if Brice's sherpas had been keen, he wouldn't have batted an eyelid about encouraging his own climbers to resume their summit bids.
* Does the fact that a Sherpa consents to take a huge risk (and that they get money for it to feed their families), make it right to allow them to run that risk? Russell Brice's actions in moving his clients' acclimatisation process from the Khumbu Icefall to a neighbouring trekking peak, really says it all. He doesn't want his own clients exposed to the dangerous icefall, but is prepared to send Sherpas up there multiple times. Lest it be thought I am singling Brice out here -he's just one of many expedition leaders who all allow their Sherpas to run these risks.
* The attitudes of some of Brice's paying clients to the Sherpa deaths left much to be desired. I felt sick at the man who described the protesting Sherpa as "terrorists" and even Brice labelled them as "rebels". I didn't like the way he told his own Sherpas that the protesters had given the whole race a 'bad reputation' -implying they should all remain smiling and subservient to the Western climbing clients.
* What was all this nonsense about Sherpa threats to break peoples' legs? Nobody really bought that bogus story, and it only served to sow seeds of confusion and distrust amongst Brice's clients and his sherpas.
* It speaks volumes that a group of Sherpas standing up for their legitimate rights in the employment arena are seen by the climbers as 'troublemakers'. It was absolutely self-evident that very few (if any) of the Western climbers 'got it' (in terms of the Sherpas' spiritual objections to continuing to climb up the mountain -thereby stepping over the bodies of their fallen comrades).
* I don't have an issue with people wanting to climb Mt Everest, but I do have issues with those who wilfully put others' lives at risk in the process, and who ignore or minimise the achievements of those who help them up the mountain.
Phurba Tashi's mother a - simple yak and potato farmers in Khumjung village, may have said it best:
"Why does he have to keep climbing that mountain, year after year?"
In the end, he didn't. He decided a 22nd (record-breaking) summit attempt wasn't worth losing his life over, and the respect and goodwill of his family and village. Phurba, I take my hat off to you.
RIP to those 16 Sherpa whose lives were lost in he Khumbu Icefall on 18th April 2014.