While Universal’s Everest might be commanding more headlines, Jennfier Peedom’s documentary Sherpa, which made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, always sought to tell a story about the famed mountain that rarely sees the light of day. For the sherpa, who receive modest incomes from the foreign climbers whose climbing kits and oxygen tanks they ferry diligently up to the summit, Everest is both their means of survival and the site most likely to claim their lives. After hearing reports of strained relations between sherpas and foreigners, Peedom traveled to basecamp in 2014 to follow New Zealander mountaineer Russell Brice’s expedition to the summit. She was on site when an avalanche struck the basecamp and killed 16 sherpa, effectively ending the season before it had really begun. With this year’s Nepalese earthquake claiming yet more lives, there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to reevaluate our fear and fascination with the Earth’s highest peak, and the politics and repercussions that effect the lives of the people who live in its shadow.
Where does your history with Everest begin?
As a young, aspiring documentary filmmaker in my twenties I took advantage of opportunities that came my way, and I was living with a bunch of New Zealanders who were into the outdoors. One of them said, “I’m climbing Everest again, and I’m going trekking to acclimatize. You should come with me.” So I went, and it turns out I have a good constitution for altitude, which is literally a genetic thing. Because of that I started to work as a camera operator on Everest expeditions. I was intrigued by the mountain, but I was always more drawn to the sherpa story. I did a short documentary for an Australian current affairs program called Dateline. The short was called “The Sherpa’s Burden,” and so I was aware of the sherpa dynamic with foreigners. Over the intervening decade it had seen so much change.
At what point did it become clear that the timing was right to make a feature film about the sherpas?
When Russell Brice canceled his 2012 expedition, which is mentioned in the film, that was when I thought the time was right to make this film. I did the research and got the access, and the week we were cutting the pitch trailer a fight broke out between the sherpas and foreign climbers. It seemed the timing was right to go and see what the repercussions of that would be. Looking at this relationship, it had reached some kind of tipping point, and it was indicative that things were changing.
You went on the 2014 expedition, which ended in tragedy, and ultimately in the partial collapse of relations between sherpas and foreign climbers. You couldn’t have predicted that.
I think we were in the wrong place at the right time, or the other way around. It’s incredibly awkward, and it was devastating at the time, but there was also a sense that we had a responsibility to follow this story, and so that was what we did. People often ask, “Do you think you would have had a film if the avalanche hadn’t happened?” But there’s always drama on Everest. Every year I’ve been there there’s been disaster of some kind—sherpas being killed or injured, foreigners behaving badly… there’s always something. It would have been a different film—this turned into a very political film, but also an emotional one. We set out to make a film that gave people a different understanding of who the sherpa were, but also to shine a light on the disproportionate risks that they take in getting foreigners to the summit and back down again.
The reality of life at high altitude, tackled in Sherpa but also in Everest released earlier in the year, is that even at Base Camp, it becomes incredibly hard to think straight.
Not a lot of people pick that up. In my film there’s confusion about what’s going on, and a lot of people don’t understand it because it seems so obvious. But it isn’t so obvious when you’re there and the basecamp rumor mill is going crazy. You’ve got expedition leaders trying to hold things together in a very compromised position, as we saw in the Everest film. Commercialism puts awful pressure on expedition leaders, and that’s what we saw unfold in my film, too, but in a very different way.
It begs the eternal question: Why climb the mountain?
It’s a question that runs through all of my films. I wonder why my friend, who has lost all of his toes, still goes back. Trying to understand what motivates people to do the things they do is a theme throughout my work. And adventurers are the worst people at describing why they do the things they do; I’ve learned that over the years. Someone once told me there are two types of people that climb Everest: maniacs and dreamers. We all know those A-type personalities who are just driven to push themselves. The others are people wrapped up in the romance and the literature of Everest and there’s a huge amount of literature around our fascination with it.
For the sherpas, the decision to effectively close the mountain cannot come lightly given the necessary income they stand to lose. And with the Nepalese earthquake earlier this year, there have been two consecutive seasons with no summits. How is life for them now?
What Russell Brice’s sherpas told me was that they got less than a third of what they have received had they summited in 2014. Most of their fees are tied into how many loads they carry, and then they receive summiting bonuses. By not carrying the loads and not climbing the mountain, most of them went home with less than a third of what they’d have earned. With this year, too, at a time where they’ve had two years without that income, they’re also having to rebuild from the severe damage they’ve had from the earthquake. A lot of foreigners have given generously, as they did after the avalanche, and climbers tend to be generous after situations like that.
Given the elation that must come from summiting that mountain, is there any kind of brotherhood that develops between climbers and sherpas?
What I’ve observed, and what a lot of sherpas have told me, is that in the immediate aftermath there’ll be all the love in the world, but they very quickly forget. Part of the inspiration for making this film was that I observed that. I saw people whose lives were saved by sherpas, and would then go onto the public speaking circuit and write books and fail to mention that. That really sticks in my craw. There was an Australian guy a few days ago who said, “I climbed Everest unsupported.” What does that even mean? It’s the Sherpas laying the ladders and ropes that you use, and carrying the food that you eat. Nobody climbs Everest unsupported.
To see the trailer for Sherpa, click play below: