The Critic: Sherpa tells a whole new story about as­cend­ing Everest

Sher­pas get their story told By David Hol­brooke

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

Last fall, Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures re­leased two movies within two weeks of each other that take place on the world’s tallest moun­tain. The first was Everest, an overblown, big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood take on the in­fa­mous May 1996 bliz­zard that cost eight lives. The se­cond was Sherpa, a doc­u­men­tary sharply di­rected by Jen­nifer Pee­dom about Nepal’s Sherpa peo­ple, fo­cus­ing on the men who risk their lives to get Westerners to the top of Everest and other Hi­malayan sum­mits such as K2. The lat­ter film—which makes its TV de­but on April 23 on Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel just as climbers start their spring as­cent of Everest—was pro­duced for a frac­tion of the for­mer’s cost, but it feels like the big­ger movie.

Sherpa zero es in on the avalanche that struck the moun­tain in April 2014 and killed 16 Sher­pas. Af­ter the tragedy, many of the Nepalese at base camp (un­der­stand­ably) re­fused to keep work­ing. This cre­ated a schism be­tween the Sher­pas and their Western clients, many of whom were pay­ing up­wards of $50,000 to be guided to the top. One Amer­i­can was so an­gry, he in­voked Sept. 11 and com­pared the Sher­pas to ter­ror­ists.

While this nar­ra­tive forms the doc’s back­bone, the film also delves into the per­sonal lives of the men in this dan­ger­ous oc­cu­pa­tion. The cen­tral fig­ure in this story arc is guide Phurba Tashi. Al­though he’s sum­mited Everest 21 times, his fam­ily con­tin­ues to ob­ject to his oc­cu­pa­tion out of con­cern for his health and safety—Tashi’s brother-in-law died on the moun­tain in 2013—and ac­cuses him of tempt­ing fate. His mother says, “I don’t like him go­ing up there so many times. It is shame­ful to God.” In the movie, Tashi is pre­par­ing for his world-record 22nd sum­mit, prompt­ing his wife to re­mark, “Phurba loves the moun­tain more than he loves his fam­ily.”

It’s not just love of Everest that’s at work. Nepal is a des­per­ately poor coun­try, and guid­ing of­fers good wages. Many men do it to sup­port their fam­i­lies, know­ing it could leave their chil­dren fa­ther­less. Their re­al­ity is in sharp con­trast to that of the Western climbers, whose cushy base camp is fur­nished with com­fort­able tents, elab­o­rate meals, and flatscreen TVs. As New Zealand moun­taineer Rus­sell Brice, a cen­tral char­ac­ter and long­time Everest guide, says: “If you want to get ev­ery­one on the sum­mit, you need much more crea­ture com­fort. Cer­tainly the type of per­son that comes on ex­pe­di­tions has changed con­sid­er­ably.”

Climbers like to say the moun­tain de­cides whether you get to climb it. In 2014 that de­ci­sion came in the form of the avalanche. In 2015 the earth­quake that killed 8,000 peo­ple in Nepal, in­clud­ing 24 on the moun­tain, again ended the climb­ing sea­son. As fes­ti­val di­rec­tor of Tel­luride Moun­tain­film, a doc­u­men­tary film fes­ti­val that climbers founded in 1979 (which Dis­cov­ery spon­sors), I’ve seen dozens of films about the world’s tallest moun­tain and its de­ter­mi­na­tive pow­ers. The con­flict be­tween Sher­pas, who’ve grown con­sid­er­ably less sub­servient, and their clients is one of sev­eral that makes Sherpa among the best to come along in years. But the big ten­sion point, of course, is that be­tween man (and woman) and moun­tain. Let’s cross our fin­gers that this year the moun­tain rules in our fa­vor. <BW>


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