REVIEW: Sherpa

Sherpa

A compelling documentary about the 2014 Mount Everest climbing season and the ensuing tragedy that takes place.

A very moving story about the men who risk their lives to help others reach the top of Mount Everest is told in the excellent documentary ‘Sherpa.’

Sherpas are an ethnic group from Nepal’s mountainous region, high in the Himalayas. It’s also a surname in a culture that mostly doesn’t assign surnames to it’s people. Sherpas are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local areas, and because they live in very high altitudes, they get hired to serve as guides for expeditions in and around the Himalayan mountains, especially expeditions up Mount Everest. Sherpas are tasked with carrying all the necessary expedition equipment up (and down) the mountains. And as for expeditions up Mount Everest, Sherpa’s go up and down the mountain about 30 times. They also have to go through the Khumba Icefall, a dangerous and constantly moving block of ice that is the first hurdle in climbing the mountain. The term Sherpa made it into the cultural lexicon in 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, in a year that was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Norgay was referred to then as a Sherpa, and he was awarded the George Cross, while Hillary was Knighted. Norgay gave the name Sherpa a currency which is synonymous with climbing.

In ‘Sherpa,’ filmed in 2014, Director Jennifer Peedom set out to make a documentary from the Sherpas point of view, she wanted to observe up-close, how, and why the relationship between foreign climbers and Sherpas have shifted and soured since the euphoria of 1953, especially after 2013’s ugly brawl when a climber made a derogatory remark to a Sherpa at 21,000 feet, causing a fight between the climbers and the Sherpas. What the filmmakers got instead was to capture the worst tragedy in the history of Everest, and the subsequent days that would change the mountain forever.

The filmmakers embedded themselves with a commercial expedition run by New Zealander Russell Brice’s company Himalayan Experience. Brice had four returning clients after they had failed to reach the summit in 2012, so the pressure was on to get them to the top. There was also a team of 25 Sherpas, managed by Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who Peedom was able to interview before the climb. We see him as he prepares to make history by being the first person to summit Mount Everest 22 times; his wife and mother are also seen voicing their concern about him climbing the mountain they refer to as Chomolungma.

But at 6:45 a.m. on April 18th, 2014, a 14 million kg block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route through the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas. This disaster changes the Sherpas lives, shatters the dreams of the climbers, puts into question future expeditions, and changes the focus of Peedom’s documentary. It was the worst tragedy on Everest. Peedom captures the Sherpas united in grief and anger while everyone rushes to implement a rescue plan. But it turns into a Sherpas versus Westerners showdown as the Westerners want to control the rescue and recovery while the Sherpas want to included in retrieving their own. Peedom captures the tension and the drama, all at Base Camp, at 17,598 feet.

‘Sherpa,’ beautifully directed by Peedom, who directed 2006’s Everest: Beyond the Limit, was ready to tell the story of the relationship between the Sherpas and the foreigners on Everest. After the avalanche she tried to make sense of it all, and captured on film the unfolding situation, and the Nepalese Government’s slow reaction to the tragedy. Peedom follows the story as it unfolds as she and the rest of the crew inadvertently witnessed and documented a historic event. She also beautifully interweaves the back stories of those who risk their lives for the sake of others - the Sherpas. Her crew capture the beauty and the landscape of the region, while at the same time capture moments of disaster and anger and sadness, it’s a compelling and must see documentary. The Best documentary of the year.

On April 25, 2015, there was a massive earthquake in the Nepal region that killed over 9,000 people. It was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal in 80 years. It triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 19 people, and aftershocks took place, which further put into question the future of climbing Mount Everest ever again.

Sherpa won the Best Documentary Awards at the London Film Festival. It's now out in cinemas.