Ever since Edmund Hilary and Tensing Norgay’s triumphant ascent of the world’s highest peak in 1953, climbers from all over the planet have descended upon Nepal in order to pit their wits and test their mettle in the Himalayas; climbing Everest, rightly or wrongly, still considered by most to be the ultimate challenge.
Thousands of dollars are parted with for technologically advanced, highly organised and increasingly pampered expeditions with one goal – to summit Everest. One thing is for sure, climbing Everest, Sagarmāthā or Chomolungma – call it what you will – without the presence of the ever industrious, unflappable and above all good-natured Sherpas, would render many a self-indulgent, Western mountaineering dream, impossible.
Of course, the world’s perception of Sherpas is potentially a very one dimensional view and Sherpa is a documentary that sets about re-addressing pre-conceptions, to unearth more about their lives, their families, spiritual beliefs and concerns and to discover exactly who these unsung heroes of the mountains really are.
Veteran climber and expedition co-ordinator, Russell Brice, has been organising climbing ascents on Everest for many a long season now and it’s through him, and his driven, moneyed clientele, that the at times incendiary events of the last few years are explored and explained.
Speaking from the present day, it’s fair to say that the Himalayan mountaineering landscape has now shifted immeasurably following the events of the last few years, a shift that was both predicted and feared for quite some time before by Brice, it should be said.
Not even he could have anticipated the scale of the devastation though that has been unleashed upon the Sherpa and mountaineering community alike in recent times. Two major avalanches in 2014 (killing 16 Sherpas), and 2015 (triggered by the Nepalese earthquake, killing at least 22 people, many of whom were Sherpas), have brought on a major re-evaluation by the Sherpas with regard to their role, their working conditions and the unfair renumeration and compensation packages for which they risk their lives, daily.
There’s no doubt that climbing Everest has become a major industry over the last 20-30 years, with routes, particularly on its southern face, frequently log-jammed with large parties of climbers, all of whom have parted with small fortunes for an opportunity to summit its peak, none of whom would be able to do so without the dedicated preparatory work of Sherpas in fixing ropes, ladders and lines.
Unsurprisingly, only a paltry proportion of the vast amounts of money that the Everest industry generates finds its way into Sherpa pockets. A combination of this injustice, the two aforementioned devastating avalanches and tempers having become frayed during the previous climbing season when Western climbers were perceived to have shown a lack of respect on the mountain, and everything is suddenly brought to a head with Sherpas threatening to down tools until their, by now crudely unionised, demands are met.
Significantly, the Nepalese government sees no problem with the then status quo, but it’s a scenario which seriously threatens to de-rail the entire Himalayan mountaineering industry.
In these times of mass, global Capitalism and the subsequent exploitation of native people the world over, Sherpa is a documentary that provides ample food for thought.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the film’s ability to pin-point Western climbers’ shifting attitudes towards Sherpas in light of the fast changing, increasingly politicised climbing climate in which they now find themselves.
A people that once were perceived to be smiling, duly obedient and largely sub-servant are suddenly demanding some level of equality and the climbing community seems somewhat split in its ability to come to terms with this, particularly with livelihoods and ‘Western dreams’ affected.
Majestic, sweeping shots across the breathtaking Himalayan mountain range, explosive and at times incredibly tense, real footage of altercations and mother nature’s fury, all combined with the politics and commentary from those directly affected by the events of chaotic climbing seasons of recent times, has resulted in one of the very best documentaries of the year and should not be missed.