On April 18, 2014, as the climbing season was beginning on Mount Everest, a massive avalanche crashed down killing 16 Sherpas. Sherpas, the local people who make their living aiding foreign climbers to achieve their dreams of reaching the highest point on Earth, have seen their fair share of disaster. However, this avalanche was the worst tragedy on the mountain, and has called into question whether climbing on Everest would ever be the same again.
Winner of the Grierson Award at the 2015 BFI London Festival and an official selection of the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, SHERPA looks at how Mount Everest’s Sherpa community united in grief and anger to reclaim the mountain following this devastating tragedy. Directed by Jennifer Peedom (“Solo”), SHERPA features exclusive access with members of the Sherpa community, their families, and western adventurers who were getting ready to climb Mount Everest before the tragic event. The film highlights this volatile time in the Everest climbing industry, which served as a turning point for many of the Sherpas and their families as they considered whether to continue working on the mountain.
This April, Discovery Channel presents Elevation Weekend, taking viewers to striking destinations, following men and women on their journey to conquer the elements. The centerpiece of the weekend is SHERPA debuting Saturday April 23 at 9pm ET/PT. The 2015 documentary VALLEY UPRISING will precede SHERPA with an encore presentation at 7pm ET/PT. Additional programming throughout the weekend will include re-broadcasts of highly popular Discovery Channel programming including, North America and Dual Survival.
Having worked for decades as a director and camera operator on films featuring Himalayan expeditions, Peedom felt it was time for a film exclusively on Sherpas. “I’ve always been interested in the Sherpas,” explains Peedom. “I find the interrelationship between the expedition clients that come to climb Mt Everest, and the Sherpas who don’t understand their dream fascinating. And for whatever reason that’s drawn me back here yet again.”
Over the years, the tension between foreign climbers and Sherpas was reaching a tipping point. Likewise, while she was developing the film, the news footage of the 2013 fight on the mountain between foreign climbers and a group of Sherpas broke. It was symbolic of the growing tensions between Sherpas and foreign climbers. Each group’s reason for being on the mountain in and of itself is conflicting. The westerners who come to climb the mountain often view it as “a physical challenge, to push a limit, to see how close you can get to death.” The Sherpa people refer to the mountain as “a holy place.”
Peedom initially set out to make a film chronicling Sherpa leader Phurba Tashi as he set out on his record-breaking 22nd ascent up the mountain leading a team for veteran commercial expedition leader Russell Brice. Yet, on April 18, 2014, Peedom and her team switched their focus to cover the aftermath of the tragedy.
Each year, Sherpa men prepare to leave their apprehensive loved ones behind to spend a season risking their lives because it is the only career in the area that helps them supports their families. SHERPA highlights this struggle as Phurba prepares to leave home for the climbing season and his wife Karma Doma explains that, “He won’t listen…I ask him not to climb, but he doesn’t listen.” Phurba counters this with, “There are no other opportunities for Sherpas. Mountaineering is where we can make the most money. Everyone needs money, so we will go on pretending that it’s safe.”
While there always has been an inherent danger in climbing Everest, especially given how many times Sherpas climb the mountain, over the years, the danger has worsened due to the environmental conditions. “You’re asking men to go to work in a very dangerous environment,” says Mountaineering writer Ed Douglas. “And it’s becoming more so, as the seracs, these giant blocks of glacial ice, are affected by the forces of climate change.” Likewise, over the years, the amount of equipment westerners require for comfort has increased ten-fold. The Sherpas are paid to carry everything from tents, to kitchen equipment to plastic flower arrangements through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.
SHERPA also traces the history of climbing on Everest. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to ascend Everest, launching them into the public eye for this amazing accomplishment. Douglas explains how, “The world was captivated by Tenzing. And he fixed in our minds the popular image of a Sherpa as this smiling, friendly, almost heroic figure.” Yet, he didn’t receive the accolades that Colonel John Hunt, who led the expedition did. While Hunt and Hillary were knighted, Tenzing received the George Medal, a second tier honor. Tenzing’s son, Norbu Tenzing states, “…in the eyes of Sherpas, in the eyes of people in India, in the eyes of most Asians – they felt slighted that he would not get the same kind of recognition that his partners got on Everest.”
After the avalanche, many Sherpas wanted to mourn the men whose lives had been lost. During a rally, one exclaims, “That route has become a graveyard. Let’s respect our brave, dead friends… by keeping that in mind. How could we walk over their bodies?” The tragedy hit a nerve with these men and their families causing them to unite in their grief and anger and stand up for themselves.
Likewise, many climbers who have already paid for their experience comment on how complex the decision is. “I knew the risks. From a personal point of view, I was prepared to take that, but to ask the Sherpa boys to go through it time and time again…. It’s hard just not to think about what happened to all those families of those boys,” comments one climber. “They’re doing it for us, but [you] put so much work into this and effort then you start to justify it.” Likewise, expedition leaders such as Brice were grappling with the fact that they wanted to keep their Sherpas safe and working, but also take into consideration the fact that if the season was cancelled all of the climbers would lose their income. “I’m afraid every single day the boys go through the icefall. I fear every day,” says Brice. “But guys, we also have to progress! We have to progress for the future, otherwise you have no income for your families.”
The arrival of government officials on the mountain signalled a turning point for both the Sherpas and the climbers. The Sherpas hoped they would show leadership and cancel the season to mourn their friends, while the climbers hoped that they would meet the safety demands of the Sherpas and the season could continue. Yet, instead of making a decision, the government officials tell each Sherpa the decision on climbing is up to them.
SHERPA captures this historic moment in Mt. Everest climbing history by chronicling the complex issues surrounding the avalanche’s aftermath, the decisions made, and the attempts from all sides to find a path forward for the future.
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