In 1953, Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings known to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
Ever since, conquering the world’s tallest mountain has become a goal for many people—especially wealthy Westerners. Sherpa, which is being screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, shows the dark side of what has become an important part of Nepal’s economy.
The Sherpas are an ethnic group, some of whom are elite mountain climbers who believe Mount Everest (or, as they call it, Chomolungma) to be very sacred. These Sherpa people are hired by Western expedition companies to help get clients to the top of Mount Everest; many people pay six figures, or more, to attempt the climb—sometimes multiple times.
Sherpa follows Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who holds a joint world record for the amount of ascents of Mount Everest, at 21. In 2014, he set out on his 22nd attempt. The movie also features Russell Brice, a New Zealander who owns an expedition company and has been leading expeditions since 1974; he employs Phurba to lead other Sherpas under his employ.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom was filming an expedition when disaster struck: Around 6:45 a.m., April 18, 2014, a 14 million ton block of ice came crashing down and caused an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas. In the aftermath, upset Sherpas leading some of the expeditions began to rebel.
Many previous films have given short shrift to Sherpas, even though they face the most danger during attempts to climb Mount Everest. Sherpas have the job of crossing back and forth through the Khumbu Icefall, where they place ladders across endless crevices through the ice—and face the threat of avalanches and falling ice.
After the avalanche, upset Sherpas demand that the expedition companies work with the Nepalese government to ensure better pay, and to make sure families receive benefits if they die. Nepal’s government brings in more than $3 million annually from these expeditions, which boost Nepal’s economy by more than $300 million each year.
Of course, the wealthy Westerners are annoyed by the striking Sherpas. Brice flies via helicopter from the mountain to meet with a government official, who then flies in to tells the Sherpas to continue to do their jobs. This makes matters worse—as the Westerners realize that it’s impossible to reach the summit without the Sherpas.
While Sherpas are among the best-paid people in Nepal, they still make just a tiny fraction of what people pay to take the expeditions. The film shows the struggles of the Sherpas. While the late Tenzing Norgay became famous, Edmund Hillary received far more credit and acclaim. In fact, he later regretted becoming the first Sherpa to reach the summit the mountain. His adult children are interviewed in the documentary.
Also addressing issues such as on the mountain, and the number of dead climbers’ bodies on the mountain, Sherpa is an insightful, revealing film that shows the dark side of these expeditions and tells the stories of the brave men struggling in a third-world economy who make climbing Everest possible.
Sherpa will also be screened at 2 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 6, and 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 9. For more information, visit the PSIFF site.