April 2016

Arts & Letters

Blind obsession

By Luke Davies
The economics of Everest in Jennifer Peedom’s ‘Sherpa’

“We need help here,” a panicked, crackly voice calls out on a two-way radio, over a black screen, in the opening moments of Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa (in national release). “Many people have died.” It’s 18 April 2014, and Peedom and her crew are at Everest Base Camp, shooting a documentary about the Sherpas who work as porters doing most of the heavy lifting on Everest expeditions. (Sherpa is in fact the name of an ethnic group who live in the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet.) Peedom, an Australian, had gotten to know the descendants of Tenzing Norgay (who reached the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953) and many other members of the Sherpa climbing community.

In 2013, Peedom learned of a brawl that had taken place at 6400 metres, when a Western climber reportedly insulted a Sherpa. The incident made headlines (it is briefly seen in this film), and raised questions about colonialism, the ever-increasing commercialisation of Himalayan climbing, Western appropriation, economic exploitation, the obsession with “conquering” the summit, and the slow decline in relations between Sherpas and foreign climbers over the six decades since Hillary and Norgay. Climbing on Everest is now a bona fide industry. Overcrowding is a huge problem – there are traffic jams and long waits for climbers. In 2014 there were to be 38 separate expeditions to the summit. Climbers will pay upwards of $75,000 for the experience.

Peedom, who had filmed on Everest before, wanted to structure her documentary around the journey of Phurba Tashi, an experienced Sherpa who first climbed Everest in 1999, and for whom an ascent in 2014 would be his 22nd – the most ever by a climber. We meet Phurba, a quiet and measured man, as he prepares to leave his village at the start of the climbing season. We meet his wife, children and parents, too. “I’m often scared,” says Karma Doma, Phurba’s wife. “I’m happy when he comes home.” His mother is a little more forthright. “How many times can he climb?” she asks. “I’m over it! It’s shameful to God. He should be scared of God … If he was a famous monk, at least we could get blessings. But the fame he gets from climbing a mountain is useless.”

Karma’s brother died on the mountain in 2013. Now, speaking about her husband’s departure, she begins to cry. “He promised he wouldn’t go,” she says, through tears. “He promised [but] Phurba loves the mountain more than his family.”

For Phurba it’s not so simple. “Everyone makes some money,” he says. “So I feel good climbing the mountain.” In poverty-stricken Nepal and Tibet, Sherpas can earn a much higher income than the average local worker; other than the anomalous pocket that is the climbing world, the region basically runs on a subsistence economy. “When I reach the top I say a prayer and I give thanks,” says Phurba, and we can read multiple interpretations into that thanksgiving.

All this feels like the groundwork for a fascinating and thought-provoking documentary. Then, while Peedom and her crew were at Everest Base Camp, a massive block of ice crashed down on a treacherous section of the climbing route known as the Khumbu Icefall. It killed 16 Sherpas who were making back-and-forth journeys to stock the numerous camps in advance of the paying climbers.

It was the deadliest day in the mountain’s history. “I can’t recognise who it is!” cries one of the voices in that chaotic radio chatter. Without seeing anything, we know how bad the accident is up there.

Climbing would be suspended. Peedom and her crew, on the spot, made the choice to continue filming. The themes she had thought would form the substance of her film were now deeply intensified by the tragedy. The film’s drama would henceforth play out at Base Camp, where all the main players were stuck, as the injured and dead were carried out, and the living worked out – with those heightened emotions – the next steps.

It’s a small but beautiful film, at once serene and sorrowful, urgent and anxious. (It was recently nominated in the Best Documentary category at the BAFTA Awards.) Visually, Sherpa swings between the majestic landscapes radiantly captured by high-altitude cinematographers Renan Ozturk, Ken Sauls and Hugh Miller (a kind of Powaqqatsi aesthetic springs to mind) and the vérité-like scrabbles and tensions that unfold at Base Camp as the initial shock wears off and competing agendas emerge. Should the season be cancelled, out of respect? Or should those Westerners who have paid so much money be allowed to climb?

Whatever the case, it won’t be possible without the Sherpas’ assent. Peedom interviewed the climber and writer Ed Douglas, who was also on the mountain at the time of the disaster. His handy overview of the politics of the situation operates as a kind of narration. “This is an astonishingly charged relationship, between Western mountain climbers and the Sherpas,” he says. “When climbing began, the Sherpas had no conception of what climbing could be, and yet suddenly they were on this journey from [being] people who were just genetically really good at altitude to becoming international mountain guides 100 years later.”

Two years before the accident, Russell Brice, an affable and well-regarded (and, in Peedom’s film, highly stressed) New Zealand expedition operator, cancelled his tour’s climb for safety reasons. Four of the climbers from that cancelled expedition are back. Everyone who embarks on an Everest attempt knows not just the dangers of the climb itself but also the circumstances that may prevent it from even taking place. The pressures on tour operators to deliver a “product” are immense. The Sherpas, too, are greatly helped by the money they earn. But the fact that their wages are such a tiny fraction of the money that passes through the climbing industry suddenly becomes a salient – indeed, an overtly political – point. Politicians are helicoptered in from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, to broker a peace deal. Now the Sherpas seem more Western than ever: in simultaneously channelling their grief and asserting their rights, they take on the air of striking British unionists during the Thatcher era. Tempers flare. “Hot-headed young guys,” Brice calls them, trying to downplay the situation.

They are young – younger than ever before, because every year more of them are needed – and clearly a little hot-headed. Even in the Himalayas they are part of the Facebook generation, and so are also more savvy than ever before. But their argument is simple: Sherpas assume the bulk of the risk yet receive little of the reward; in any climbing season they make up to 30 trips through the terrifying Khumbu Icefall to supply the various camps. (Obviously, the paying climbers make that trip only a couple of times.) Ed Douglas ponders the “moral justification” for a situation that is like a game of Russian roulette.

For one of the more tone-deaf climbers, it’s not such a moral quandary. “What happened was a really tragic day, black day,” he says. “[But] I feel really positive we’re going to be allowed to go up the mountain, and we’ll continue the journey, and hopefully it’ll be successful, and, you know, life goes on, and it’s just that I’d like to be able to remember the guys for who they were and carry a positive message.” No doubt “the guys” would be happy to know this, from the afterlife.

Brice tries to navigate between sunny idiots like this and angry Sherpas. A meeting with Phurba and his team of 25 Sherpas goes very awkwardly. Most likely trying to save face in front of the cameras, and to justify the possible season cancellation, Brice claims that certain Sherpas are threatening to break the legs of any Sherpas who go up the Khumbu Icefall. But the simple fact, according to Phurba, is that “the Sherpas don’t want to climb”. “I didn’t receive any threats from other Sherpas,” he adds. “Nobody told us we couldn’t climb.”

Of the climbers, it is a couple of the Americans who don’t come out looking so sharp. “Being threatened by terrorists is how I look at it,” rants one of them. “When people demand change and threaten it by violence: that’s a terrorist. And we in the States, we know what that is: 9/11.” Such cultural blindness beautifully illustrates the dilemma at the heart of Peedom’s investigation.

In April last year, as post-production on Sherpa was nearing completion, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, devastating the country and killing more than 8500 people. It triggered an avalanche on Everest, killing 19 climbers. It was the new deadliest day in the mountain’s history. Climbing was cancelled again.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Phurba Tashi’s mother in Sherpa.

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