A gripping account of the worst day in Mt Everest history and the Sherpas for whom it was the final straw. Rarely are documentaries as spectacular as Sherpa, a riveting account of last year’s climbing season on Everest, its worst ever, in which 16 Sherpas died in one day.
Australian director \ Jennifer Peedom goes at it alone here and demonstrates a formidably sure hand. A veteran of altitude filmmaking (Everest: Beyond the Limit), Peedom set out to make a film from the Sherpa point of view, specifically that of Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who holds the equal record for most ascents (21). Phurba Tashi’s attempt to climb the mountain he calls Chomolungma for a record-busting 22nd time was to have been the film’s main narrative until an undeniable one intervened.
On April 18 of last year, a block of ice crashed down into the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous section of the Everest route. Sherpas cross it far more than foreign climbers (“clients”) in order to ferry supplies from Base to camps higher up, and make a pittance for each crossing. On the morning of April 18, 16 Sherpas died on the Icefall, more in one day than had ever been killed in an entire year, and Peedom’s crew was at Base Camp to capture the ensuing chaos.
Peedom, in concert with editor Christian Gazal, has cleverly structured the film by beginning at the moment of crisis and then doubling back. As prologue, we’re treated to surreal GoPro footage from a climber’s helmet. All we can see is the ladder he’s clambering up when there’s a rumble and a wall of snow crests the ridge above and comes thundering down toward the camera. It’s so startling you can’t blame Peedom for re-playing the same sequence later. Just whose point of view we’re occupying, or what happened to them, is never revealed. The film then winds back to 12 days earlier to the village of Khumjung, where Phurba Tashi is bidding farewell to his family before the season begins. The brother of Phurba Tashi’s wife died on Everest the year before; he went because he needed the money, she tells us. Needless to say, our apprehension is palpable.
Gliding shots of the mountain in all its terrifying awesomeness are brilliantly shot and Peedom seamlessly weaves together unfolding events and a précis of the historical relationship between westerners and Sherpas, with commentary from mountaineering writer Ed Douglas. In 2013, a fight broke out between Sherpas and foreign climbers. Peedom includes footage of the confrontation, in which a white climber who swore at a group of Sherpas is struck and kicked as he makes a panicked apology. All these resentments come into focus on April 18, and Peedom spends the latter half of the film teasing out the disaster’s implications.
The most interesting character to emerge is Russell Brice, the owner-operator of one of the biggest commercial climbing businesses on the mountain. The Sherpas stage a private summit in which they decide to call off the season. Brice finds himself between a rock and a hard place: between his clients (many of whom are returning after an aborted attempt in 2012) and the Sherpas, on whose labour he relies. His solution is, in a word, creative. As for Phurba Tashi, he doesn’t get the record. Like the film itself, his story ends at a place completely unforeseen, but quietly hopeful.
Rated M 8 out of 10