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On strike at 8,848 meters: Sherpa and

the story of an Everest revolution


Jennifer Peedom set out to make a documentary about the untold role the Sherpas play in
helping wealthy western climbers conquer Mount Everest, but when an avalanche hit during her
shoot, she ended up with an even bigger story

O​n 18 April 2014, a 14,000-tonne block of ice slid down the southern face of Mount Everest,
killing 16 people. It was the mountain’s deadliest day, until just over a year later, when 22 died
in the aftermath of the Nepalese earthquake.

Thirteen of the men who died in 2014 were Sherpa, an indigenous ethnic group famed for their
ability to withstand high altitudes. They had been finding their way through the Khumbu Icefall,
one of Everest’s most dangerous passes. When the avalanche hit they were fixing a route so that
tourists – some paying up to $75,000 to climb the world’s highest peak – could fulfil a dream.

Not long before that, Jennifer Peedom had arrived to make a film about the Sherpas. She had
been on three Everest expeditions; over the course of those visits, she had seen how the Sherpas’
role in getting tourists to the top had been played down, and she knew that there was a story to
tell. But she couldn’t have known that she would be there as news of the disaster rolled in. She
couldn’t have known that she would film as the Sherpas’ bodies were airlifted off the icefall, and
watch as the locals channelled their shock and anger into something unheard of: a strike. Now,
with her film, Sherpa, about to be released in cinemas, she acknowledges that it is not the film
she intended to make – but argues that the story she emerged with is an essential one.

“They are a people moving towards self-determination, which is a very natural thing,” says
Peedom. “Sherpas are becoming better educated and going overseas. They’re getting climbing
credentials and coming back [to the western expedition leaders] and saying: ‘I’m as good as you.’
That puts pressure on the status quo”.

The disaster prompted the Sherpas to demand better insurance, a rescue fund and eventually,
the cancellation of the 2014 climbing season. Even before then, they were starting to chip away
at the stereotypes that had plagued them since legendary climber Tenzing Norgay became one of
the first people, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to summit Everest in 1953. Norgay – genial,
hard-working, always smiling – was portrayed by the press as Hillary’s loyal accomplice. The
image of the happy assistant to the mountain-conquering Westerner stuck.

Sherpa follows veteran guide Phurba Tashi, a Nepalese mountaineer with 21 ascents of Everest
to his name, as he comes to the decision not to return to work in the wake of the tragedy. It was
not an easy choice. His family didn’t want him to climb, but it is a lucrative job and he was loyal
to his boss. Russell Brice is a celebrated New Zealand mountaineer and the owner-manager of
the expedition company Himalayan Experience Ltd (Himex). In the film, Brice is feverishly
trying to keep his business together, while facing a dilemma: how does he respect the Sherpas’
grief and keep them working to satisfy his clients?

“They say that there are two kinds of people that climb Everest: egomaniacs and dreamers,” says
Peedom. “Some people can get caught up in the mystery and mystique of Everest. And other
people just have it on their bucket list. These guys are busy people, ambitious people. They’re
often wealthy people. I don’t judge them for that, but they do possibly avoid looking too deeply
at the ethical issues, because it makes it more difficult.”

Though the tourists she speaks to are generally sympathetic to the Sherpas, there are a few
moments when their frustration reveals attitudes that are a little discomforting. During an
emotional exchange one client pleads with Brice: “Can you not talk to their owners?”
“The generous side of me would say perhaps he meant the expedition owners,” says Peedom.
“But it did represent an attitude”.

Everest is a valuable asset to the Nepalese government. Permits cost $11,000 per person. Before
the 2014 disaster there was little incentive to be too stringent over who got to climb (Peedom’s
film shows queues lining up to summit the mountain).

Meanwhile, the wealthier thrill-seekers expect a luxury service. Brice’s company are shown
waking clients at base camp with hot towels and warm tea. In the evening they sit around on
fur-lined camp chairs drinking lager and watching TV. All of this is hauled up the slopes by the
Sherpas.

Then there are the camera crews. With an expensive climb comes sponsorship and the need to
record the ascent and publicise the backers.

“There were three film teams on my expedition,” says Peedom. “Getting shots without camera
people in them was a challenge. There were cameras everywhere. It feels like most people who
are climbing Everest are having a film crew follow them.”

Since April’s earthquake, the Nepalese government have limited access to permits to
experienced climbers, hoping that will address concerns about safety and overcrowding. But the
Sherpas still face an uphill battle when it comes to changing outsiders’ perception of them. The
recent Hollywood blockbuster Everest, which was filming while Peedom was on the mountain,
has angered the community. Based on the 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died, the
Sherpas say the film downplays their importance.

“The Sherpas are really upset about it,” says Peedom. “Their role was a particularly big one in
that year and that disaster. They were boiled down into one slightly weird character who wasn’t
really representative of them. A lot of people were saying to me on Facebook: ‘Everest doesn’t
show our side of the story.’”

On returning from her shoot, Peedom had to re-pitch her film to her investors. They had been
promised a documentary about a legendary Sherpa guide summiting Everest for a
record-breaking 22nd time. What she could deliver was what the Guardian’s initial review called
“a workers’ rights film”.

“The strike was unprecedented,” says Peedom. “That was a real line in the sand, and it will affect
the future. The dynamic has shifted on Everest.”