‘Sherpa’ Soars as Documentary of Life on Everest

In June of 2015, I watched Sherpa, a new Discovery Channel documentary, in my quiet living room in Seattle. I had never experienced anything like it before.

One of the sherpas in the film. Courtesy of Discovery.
The star of the film, Phurba Tashi Sherpa. Courtesy of Discovery.

Right afterwards, I felt that it was one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen. I thought that it captured the sentiment of the Sherpas, and the messiness at base camp, very well. It laid out everything for the audience to decide for themselves— what the costs, benefits and motivations of the people involved are. I felt that it was a well-researched, emotional, and beautiful gift that will aid in raising awareness about safety concerns on the mountain and fairness in the mountaineering industry in Nepal.

A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.
A shot from below a ladder used to cross fissures in the ice and snow. Courtesy of Discovery.

One year later, I have had some time to think about the documentary and watch it a few more times. The documentary follows Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Mt. Everest 21 times. Phurba’s next climb will make him a world record holder with the highest number of successful Everest ascents. Phurba Tashi’s captivating story of going to the mountain, and his family’s emotional reaction to it, always leaves me wishing there was a better occupational choice for many like him. The tears that roll on the face of Karma Doma, Phurba’s wife, reminds me of how cruel reality is for Sherpa women, who wait not knowing what their fates will be.

Going on an Everest expedition is not an easy choice, the documentary shows. Sherpa or not, one has to weigh their decision of going to the mountain against many factors. For Sherpas, sometimes, it might mean pretending to their families that there is no risk in what they do. For the mountaineering clients, it might mean investing every single penny to make their dream come true.

Sherpa soars in its presentation of the human story on the mountain. It shows the Sherpa mountain workers moving rocks to set up luxurious camps filled with books, a television set, and comfortable chairs. It also shows them singing and laughing, and then shaken and disturbed, following the tragic accident in Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 Sherpas died in 2014. The clients are also shown being excited, and jovial as they gear up for their ascent. After the tragic accident, the clients are shown being devastated by the loss and also finding out that they will not be climbing that year.

Mt. Everest. (Photo by phobus via Flickr)

The documentary captures frustration at Everest base camp, with some never-before-seen clips of a brawl that took place in 2013. It is this part of the film that makes many of my Sherpa friends uncomfortable. A relative told me after a screening in New York that the documentary was good, but if only it could leave the scene of Everest brawl out, it would have been better. At the 2015 Kathmandu Film Festival, a representative from the mountain workers said that the brawl as shown in the film was a biased depiction, which did not show the whole picture of how the Sherpas were mistreated leading up to the incident. This part of the documentary definitely leaves a bitter impression, and one has to wonder how this particular story embedded in the larger mountaineering mess could be told some other way.

Nevertheless, Sherpa is truly a gift for the Sherpas to have their story heard and seen like never before. Director Jennifer Peedom has created a magnificent documentary, with an exceptionally well-researched script. The film successfully raises the issue of fairness and safety on Mount Everest on a global scale.

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is a post-doctoral fellow at the India China Institute of New School University.  Born in the Sherpa ethnic community in Nepal, she holds a PhD in anthropology from Washington State University. She has written about Nepal previously on GlacierHub in posts on earthquake recovery and glacier lake outburst floods

One Response to “‘Sherpa’ Soars as Documentary of Life on Everest”

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    The one climber who compares the Sherpa refusal as terrorism is exactly what the problem is with the environment on the mountain. The proper response should have been we are sorry and respect their desires not to traipse past the carnage of their friends and family. It is more than a mountain for the Sherpa it is a Holy Place. Even more so when they were unable to return their brothers to their families for proper burial and rebirth.

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