In a nutshell: A captivating and visually spectacular doco that lifts a lid on the lucrative Mount Everest tourist climbing industry, providing a rare insight into the perspective and exploitation of the local Sherpa mountaineers who form its backbone.
Writer/Director: Jennifer Peedom
Filmmaker Jennifer Peedom and her crew were set to track local mountaineer Phurba Tashi’s impending 2014 world-record-breaking 22nd ascent to the summit when news broke that an avalanche had killed 16 Sherpa climbers lumping foreigners’ supplies across a hazardous glacier section of the ascent known as the Khumba Iceflow. Footage taken of the Sherpas on the unstable iceflow, which they traverse up to 30 times per season, crossing deep icy crevasses on flimsy aluminium ladders while lumping heavy oxygen bottles and other supplies for tourists, bears heart-thumping testimony to the extreme dangers of their work, likened by one spokesman to Russian roulette.
Fortuitously positioned to capture a dramatic story as it unfolded, the filmmakers switched focus to the aftermath of the tragedy and its implications for the Sherpas, tour operators and their foreign clientele lined up to climb to Everest’s peak (lined up literally – one shot shows a “traffic jam” of scores if not hundreds of climbers in Indian file on a snowy slope near Everest base camp).
With the usually docile Sherpas shocked and mourning the death of their workmates in the avalanche, and long simmering with resentment at receiving remuneration way disproportional to the risks, demands and importance of their work, they strike. Further, for them the great mountain is holy – their spiritual mother – and they fear that the avalanche is a sign that their climbing is disrespectful.
By contrast, the tourists typically see scaling Everest as a bucket list item, and pay around $70,000US to tick the box. With the brief climbing season in jeopardy, emotion is running high and some unfortunate attitudes emerge. One American declares the striking Sherpas “terrorists” and another foreigner asks whether their “owners” could be consulted about ordering them back to work.
New Zealander Russell Brice, owner of an Everest expedition company, is shown resorting to lies to cover himself and his Sherpa team, headed by the intended protagonist of the film, Phurba Tashi, who stands by uncomfortably, head bowed. Brice’s tactics and moral position will be a post-viewing talking point for many. Is he seeking to divert his clients’ anger and blame from the Sherpas, whom he appears to genuinely care for and respect, or covering his own arse – or both? Tellingly, there is no mention of his giving up any of his profits to compensate his Sherpa crew (who rely on the climbing season to support their families), or to part-refund his clients.
The avalanche tragedy and strike aside, there are some fascinating glimpses into Sherpa home life, and the perspectives of the women who watch their menfolk depart for the slopes, knowing there is a real chance they might not return.
And of course, the scenic backdrop to the human dramas is wondrous in its majestic beauty, and done full cinematic justice by a camera crew that included mountaineer and high-altitude specialist cinematographer Renan Ozturk.
In 2015, the climbing season was abandoned for the second year in succession when 22 people, climbers at Base Camp among them, lost their lives in the Nepalese earthquake. With scaling Everest now something of a circus catering for rich foreigners, who are served hot drinks when they awake in warm luxury tents (one tourist is shown asking a Sherpa guide to add more sugar to his breakfast cuppa), the question might be asked as to whether the venture retains much grandeur. Considering the dangers inherent in the climb, especially for the Sherpas who do all the donkey work in advance of the foreign climbers, perhaps it is time to listen to the mountain.
2015-16 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 8-14 Feb, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 16-21 Feb, 8pm
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