The most dangerous part of the journey to Everest’s summit is the Khumbu Icefall. The glacier that forms it moves so fast that towers of ice can dislodge and crash down the icefall at any moment. Climbers must scale it before the sun rises, when it is mostly frozen.
Everest’s western adventurers will usually only encounter it twice – once on the way up and once on the way down. Their guides, the Sherpas, have to tackle it 20 to 30 times per season.
The Sherpa people, an ethnic group inhabiting Nepal’s most mountainous Himalayan region, are known globally as the guides, well adapted to high-altitude conditions, who help foreign climbers reach Everest’s summit. Tenzing Norgay – the Sherpa who first reached the summit with Edmund Hillary – is perhaps the best-known Sherpa. The image of smiling dedication and sidekick status has followed the Sherpas ever since Tenzing’s feat of mountaineering with his New Zealand counterpart made international frontpages in 1953.
Going ahead to prepare the route – ropes, ladders, camps – to the summit with all the equipment puts the Nepalese guides’ lives disproportionately at risk compared to their wealthy western charges back at basecamp. And they receive very little recognition. Even today, blockbuster films like this year’s Everest focus on the heroism of foreign climbers over those who endanger their lives repeatedly to guide them to the summit.
In 2014, some documentary-makers, led by the Australian director Jennifer Peedom, headed out to Everest basecamp to make a film about the tensions emerging between Sherpas and climbers. The previous year, a fraught and confusing brawl had broken out between a group of Sherpas and climbers, video footage of which shows a westerner angering his guides by using the word “motherfucker”. The word was disrespectful; Everest is a holy place for the Sherpa people. Each year as the climbing season looms, the families of guides pray for their loved ones who go “walking on the head of Chomolungma” (“The mother god of the earth”).
But the filmmakers, whose docufilm Sherpa is out this month, by accident ended up capturing the deadliest tragedy Everest had seen at that point. An avalanche struck, dislodging a 14,000 ton block of ice, which crashed down, killing 16 Sherpas who were preparing the route. It happened on the Khumbu Icefall. The film shows the disorientation and panic at basecamp when news of the Sherpas’ deaths comes in, and striking, wide shots of bodies from afar, dangling on the long lines reeled down from helicopters. Three of the bodies have never been recovered.
“The disaster blew open the simmering tensions that were beneath the surface,” the British producer of Sherpa John Smithson tells me. He has also produced climbing disaster films such as Touching the Void and 127 Hours.
“Because it’s this iconic destination for adventure travellers and so on, a lot of the literature about Everest, and lots of the films are about heroic westerners climbing Everest,” he reflects. “Or that brilliant book Into Thin Air, which was the basis for that recent Everest feature film. It’s very much seeing it from that western perspective, and I think the new generation of Sherpas are getting much more media-savvy and image-aware than they used to be. There was a feeling that the absolutely crucial role they perform – the way they facilitate our ability to climb the mountain – was not a story that was truly recognised or even told, so I think that was a really important point.”
Although the tragedy prevented his team from telling the story of Everest through a Sherpa’s eyes by following them to the summit – as they had intended – Smithson knew they had a story from the tensions revealed in behind-the-scenes footage of fiery meetings between Sherpas and their employers (the trip operators), and the operators and their clients.
The Sherpas were refusing to climb for the rest of the season, and therefore giving up that season’s earnings, out of respect for the dead. Some, insulted by the scant compensation offered by the Nepalese government to victims’ families (not even enough to cover funeral expenses), threatened an all-out strike until they were given better working conditions.
What had become simply a bucket-list destination for foreigners, with a hideously overcrowded basecamp, and traffic jams of climbers leading to the summit, was now a high-altitude hub of industrial action.
The filmmakers captured rallies held at basecamp as Sherpas gathered in mourning and anger. Some told the westerners who were waiting to find out if they could embark upon their adventure to leave the mountain. One tourist whines that he feels he is “being held captive by terrorists”.
“We are being forced off this mountain by renegade Sherpas,” an operator complains at a meeting with the Sherpas who work for his company. “Before it was always friendly, smiley Sherpa helping – these guys have ruined your reputation.”
But the Sherpas counter this narrative. Phurba Tashi, the mild-mannered head Sherpa who is the focus of the film, explains: “It will be a big loss this year, but could improve the future for us.”
Indeed, their refusal to climb and the dent it makes in the country’s revenue forces the Nepalese government to agree to the Sherpas’ demands – doubling their insurance cover, giving higher compensation, and paying for their children’s education. The route up Everest has also been tweaked to avoid the most perilous part of the icefall.
But we have yet to see whether these changes will improve the lot of the Sherpa. The climbing season was again abandoned this year due to the huge earthquake that shook Nepal in April, killing over 9,000 people. Nineteen people – including ten Sherpas – were killed when an avalanche blasted through Everest’s basecamp, usually a safe haven from the dangers further up the mountain.
“It does seem to have been a wake-up call,” says Smithson of Everest’s deadly recent history. “I think there is more awareness from the western climbers, there does seem to be an awareness of the issue, and with the [tour] organisers, I think there’s pressure there as well to support the Sherpa cause, and the government had to listen.”
But that so many Sherpas had to die for this gradual recognition reveals how stubbornly the world has overlooked the risks they take to earn a living on the mountain they could once call their own.
Sherpa is in cinemas from 18 December and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016.