BY: TYLER FYFE
The word Sherpa is not a job title. It is the cultural name of an ethnic group living in the eastern Himalayas long before the first recorded ascent of Everest in 1953. Since that famous feat was performed by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Sherpas have been typecast as smiling cultural backdrops for a steady string of Westerners hoping to scratch a number off their bucket list.
The common misconception of the name is just single symptom of the sidelining of the Sherpa perspective, and the crucial part they play in adventure tourists making it to base camp alive. When director Jennifer Peedom pointed her lens at Phurba Tashi, she knew she was looking at one of the greatest mountain climbers to ever live— a Sherpa guide who had ascended to the peak of Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma more than 21 times.
This is why in 2013, Australian director Jennifer Peedom and high-altitude filmmaker Renan Ozturk sought to make a film that would transcend the misrepresentation and colonialist traits of adventure tourism that forgoes cultural sensitivity. For Sherpas, Everest is not Mother Nature’s greatest dare, Chomolungma is a holy right of passage. It’s a spiritual land often soiled by the feet of corner-office eco-tourists— those paying for bragging rights during water-cooler talk while omitting the prefix eco by leaving behind scattered garbage on the snowcaps surrounding base-camp.
Sherpa guides roll the dice with every expedition. More than 120 have died on expeditions, an avalanche killing 16 last year, and 18 more falling victim to this year’s earthquake. With Nepal’s economy leaning heavily on eco-tourism, the push for worker-rights is growing among mountaineers and a complex political situation is unfolding on the jagged rock-face.
To make sure that the true stories of the Sherpa were not muffled by Western narrative, Peedom and Ozturk spent months training a Sherpa video team, arming each member of the crew with a Go-Pro to make sure no subtleties were left undocumented.
If the epic shadow of the world’s largest mountain captures your imagination, do yourself a favour and skip the Jake Gyllenhaal disaster drama. This is the unpolished tale of Everest, the true story of a people who have become pillars of an over-glorified Western dream.
The film premiered at TIFF and screens in select cinemas in LA, NY, Australia and New Zealand. It will be available worldwide on Discovery Channel next year.