Walking into the valley of death

Guiding climbers on Everest is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. For many Sherpas, it is the only source of income. A new documentary reveals their rebellion against the system.

Climbing Mount Everest takes courage, strength, stamina, patience, precision equipment — and plenty of money. For many westerners, it’s an aspirational goal. For the Himalayan guides, the unsung heroes who have been helping foreigners on their attempts to scale Mount Everest since 1922, it’s a matter of life or death. The Sherpa, who has little in the way of job prospects other than subsistence farming, can choose to become a guide — which isn’t much more than a game of Russian roulette.
The disproportionate risk between climbers and Sherpas — and the tensions it prompts — is at the heart of an upcoming documentary, Sherpa. In April 2014, a year after a brawl broke out on Everest between a group of Sherpas and mountaineers (it was sparked when an Italian climber insulted a Sherpa), the film’s crew set out to uncover why so many of the guides put their lives on the line. While westerners do their training on a side section of Everest and pass through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall just twice, the Sherpas typically navigate the icefall around 30 times each season.
This is because they are required to carry the clients’ ever-expanding roster of equipment up and down the mountain. This includes food, water, cooking apparatus and even home comforts, such as espresso machines and TVs.
Phurba Tashi, a veteran Sherpa guide who was preparing for a world-record 22nd ascent, was to be the star of the documentary along with a supporting cast of 25 real-life Sherpas. However, on April 18, 2014 nature intervened — brutally and remorselessly. As the Sherpas were part-way through their ascent, an avalanche struck. Chunks of ice the size of the average British semi broke away from the mountain and fell onto the Khumbu Icefall. The avalanche killed 16 Sherpas and injured dozens of others. It was, at the time, the single worst disaster to hit the mountain since expeditions began.
On the day of the avalanche, John Smithson, one of the film’s UK-based producers, searched the internet for news. “We were getting no communications back from base camp. I was desperately trying to get through to Jennifer [Peedom, the film’s director] by satellite phone. I was finally able to speak to her that night.” Luckily, the Sherpas they were following all survived. “They were 40 or 50 metres above where the avalanche rolled down onto the climbing route,” he says. Those who were climbing behind them were not spared.
Peedom captures on camera the horrific aftermath. The Sherpas were devastated to lose so many of their fellow guides. There are haunting shots of helicopters transporting the injured Sherpas to base camp, tightly winched onto stretchers. Then the camera pans to the dead, slack bodied, hanging like ragdolls in the sky. The footage moves to the village and the newly widowed Sherpa wives, their faces crumpled with grief.
Smithson knew that they would need to reorientate the film. “We didn’t know whether the Sherpas would climb [to the summit] or not. There was a constant danger of another avalanche and there was the grief and anger of the Sherpas. I just said to Jen, ‘Keep filming. We’ve got to make a film.’ ”
What happened next was like a plot from a movie. The Sherpas were torn. Commercial climbing is a vital means of support for their families, but the risk of death is high. They earn up to £5,000 for a two-month expedition, modest by British standards, but more than 10 times the average annual salary in Nepal. Yet they were afraid to climb and decided to cancel the climbing season out of respect for the dead. They embarked on a protest in a bid to secure better terms from the Nepalese government, which makes millions from permits granted to climbers. For the first time, the Sherpas took a stand. They demanded and won higher insurance payments and compensation for the bereaved families.
“When I said to Jen before she went to base camp, ‘We don’t know what to expect,’ that was an understatement. As those events unfolded, Jen hung in there to capture the emotion. The Sherpas’ grief evolved into anger and it blew the issues into the open. We knew then we had a very different story and a really interesting perspective to take,” Smithson says.
Disaster was to strike again, though. Just as the film-makers were finishing the edit of Sherpa, an earthquake struck on April 25 of this year, killing 24 people, a mix of mountaineers and Sherpas. “No one imagined the savagery of the earthquake. Everyone up the mountain was safe, but the people at base camp were caught in this giant mixture of ice, snow and rock,” Smithson says. The news served only to highlight the risks Sherpas take.
Smithson’s previous producer credits include Touching the Void and 127 Hours. Both are based on true mountaineering stories of survival. “I’m not a mountaineer or an adventurer,” he says. “I don’t even like being on a ski lift, but there’s a fascination with human behaviour and I’m drawn to those big stories.
“It’s that moment between life and death, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the right place at the right time… I find myself thinking all the time, ‘What was it like in that music hall in Paris a few weeks ago?’ And the truth is, people want to know, they want to know what happened to the pregnant woman who was captured on film hanging from the window. People want to hear those astonishing stories.”
Sherpa is released on December 18 and will be broadcast globally on Discovery in 2016. For more information, visit sherpafilm.com