Monday, 22 February 2016

ShAFF review: Sherpa

The last three climbing seasons on Mount Everest have been tragic. In 2013, a massive confrontation erupted between western climbers and Nepalese guides working on the mountain. In 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali people, mostly Sherpas, resulting in the end of climbing for the year. In 2015, a major earthquake killed over 8,000 people in Nepal, including many on Everest due to a subsequent avalanche. 

The effect has been devastating. The battered Nepalese economy relies heavily on tourism and the Everest climbing season. For the Sherpa people themselves, it is a major source of income, from hotel and restaurant owners to the mountain guides, who can earn up to $5,000 in three months, a life-altering amount in a country with an average yearly wage of $700. There are roughly 3,000 people living in villages in the valleys immediately below Everest, so the death toll has been enormous.

In total, more than 250 people have now died trying to climb the 29,029ft mountain, but there have never been such tragic seasons as those in recent years. Each year sees more people attempting to reach the top of the world, requiring more guides, more people to haul equipment and more support workers, so the numbers killed in avalanches and other accidents is only rising.

Still from Sherpa - source:

The whole Everest experience has apparently been sanitised, according to the media, due to expedition companies providing creature comforts in base camp and leading their wealthy clients to the summit. While there may be some truth in this, it needs to be remembered that climbing Everest is still exceptionally dangerous. And the Sherpas working for these expedition companies are bearing the brunt, as they lay fixed ropes and haul equipment between the various camps on route to the cruising altitude of an aeroplane. 

The most dangerous section of climbing on the Nepalese side of Everest is the Khumbu icefall, a constantly shifting waterfall of ice, blocks weighing tens of thousands of tonnes crashing into each other and tumbling down the valley. Most climbers have to pass through the icefall twice, once going up and once coming down. Sherpa guides can trek through this perilous terrain up to 30 times in a season - a giant risk for them and their families.

This story of heroism and tragedy is told exceptionally well in the award winning documentary film Sherpa, being shown at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival between 11-13 March. The feature-length movie opens with the introduction of Phurba Tashi, a man on the brink of a world record number of Everest summits, and uses his perspective to tell the Sherpa side of the story.

The film also has interviews with expedition leaders and their clients, archive news footage and narrative from journalists, as well as awe-inspiring shots of the Himalayas. Sherpa provides a superb insight into the last three years on Everest but, most importantly, interestingly and downright essentially for a telling of the Everest story, it provides the Sherpa voice. It shows the people whose livelihoods depend on the mountain, who support not only their families but their entire villages through their dangerous work, who have been essential to the success of practically every ascent since Tenzing Norgay accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary to the summit in 1953.

Sherpa is a must watch movie at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival this year. Be sure to book your tickets.

Other ShAFF reviews:
  • High & Mighty - highball bouldering film
  • Meru - high-stakes, big-wall climbing in the Himalayas