Ever since Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and British New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 scaled the Summit of Mt. Everest, a new frontier was opened for those who wish to test the limits of their mental and physical strength. Mt. Everest is the highest peak in the world, it sits at 29,029 feet above sea level. It’s one of the many high peaks which make up the group of mountains in The Himalayas. The Himalayas are scattered across Nepal, Tibet, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan. Mt. Everest is named after the Welsh surveyor and geographer Sir George Everest who was largely responsible for surveying the mountainous regions of India and Nepal. The Sherpas refer to Mt. Everest as Chomolungma, which means Goddess Earth or Holy Mother Peak.
In the 1950s, scaling the Himalayan mountains were for serious mountaineer enthusiasts equipped the mental and physical strength of taking on such an endeavor. Since then, mass commercialization and romanticizing of going to the ‘top of the world’ has degraded this holy journey. Upwards of four thousand people attempt the scale the mountains every year (and they leave behind thousands of pounds of rubbish too). Mountain season is during the spring and summer months, which is the most optimal time but the Himalayans are snow capped year round. The ice never melts on the Himalayas, there are still risks of storms, avalanches and other fatal accidents waiting for climbers, thousands of feet above civilization and help. It’s not for the faint of heart. When you are struggling with altitude sickness on the mountain, it’s not your physical strength that gets you through, it’s your mental and physical preparedness. And also, the chance of getting into an accident or falling ill and dying is ever present, and you may not be rescued, not because there’s no one there, there is always someone there, but if rescuing you would put other lives in danger and they may choose to preserve the group over you, as that’s what happened with British mountaineer David Sharp. He was falling behind his group, deemed too ill to rescue, they were on the final ascent to the Summit and it was too dangerous to carry him. The expedition group left him there thinking they’ll tend to him on their descent, which was about 2 days later. David Sharp died, under a rock on the Himalayas, body frozen solid. It was estimated 42 people walked by David Sharp, even those on the way down, no one helped him. The circumstances surrounding the death of David Sharp started a debate about the morality and ethics of mountain climbing, that debate is still raging on today. There are still about 200 corpses buried in the frozen mountains of the Himalayas, some of them have become landmarks. It’s an icy jungle up there, where jungle rules dominate.
Scaling Everest has become a big business for expedition companies. They are usually companies owned and operated by Westerners, usually British or Australian, where people pay them upwards of $100,000 for a chance to climb to the Summit of Everest. These expedition companies organize everything with the help of the Sherpas for the mountain climbers: oxygen, food, campsite equipment (which in recent years include flat screen televisions and wifi connection), route plotting, etc. It’s like a five-star experience in the world of mountain climbing, they just have to show up with their mountain gear and clothing and the rest is handled. For all of this work within a 8 week period, the Sherpas are paid about $5000, which is roughly 10 times the Nepalese average income. This insulting amount of money (even if it works out to be 1000 times the Nepalese national income) is not nearly enough to compensate for the anguish of what the Sherpas and their families endure. Until 2015, the Sherpas do not receive any assistance from the state except for a $400 death benefit which doesn’t even cover funeral costs. They do not receive any form of health insurance, pension or compensation in the event of permanent disability or death. The Nepalese government have left all of the aspects compensation of the Sherpas to the Western owned expedition companies for all eventualities, meaning there are no laws guaranteeing the safety, working conditions and basic rights of the Sherpas.
Nepal entered the modern era as one of the least developed countries in the world, owing to its remote region. It’s not easily accessible by outsiders, it’s hard to get in and out of Nepal. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent to the Summit of Mt. Everest, the international spotlight was shone on Nepal. Hillary set up the Himalayan Trust, which he helped fund, that goes towards improving the lives of the Sherpas. The fund helped build roads, schools, hospitals and basic infrastructure. Only less than 10% of the Sherpas received secondary education in the 1950s, today, 80% of Sherpa children are educated to high school level. Despite these improvements, the Sherpa community is still largely an agrarian community, usually potato farming or yak herding. The mountaineer tourism trade brought in by Westerners have given Sherpas a new economic lifeline. They can earn in 8 weeks their entire year’s salary and then go back to tending the herd or the farm, and they out earn other Nepalese by 10 times. Mountaineer tourism brings in $350 million a year for Nepal, which is over 50% of their tourism revenue. Besides the Sherpas working as mountain guides, lifesavers and porters, mountaineer tourism also keeps local hotels, lodges, restaurants and shops in business. Any place Westerners go, inevitably they bring their bank notes, narcissism and arrogance with them, and in this case, it’s no exception. The Sherpas are perceived as a quiet and docile people, probably influenced by their Buddhist traditions and practices (the sect of Buddhism they practice is very similar to Tibetan Buddhism). They take to chanting whilst going about their daily lives, even doing daily activities, thereby giving them a zen like state of mind. They take tragedy, adversity and great joy in a sort of emotional equilibrium, they neither get too excited or too overcome. They are portrayed as people who assist the Western mountain climbers. They are the quiet worker bees in the background who can magically setup and breakdown camps at good speed and efficiency without becoming winded or fainting. The Sherpas receive their due praise and credit for their kindness, generosity and physical stamina, which will put the most fit Western mountaineer to shame. But they’ve never been given full credit or recognition for what they go through for their job and just how poorly they are compensated in every way; monetarily and spiritually.
The documentary film Sherpa, by Jennifer Peedom explores the unholy alliance between the Western mountaineering industry against the very traditional and spiritual beliefs of the Sherpas, of whom without, there would be no mountaineering tourism. Even if Edmund Hillary came back from the dead today, he could not guide the expeditions as expertly as the Sherpas can. It’s a job only the Sherpas can do, physically, mentally and spiritually.
The Sherpas are an ethnic group of people who live on the Himalayas in Nepal, parts of India and Bhutan. They are similar in ethnicity to Tibetans and their more distant Chinese cousins. Their surnames all end in Sherpa because in the Sherpa traditions there is no notion of a family last name or clan name. The Nepalese government, in order to make census taking easier, have decided to tack on Sherpa as the surname of all the Sherpa people. They are devout Buddhists and practice Nyingmapa, the “Ancient” school of Tibetan Buddhism. They are also deeply spiritual people. The Himalayan mountains (and other things occurring in nature) are venerated like a deity. The whole idea that Westerners wish to climb Everest just see if they can push their physical and mental boundaries is slightly blasphemous to them. They do not understand nor accept this concept at all. You do not challenge Chomolungma, their Mother Earth, you ask for permission to climb Everest, and each step of the way you chant in gratitude that Mother Earth is allowing you to take this journey. At every camp they perform Buddhist rituals honoring the mountains, the snow and the earth, to give them safe passage. And one must be very mindful of the surroundings on the mountains, not just look out for avalanches, snowstorms and other weather patterns, but one must listen to the mountain. The elders of the Sherpa community, even to this day, are still very wary of the notion of climbing the mountain just for the sake of climbing, to see if you can do it and come back down in one piece, without seeking a spiritual revival when you do get up to the mountain. The director of Sherpas Jennifer Peedom wanted to explore this aspect more, the aspect that is usually left out in mountaineering stories:
“I also immediately noticed their spiritual belief is at odds with their work on Everest, and that intrigued me.” – Jennifer Peedom
This film took decades to prepare. Jennifer Peedom wanted to gain the trust and friendship of the Sherpa community before she would make a film about them. She finally begun filming in 2013, right at the time when a fight broke out between Western climbers and Sherpas, the first such fist fight that’s happened at such high altitudes where the braun and physical strength of a Westerner is of no help to him. A mountain climber, perhaps due to stress or fatigue refer to the Sherpas as the “fucking Sherpas”, a Sherpa heard it, and began shouting at the Westerner, first for swearing on the mountain, which is blasphemous and offensive and in their beliefs, might get them all killed and secondly, the blatant disrespect for the Sherpas as a whole. It’s the Sherpas that attach oxygen tanks to people who are passing out and guiding them to their feet again, they set up and breakdown the camps, which are a convoy of tents on solid rock earth, they prepare their meals every night, they greet each climber every morning with a hot towel to wash their faces with and serve them a cup of hot tea at their tents! Never mind it’s the Sherpas who map out the route for them, try to get everyone up to the Summit and back down safely in one piece. So, a fistfight ensued and the Sherpa called the climber a “motherfucker”, the climber was seen giving groveling apologies to which the Sherpas weren’t too keen on accepting. On the surface this just seems like your average men brawling, except this shattered the vision that Westerners had about Sherpas, that they are docile and detached people, not prone to get angry or upset and will basically, for the sake of economics, take any kind of indignity lying down. In the last twenty years, the digital age also reached the mountainous villages of Nepal, they are also on Facebook and social media, they know their own worth and position in this frivolous Western pursuit of mountaineering for mountaineering’s sake. They also know what Westerners pay and what they get paid and the cut their government gets for these expeditions.
On April 18, 2014, the biggest tragedy on the mountain happened, an ice block slid off the frozen waterfalls and killed 16 Sherpas in one day. One of the men had a young wife and newborn baby at home, born on the day he went up the mountains. You see women and family gathered at the Buddhist temple bowled over with grief, chanting, hoping their bodies will be found and returned, or else, according to their beliefs, their souls will wander and cannot reincarnate and reach Nirvana in a future life. It was a huge blow to their community. They expressed their grief in solidarity. For the first time, they stood together and made demands of their government to give them better wages, health insurance, pension and adequate and disability and death benefits or they will cancel the rest of the climbing season. They demanded better wages and working conditions from Western Expedition companies. It was an incredible scene, seeing all the Sherpas banded together, essentially unionizing, on a snow capped frozen mountainside demanding nothing less than what they deserve. The most prominent owner of an expedition company, a New Zealander called Russell Brice, who owns Himex, decided to act as liaison between the Sherpas and the Nepalese government to hopefully workout a deal so that the demands of the Sherpas can be met and the interests of his company and clients can be preserved and after a sufficient time of grieving, the climbing season can continue. The Nepalese government reserves the right to shut down the climbing season should they choose to. They flew in the tourism minister to Everest Base Camp, clad with his oxygen tank and did a bullshit meeting and resolved nothing. He didn’t even shut down the climbing season, which was the most basic demand by the Sherpas, they let the Sherpas decide if they want to shut the season down or not, which means they are letting the Sherpas take the brunt of the blowback. The government didn’t want to offend the Western imperialists. After that non-meeting, the Sherpas took matters in their own hands and said they will cancel the season, they won’t climb or lift a finger (or leg) and if they don’t get paid, then so be it. This time, their lives, their community, their dead are more important than what these ‘mountain climbers’ want.
Needless to say, the expedition companies and climbers were beside themselves. Their fee is nonrefundable so they just plonked $100,000 plus months of physical preparation and training for nothing. Their reactions were varied, most were upset and disappointed but understood, a few American climbers stood in solidarity with the Sherpas. Another American climber called the Sherpas “terrorists” for holding them hostage, for refusing to climb, the fact that they just lost 16 people didn’t register, he even compared it to 9/11, being terrorized by terrorists. This was based on some rumor that certain Sherpas were going to break the legs of the Sherpas who dare to cross the picket line. The main Sherpa featured in this film Phurba Tashi Sherpa (who was aiming to scale to the Summit of Everest for a record 22 times) said no such thing happened. They just wanted to grieve and they wanted to make sure all bodies are recovered. They were also scared for their lives. The frequency of ice blocks falling were increasing. Due to global warming, huge chunks of ice blocks are falling off of the Himalayas more frequently than before, so the perilous “ice crossing” portion of the ascent is even more dangerous. They could not, for any amount of money, put their families through anymore. Russell Brice, said rather distastefully, they were overreacting, that he’s never seen them like this, they’ll have nothing to eat in a few months and then what?
The Sherpas did get all that they demanded from the Nepalese government. But the huge earthquake in Kathmandu – the capital of Nepal on April 25,2015 triggered a huge avalanche on Mt. Everest, killing 25 people, deadlier than previous year. The climbing season has been abandoned for the second year in a row. Nepal is still reeling and recovering from the earthquake that killed over 8,000 people and injured 21,000. Given its remoteness, it’s been hard to deliver aid and render medical care. Many people probably died just waiting for help to arrive. The 2016 climbing season will commence, very cautiously, with a lot of prayers to Mother Earth, but most importantly, it will be at the terms of the Sherpas.
The main Sherpa featured Pherba Tashi who is also the expedition manager for Russell Brice, at the urging of his wife, retired from mountain climbing, he didn’t scale Everest Summit for the 22nd time and he was fine with that. His earnings over many years have brought a degree of financial comfort to his family. His home is cozy and modest – like the rest of the village has no outward signs of sudden affluence. The houses are well maintained, clean and the residents are happy. He is now tending to a herd of yaks for a living instead.
For those who wish to marvel at the majestic beauty that are the Himalayas up close, this is a wonderful film to see. We also get to see the intimate lives of the Sherpas – a group few know much about besides their mountain climbing prowess, we get to see their customs, their culture, their rites and rituals, their stamina from being born of that thin air. Jennifer Peedom started out making a film about the Sherpas and their role in the mountaineering industry, but events on the ground turned it into a film about social justice and worker’s rights and the workers win. Watch out Norma Rae, you have competition!