When the Sherpas leave their villages for the climbing season on Mount Everest they leave behind tearful wives and frightened children. Families who have begged them not to go, knowing they might not come back.
They leave in great clouds of smoke from the juniper branches that are burnt for good karma and to ease fears, the prayer wheels they touch on the way out tinkling dully. While they are on the mountain their families will pray in the monasteries, dreading the stories coming back that someone has fallen into a crevasse or been crushed by ice.
“It is like sending them to war,” says Russell Brice, a New Zealander who runs high-end commercial Himalayan expeditions. “You don’t know who is going to come home.”
To the Sherpas, the mountain they call Chomolungma is a holy place, the mother god of Earth. It is a sanctity that must be respected. “Chomolungma is incredibly powerful,” says Karma Doma, the wife of Phurba Tashi, who was leading 25 men to his 22nd summit in the film Sherpa.
Across the mountain you can hear their mantras as they climb, always asking for a safe passage, praying to be returned home safely, making offerings to the gods before they set out from base camp.
“Their strand of Buddhism is all wrapped up in the natural world,” says Jennifer Peedom, director of the documentary Sherpa, which opens in cinemas next week. “In the natural word, gods inhabit the rivers and the lakes and the mountains and these things are what provide them life. It is about survival. It is hard for foreigners to understand the spiritual nature of what happens up there.”
In the industry that climbing Everest has become, it is the Sherpas who traverse the mountain again and again, heaving all the equipment to establish each higher camp on the way to the final assault on the summit. “There would probably be three Sherpas for every climber,” says Peedom, “to get all this food, oxygen, tents, sleeping bags, heaters, toilets and all the rest of it up the mountain.”
Peedom was compelled to make a film about Sherpas because of what she had seen on past expeditions when she had been working as a high-altitude director for the Discovery Channel. She had earlier made a name on the ABC series Race Around Oz and in directing with David Michôd the film Solo, about Andrew McAuley’s kayak journey from Tasmania to New Zealand.
Sherpa is a different story again. In 2013, there had been a brawl near the summit when a European climber had used the term “motherfucking Sherpa”. The stoic, smiling, deferential, uncomplaining Sherpas started to react.
“I have seen clients literally being babysat,” says Peedom, “They do climb the mountain on their own two feet, but the Sherpas told me that they are changing their oxygen bottles and holding their water bottles to their mouth, putting the oxygen in their mouth, shoving a Mars bar in their mouth. They are clipping and unclipping them from the ropes. The Sherpas do all this and the clients don’t even remember their name. When they write their books and do their public speaking tours, they don’t even mention the Sherpas.”
Peedom has seen plenty of bad behaviour on the mountain. People posing nude in front of it, “which the Sherpas hate because it is defiling the mountain”. Climbers refusing to turn around, even when it is clear they cannot make it. Wanting to get out their flags and sponsors' logos for photos. “You see clients who are essentially rescued and carried off the mountain by Sherpas and then not mentioning that when they write about it … They can see the summit and refuse to turn around, putting their Sherpas lives in danger.”
The most treacherous part of the southern Everest climb is the Khumbu Icefall, an unpredictable glacier that moves at such speed that crevasses open without warning and 12-storey blocks of ice suddenly collapse. It has claimed many of the 260 lives that have been lost on Everest. In May 2012, Brice had listened to frightened Sherpas and pulled an expedition off the mountain because of a 275-metre-wide piece of ice that was hanging tenuously over the main route.
While Western climbers will traverse the icefall twice, on the way up and down, the Sherpas will cross it 20 to 30 times, often carrying 40-kilogram loads. They cross in the night when it is frozen and more stable. As soon as the sun hits it, it becomes impossibly dangerous.
On April 18, 2014, Peedom was in her tent when she heard it. The avalanche. It was 6.30am. It is quite a noisy place, Base Camp, where dozens of small avalanches echo across the rocks and the wind screams. But this one was a “sort of a roar, like the sound that a big jet makes flying past”. First there was “a chink, just the release, then a big 10-second delay. That terrible silence in between while you wait.” And then, “a big roar as it broke into a million pieces”. It had broken from the same bulge that had caused Brice to abandon his expedition in 2012.
It was bad. A 14,000-tonne block of ice had crashed down on the Sherpas. As the day wore on and the bodies were brought down by helicopter, some of the faces not recognisable, it became apparent that this was the worst tragedy that had happened on Everest. Sixteen Sherpas died that day, and the mountain changed forever. Peedom and her crew kept filming. She passed Renan Ozturk, her cinematographer and a noted mountaineer, at Base Camp. “We both had tears in our eyes and I said, ‘Are we doing the right thing, should we just keep going?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, people have to see what we are seeing and have to feel what we are filming.’ ”
Three of the Sherpas' bodies were not able to be recovered. They could not be reincarnated. “Those spirits are wandering,” says Peedom, “and the Sherpas are very scared of that. They have a different relationship to the mountain than we do and they feel that when things like this happen, the gods are expressing anger.”
Joining an expedition costs between $35,000 and $100,000. Brice’s clients pay about $70,000. The Sherpas who risk their lives earn between $2000 and $5000 a season, which is still 10 times the average annual pay in Nepal. The higher they go, the more they are paid.
“There are no other opportunities for Sherpas to make money,” says Phurba Tashi.
On this day, the disparity reached a crescendo. For the Sherpas, this was the culmination of a constant narrative of loss going back decades. The climbers who had paid all this money and spent months preparing wanted to continue the ascent. The Sherpas warned against it. They ended up dying.
Peedom believes it is not just ego that drives a person to want to conquer the highest peak on earth. “Simplistically there are two kinds of people who climb Everest: ego maniacs and dreamers. And, yes, there are captains of industry and super alpha male and alpha female type personalities; but there are also some really sweet people who are just dreamers who have read about Mallory and Everest and are caught up in the romance of the mission.”
Two days after the avalanche, the Sherpas met at Base Camp. They were angry. The Nepalese government makes $260 million a year in tourism. The Sherpas were being offered $400 in compensation for the loss of a life and a provider for a family. They wanted insurance and adequate compensation. They wanted respect. And they were scared.
A government delegation flown into Base Camp urged the Sherpas to continue the season so it wouldn’t look bad for Nepal, but said they were free to make their own decisions. In other words, the government failed to act.
For the Sherpas to walk off would mean forfeiting a year’s income and great hardship through the winter. The climbers would not have their money refunded.
After a chaotic week, the 2014 season was cancelled. The mountain would be left alone. “The Sherpas showed respect for themselves and the mountain ahead of money,” says writer, journalist and amateur climber Ed Douglas. In the film, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, who had been the first person to reach the summit with Edmund Hillary in 1953, says: “My father said that you don’t conquer this mountain, you just crawl up like a child crawling into its mother’s lap. With this approach there would be less accidents.”
The game had shifted, says Peedom. “I think the expedition leaders didn’t think the Sherpas had it in them to have that much power and the Sherpas surprised themselves at how much power they actually had. The Sherpas now realise that they hold the keys to Everest and it can’t be climbed without them. I think that essential truth is going to change a lot of things. They won’t be taken for granted again.”
When the Sherpas had first started scaling Everest, they were not educated. Tenzing Norgay told his children he had climbed Everest so that they wouldn’t have to. Now they knew they had rights.
Peedom, who had started out making a film about Sherpas reaching the summit, found herself telling another story. A story about a strike on the highest peak on earth. But not the story the studio had paid for.
“The next day I remember getting in touch with my producer, and it became clear quite soon that Universal were worried,” says Peedom. “It became clear that they wanted the summit. And it wasn’t clear that we were going to get the summit. So if we weren’t going to get the summit, they had to do a lot of running around in the background to start to rewrite treatments. I wasn’t in a position to be rewriting treatments as I was still making the film. As soon as I got back, Screen Australia were completely supportive. They said, ‘We are completely with you, don’t worry about a thing and if there is anything you need, just ask.’ And so they were amazing. Universal, on the other hand, were concerned. They had paid for one film and they weren’t going to get that film. And so when I got back I had to sort of reconceive the story arc and the structure and convince them that we had a stronger film. In the end, everything was fine, [but] there were a few nervous moments there.”
Peedom had found herself on Mount Everest as an ambitious filmmaker who had a tolerance for high-altitude after working for Discovery Channel. “I was young and crazy, an aspiring documentary-maker taking opportunities. I did a number of seasons in a row. It was great fun. Always on Russell Brice’s expeditions. I went to the north side up to camp four. I have been to 8400 metres, the summit being 440 metres above that.”
She was there in 2006 when more than 40 climbers passed Briton David Sharp who was freezing to death in “Green Boots Cave”. “It was really emotional. It was a particularly gnarly season, lots of deaths,” Peedom says. “I was lighting the stoves and melting snow for water for the climbers who came down. You have short-term memory loss when you spend too much time off oxygen. I never had a desire to climb Everest. I did feel the power and grandeur of it all. That is why so many people are attracted to mountains, they induce modesty if you let them make you feel insignificant.”
Sherpa is magnificent for its aerial shots of the hostile mountain, the snow flying. She had cameras attached to the helicopters that fly to Base Camp. She had Sherpas as cameramen. They were in the icefall when the avalanche fell, but they survived. Their GoPro footage shows the terrifying avalanche in real time. “If we hadn’t have had them on the team,” Peedom says, “we would have had a really hard time covering it.”
Peedom has small children now, so will not risk her life again on the mountain. “Everything is stripped back and very simple and uncomplicated in many ways on the surface. Then when you throw these life-and-death decisions into the mix, it becomes a lot more complicated. One of the reasons people love it so much is that it just has this beautiful calmness about it. But I have kids now. I have no interest in risking myself. So I have drawn a very deliberate line in the sand. The mountains are so vast and so old. I just feel at peace when I go there. And, you know, I do find it a spiritual place.”