Cinema is full of representations of the landscape that inspire terror. The land is a scary place—it is to be feared or conquered. Mount Everest is that most perilous and conquerable landform, inspiring its own canon of mountaineering films. Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa is the most recent of that canon: it is a climbing film, an Australian film and a documentary about the deadliest day in Everest’s history.
Sherpa is not the film Peedom set out to make. In 2014, Peedom initially followed Phurba Tashi, adventure travel company Himalayan Experience’s main climbing Sirdar (head Sherpa), who was approaching the peak for his twenty-second time, attempting to break a world record in the process. His ascent was marred by a colossal avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall—a passage of slow-moving, broken-up glaciers that Sherpa had forewarned their employers about for a long time. Sixteen Sherpa were crushed. The remaining Sherpa were done: they went on strike, demanding better conditions and pay, and asking for the climbing season to be temporarily suspended in honour of the dead.
Peedom’s focus is not on the mountain but on the people doing the invisible groundwork for Western tourists, who pay up to $75,000 for the privilege to climb it. Their cultural ignorance is striking: it is of little consequence to them that the Nepalese Sherpa are an indigenous ethnic minority who migrated from the eastern Tibetan province of Kham in the 1500s. The Khumbu Sherpa worship Chomolungma—what Westerners renamed Everest—as their mother god. They follow a goddess-based religion, whose images and maternalistic-environmental values are shared by almost every pre-historic society from Oceania, Eurasia, America and Africa. It seems the greatest tragedy of the mountaineering industry is not material but spiritual. Since the establishment of tourism in the early fifties, the Sherpa have been compelled to step on their ‘Goddess Mother of the Universe’. “You must respect her as a sanctity,” Pem Pem Tshering—daughter of the first Sherpa to scale the mountain (ahead of Sir Edmund Hillary)—tells us in Peedom’s film.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #30. Get your copy now.
Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and artist, published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, The Guardian Australia and others. She researches cinema at UNSW as part of her PhD, is a contributing editor to Metro, and the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (Platform Papers, 2013).