Sherpa is the fascinating story of an inspiring labour dispute, set against the breathtaking scenery of the world’s highest mountain.
Film-maker Jennifer Peedom and her team were on Everest in 2014 to document the climbing season from the point of view of the Sherpas — a term used interchangeably for a Nepalese ethnic group and for all those employed to assist Western climbers.
The film crew were on the mountain when a 14,000-ton block of ice fell on the climbing route, creating an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas. This brought into sharp focus the disproportionate risks that Sherpas take for very little reward.
Climbing Everest has become a multimillion dollar industry. At the time of the documentary there were 38 tour companies running expeditions up Everest, as well as a man in a winged suit accompanied by his obligatory media team.
For the expeditions’ clients, climbing Everest is the realisation of a dream. But for the Sherpas it is naked economic compulsion.
As Everest has become more of a leisure industry destination, the tour groups have come to expect more luxury — including base camps with flat screen TVs, rugs and recliner chairs.
It is the Sherpas who bear the brunt of this — literally. We see Sherpas — men and women — hauling huge packs up to the camps, while the “climbers” trek up with their little day sacks. The Sherpas service the Westerners — putting up their tents, cooking their food, making their morning tea.
It is not just heavy work — it is perilous. While the expedition climbers may cross the most treacherous part of Everest a couple of times, the Sherpas will have to cross it 30 or 40 times to set up the camps, usually in the dark. They are being paid to gamble with their lives.
After the devastation of the avalanche the Sherpas at base camp hold a mass meeting where they decide to boycott the rest of the climbing season. They want to honour the dead and they want more respect, better conditions and more compensation for the bereaved families.
The government has reaped huge sums from the growing tourist industry, but offers a meagre $400 to the bereaved families — not even enough for a funeral.
The strikers demolish the stereotype of Sherpas as smiling deferential servants.
Western climbers initially express shock and sympathy at the deaths, but when the Sherpas take action they are denounced by some as trouble makers and terrorists. One America climber even compares their decision to boycott the mountain with the attacks of 9/11.
This is an engrossing tale, with fantastic cinematography and a gripping human drama. It is a lesson in how it is possible to organise even in the most extreme of conditions.