Last fall, Universal Pictures released two movies within two weeks of each other that take place on the world’s tallest mountain. The first was Everest, an overblown, big-budget Hollywood take on the infamous May 1996 blizzard that cost eight lives. The second was Sherpa, a documentary sharply directed by Jennifer Peedom about Nepal’s Sherpa people, focusing on the men who risk their lives to get Westerners to the top of Everest and other Himalayan summits such as K2. The latter film—which makes its TV debut on April 23 on Discovery Channel just as climbers start their spring ascent of Everest—was produced for a fraction of the former’s cost, but it feels like the bigger movie.
Sherpa zeroes in on the avalanche that struck the mountain in April 2014 and killed 16 Sherpas. After the tragedy, many of the Nepalese at base camp (understandably) refused to keep working. This created a schism between the Sherpas and their Western clients, many of whom were paying upwards of $50,000 to be guided to the top. One American was so angry, he invoked Sept. 11 and compared the Sherpas to terrorists.
While this narrative forms the doc’s backbone, the film also delves into the personal lives of the men in this dangerous occupation. The central figure in this story arc is guide Phurba Tashi. Although he’s summited Everest 21 times, his family continues to object to his occupation out of concern for his health and safety—Tashi’s brother-in-law died on the mountain in 2013—and accuses him of tempting fate. His mother says, “I don’t like him going up there so many times. It is shameful to God.” In the movie, Tashi is preparing for his world-record 22nd summit, prompting his wife to remark, “Phurba loves the mountain more than he loves his family.”
It’s not just love of Everest that’s at work. Nepal is a desperately poor country, and guiding offers good wages. Many men do it to support their families, knowing it could leave their children fatherless. Their reality is in sharp contrast to that of the Western climbers, whose cushy base camp is furnished with comfortable tents, elaborate meals, and flatscreen TVs. As New Zealand mountaineer Russell Brice, a central character and longtime Everest guide, says: “If you want to get everyone on the summit, you need much more creature comfort. Certainly the type of person that comes on expeditions has changed considerably.”
Climbers like to say the mountain decides whether you get to climb it. In 2014 that decision came in the form of the avalanche. In 2015 the earthquake that killed 8,000 people in Nepal, including 24 on the mountain, again ended the climbing season. As festival director of Telluride Mountainfilm, a documentary film festival that climbers founded in 1979 (which Discovery sponsors), I’ve seen dozens of films about the world’s tallest mountain and its determinative powers. The conflict between Sherpas, who’ve grown considerably less subservient, and their clients is one of several that makes Sherpa among the best to come along in years. But the big tension point, of course, is that between man (and woman) and mountain. Let’s cross our fingers that this year the mountain rules in our favor.