With all the media attention lavished on Western mountaineers and guides who fly to Nepal with their eyes on Everest, it can be easy to forget that Sherpas comprise the backbone of commercial expeditions on the mountain. But until recently, few outside the industry have glimpsed the complicated relationship between foreign climbers and Sherpas in the Nepalese Himalaya.
There was the 2013 brawl between Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck’s climbing team and a group of Sherpas at Camp II. The next year, in 2014, an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas and, notably, no foreigners. Both high-profile incidents brought the Westerner–local dynamic to the fore and turned an unprecedented spotlight on the Sherpas.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, with a crew that included two Sherpa cameramen and Camp 4 Collective’s Renan Ozturk, was there to capture the entire 2014 season. By embedding with an expedition led by Russell Brice, one of the most important guides on Everest, the filmmakers witnessed—and chronicled—the commercial-spiritual tug-of-war during one of the mountain’s most tragic, heated, and pivotal years.
The resulting documentary, Sherpa, which is touring U.S. film festivals now, tells the story against a sweeping historical background and with poignant commentary from Sherpas themselves, including Tenzing Norgay’s children, and others in the mountaineering community who understand the complex factors at hand.
We spoke to the 40-year-old Peedom—who climbed 26,906-foot Cho Oyu in 2005 and has been to Camp 4 on Everest while filming—about the 2014 disaster, why the Sherpas trusted her, and how things have changed for the high-altitude workers. (For more background, check out Grayson Schaffer's 2013 feature, "The Disposable Man: A Western History of Sherpas on Everest.")
OUTSIDE: What inspired you to tell the Sherpas’ story?
PEEDOM: I’ve had it in the back of my mind, and when the fight broke out in 2013, I figured, now is as good a time as any. So we went for the 2014 expedition, and the disaster highlighted the risk that the Sherpas were taking in a way that nothing else could.
What were the Sherpas’ reactions to your desire to make this film?
I went on two trips before shooting the film, one to talk with the Sherpas about the film—if they wanted it made and what that would mean, and the importance of giving us access. One of the things they and I really wanted was to have some Sherpa cameramen on our team. So we made a second trip to train two Sherpas how to use the cameras, and they ended up shooting some of the most important material in the film. We also had a Sherpa translator who I worked with really closely, because we wanted to do all the interviews in Nepali.
How did those kinds of efforts affect your access?
After the avalanche, when the protesting was going on, I noticed that word spread very fast that we were the ones making the Sherpa film, and I would have Sherpas pushing people out of the way and trying to make space for me in front of these big crowds to get proper footage—and passing batteries and holding things for me. I felt lucky, and I felt like they wanted their story told.
How do you think Russell Brice views his relationship with the Sherpas? It's complicated, right?
It’s really complicated. Russell doesn’t have children, and for many years of his life he’s spent half his time in Nepal. He has a huge affection for the Sherpas. His immediate Sherpa team is very loyal to him, but I think he sees his responsibility to them as an economic one, and what happened on the mountain last year [the Sherpas’ deciding not to climb after the 2014 avalanche] was a spiritual decision. Russell does a lot for the Sherpas. But I think he’s in a difficult position because so much is changing. The politics in Nepal are changing, and it’s a difficult place to run a business.
At the crux of the film, when Brice was deciding whether to cancel his expedition after the avalanche, he told his clients that rival Sherpas had threatened to break the legs of his own Sherpas if they climbed. But you also show an interview with Phurba Tashi, Brice’s lead Sherpa, where Phurba says no one has threatened him and he hasn't heard of anything like that in Base Camp. What does that say about the pressure Brice was feeling?
I was shocked in that meeting, I have to say. I was running around Base Camp, and I knew the threats were rumors. It’s hard to know if Russell really believed the rumors or not. I think Russell didn’t want to take that risk for his Sherpas. But what our story shows is that our Sherpa team themselves didn’t want to climb. I think they have a tremendous loyalty to Russell and they were scared to tell him that. So there was a little passing of the buck, because it was a difficult thing for expedition leaders to cancel the expedition.
The Sherpas have been working for Western outfitters for more than 60 years, but when this tragedy happened, they blamed their government for their working conditions rather than their employers. Was their anger misplaced?
I don’t think it’s misplaced, but some employers are better than others—Russell is a good one. The industry is so unregulated that there are cowboy operators—many of which are local Nepali operators.* I think some of them need to look at how big the loads are that their Sherpas are carrying. But it’s a broader responsibility, too. Foreign climbers need to ask the difficult questions of their operators to make sure they’re doing the right thing. Because they are asking Sherpas to take many risks on their behalf, and I think they pay the money then don’t really want to know about that, because it’s uncomfortable.
Do you think anything has changed or will change on the mountain?
I think it has. The Sherpas improved the conditions for all. They increased insurance, victims’ compensation increased twelve fold, wages increased, I think they’re putting better limitations on the size of their loads. I think people know they can’t take the Sherpas for granted anymore.
*CLARIFICATION: A portion of the text was clarified by Jennifer Peedom after the piece was published.