Two film crews were in Everest Base Camp in April 2014, when an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall killed 16 Sherpas. One of those teams has now produced the most important film about Everest in recent memory, and it doesn’t star Jake Gyllenhaal. Sherpa, which airs April 23 on Discovery, captures a defining moment: the point at which Sherpas began to wrest control of Everest from Western guides.
This was not the intent. The director, Australian Jennifer Peedom, set out to make an adrenalized ethnography of mountain workers centered on Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who was preparing to summit Everest for a record 22nd time. His employer, Russell Brice, the influential owner of Himalayan Experience, allowed Peedom to embed for the season. “How can I explain Phurba Tashi?” an emotive Brice asks at the film’s outset. “He’s such a special person.” For his part, the sirdar says, matter-of-factly, “If it wasn’t for Russell, I wouldn’t have a job.”
But 14,000 tons of falling ice have a way of shifting the narrative. In Sherpa, Peedom and cinematographer Renan Ozturk—who helped shoot the acclaimed documentary Meru—wisely let the cameras roll as helicopters long-line out the corpses. Base Camp soon devolves into a tumultuous labor-rights forum, with Sherpas demanding more money and an end to the season and clients to continue. One climber, who must have trained in Donald Trump’s war room, nearly spits when calling the striking workers “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, Brice pivots from worker advocate to businessman, a move that doesn’t play well. In a particularly regrettable moment, he exclaims, “These people are totally irrational. They don’t care. Next month they’ll be at home with nothing to eat.” Still, Peedom manages some empathy for Brice; the man is in a tough spot, and though his affection for his staff is uncomfortably parochial, it’s heartfelt.
Sherpa is hardly flawless. The film’s stirring conclusion seems to suggest that Phurba Tashi renounced climbing for a life of farming. In fact, he managed Brice’s 2015 expedition from Base Camp, before a huge earthquake killed thousands in Nepal and 22 in Base Camp.
Still, Sherpa comes at an important time in Everest’s history. One moment stands out: Brice at the head of a table, trying to hold on to his hard-won empire. “These guys have spoiled your reputation,” he says to his Sherpa staff, talking about the workers who refused to climb. “Before, it was always friendly, smiling Sherpa, always helping.”
The silence that meets him is deafening.