The Sherpa struggle for rights and dignity on Everest

April 15, 2016

Sherpa — Trouble on Everest
Directed by Jennifer Peedom & Renan Ozturk

The Sherpa are a Nepalese ethnic minority who have a reverent regard for the world's highest mountain, Chomolungma — known in English as Everest.

Documentary makers Jennifer Peedom and Renan Ozturk were drawn to the story of the increasingly commercialised tour industry, taking well-heeled foreigners to the mountain top. In particular, their attention was caught by a violent incident during the 2013 “climbing season” — the eight-week window in which it is safe to climb.

Near the mountain top, three tourists became angry with one of the Sherpa who risk their lives shepherding the foreigners. One of the foreigners called the Sherpa a “motherfucker”, a violation of the mountain's sanctity.

The Sherpa guides gave the tourists a hard lesson in respect — with the Sherpa's physical assault on the three making headlines around the world. As Nepal's GDP is heavily dependent on the climbing industry, it had national implications.

Peedom and Ozturk planned to highlight veteran Sherpa expedition organiser, Phurba Tashi Sherpa and his employer, Russell Brice.

Phurba was on his way to his 22nd climb to the summit, a world record. Brice, who sees himself as a liberal-minded entrepreneur, is totally dependent on Phurba's expertise for his business success.

But all was to change on April 18, 2014 when a 14 million ton block of ice crashed down and killed 16 Sherpa. Suddenly capitalist profits overwhelmed liberalism and, amid unctuous words spoken about the dead, the push was on to save the climbing season.

How could so many Sherpa have been at risk? To maintain the foreign tourists in their luxurious cocoon, the Sherpa make multiple journeys across the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, toiling to transport all the essential supplies.

Peedom and Ozturk found themselves filming in the middle of the Sherpa self-organisation as they discussed cancelling the climbing season. The Sherpa assertion of their dignity forced a government policy change.

Also filmed are the foreign climbers' responses, revealing attitudes of privilege and entitlement. There was little recognition that their “climbing experience” is dependent on the Sherpa's arduous labour. One tourist shamelessly refers to the capitalist tour operators as the Sherpa's “owners”.

This is a gripping story and illustrates why such dry technical terms such as “combined and unequal development” and “imperialism” are actually matters of life and death. The “trouble on Everest” is really trouble all over the world.

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