By John Heniff
Columbia, Mo. — The human body was not designed to climb Mount Everest.
Danger comes from above in the form of avalanches and falling ice. Injury or death can come from below, too, as one wrong step can lead to a treacherous fall off the mountain. The probability of succumbing to high-altitude cerebral edema rises with every step upwards, and hurricane-force winds and below-freezing temperatures reign. Nonetheless, foreign tourists pay substantial amounts to climb the world’s highest mountain, contributing to Nepal’s annual tourism revenue of around $360 million.
Directed by Jennifer Peedom, Sherpa tells the story of the Nepalese Sherpas who guide climbers up and down this treacherous mountain numerous times every climbing season. In the opening scenes of the documentary, which was shown at the True/False Film Festival Saturday, we are introduced to Phurba Tashi Sherpa. He is a veteran guide who is preparing to climb Everest for the 22nd time, a world record if he accomplishes it. His wife, children and parents disapprove of his dangerous line of work, but ultimately he sets off for base camp. Phurba’s life is mirrored by many of his fellow countrymen trying to provide for their families the best way they can.
The cinematography in this film is so crisp and awe-inducing, you grip the edge of your seat to make sure you won’t fall into the icy abyss. Sprawling landscapes of the mountain are coupled with footage from the Sherpas themselves climbing over chasms with rope-tethered ladders.
But what’s strikingly clear about Sherpa is an obvious difference in why each group is climbing. The Sherpas climb to support their families the most profitable way they can while paying respect for the mountain they call “Chomolungma” (Mother Goddess of the World). The Sherpas are deeply spiritual people (Phurba is seen numerous times in the film bowing in prayer as well as running his hand across a line of prayer wheels near his home). To them, “Chomolungma” is a sacred place.
In contrast, the foreign mountain climbers appear more narcissistic. With their brand-new equipment and clothing, the climbers seem to want to scale Everest simply to put a notch in their belts. Sherpas are shown carrying packs of supplies on their backs the size of a common household refrigerator, while foreigners create a bit of paradise in peril as their tents at base camp are furnished with flat-screen televisions and bookshelves that haven’t an inch of space to spare.
On April 23, Discovery Channel will broadcast Sherpa in its entirety around the world. Quite simply, this documentary is worth clearing your schedule a month-and-a-half in advance in anticipation. Pure, touching and eye opening, Sherpa is strongly recommended.