Monday, September 21, 2015

TIFF 2015: Sherpa

Sherpa is an excellent documentary about the avalanche on Everest that killed 16 Sherpas and threw the year's climbing season into question. And the film is mainly about which of those two consequences matters more.

With gorgeous cinematography, the film introduces us to the Sherpa community that serves the expedition companies bringing Western climbers to conquer the mountain. The locals revere the mountain and question whether the foreign visitors respect either it or them. For many years the Sherpas have done the vast majority of the back-breaking and life-threatening labour needed to support an expedition: carrying loads of equipment and supplies to Base Camp and the successive camps up the mountain that support a summit attempt, fixing the ropes and ladders that climbers depend on to reduce the risk to their lives, and providing more creature comforts to those in Base Camp than one might expect. Reaching the summit of Everest is certainly very difficult, and carries substantial risk, but what the Sherpas do is an order of magnitude more difficult and dangerous. Despite this, the Sherpas have been taken for granted and poorly paid, while the foreign expedition companies and the Nepalese government collect the lion's share of the huge fees paid to climb. Over time the Sherpas have become more and more uncomfortable about this.

In 2013 there was a violent disagreement between Sherpas and western climbers that brought some of this long-term resentment to the surface.

The most dangerous part of an Everest climb is the traversal of the Khumbu Icefall. This section of unstable ice is really an ice waterfall that slowly flows down the mountain, and can give way at any time. The path across it is made up of ladders set up by the Sherpas. It is so unstable that crossing is normally done at night, when the cooler temperatures make the ice less dodgy.

On April 18, 2014 an avalanche near Base Camp killed 16 Sherpas. In the aftermath there was some disagreement between the locals and the foreigners about how best to rescue survivors and recover bodies, and whether or not to continue with the climbing season. In the end all expeditions were cancelled, allowing the Sherpas to respect their fallen friends and relatives, and allowing the mountain to rest and recover. Some of the Western climbers were not very understanding of this decision, and were misled by the expedition leader into thinking a small group of Sherpas were militant trouble-makers, threatening others into not working. The reality was that the Sherpas as a group did not want to climb any more that year, out of both respect for the dead and the mountain, and fear for their own safety.

Climbing on Everest has become a complete shit show, with too many climbers trying to summit each year, some of them less than properly qualified. This results in traffic jams going up to the summit, and bad decisions to continue on beyond the point where it becomes dangerous to do so leading to more deaths. The foreign expedition companies and the Nepalese government seem to care more about the money they collect than the well-being of the Sherpas. While the conflict in 2014 has led to some improvements (better pay and benefits for the Sherpas and the families of those who die on the mountain), the basic equation has not changed enough. The Nepalese government needs to tighten the rules around climbing, to greatly reduce the number of attempts allowed, require some reasonable qualifications from those who attempt to summit, and do more to reduce the risks for those who do the lion's share of the work.

OK, I went off on a bit of a rant there. This is a very good and important film about an issue I care about. I hope it promotes better understanding of the harm that an out of control climbing industry on Everest is doing to the mountain and the people who live there.

TIFF Overview

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