Director Jennifer Peedom tells us how the Sherpa team managed when the deadly force of nature reared its head in the midst of filming on Everest. By Caris Bizzaca.
When an avalanche tore through the Mount Everest climbing route in 2014, killing 16 Sherpas, filmmaker Jennifer Peedom suddenly found that the story she had set out to tell on the mountain, like the icefall, was shifting.
The problem was, it wasn’t clear from the thick of the tragedy what that story was.
Before 6.45am on April 18, Peedom was in the midst of documenting the record-breaking ascent of Sherpa leader Phurba Tashi, on his 22nd climb to the summit of Mount Everest. The documentary would also look at the relationship between the foreigners, who pay up to US$100,000 to achieve their dream of climbing to the summit, and the Sherpas – the locals who carry tents, oxygen, food and even plastic flower decorations up the treacherous mountain to establish comfortable camps for clients.
But after 6.45am on April 18, when a 14 million tonne block of ice collapsed onto the first part of the route, everything changed.
“The film was always seeking to explore the disproportionate risks the Sherpas take and this really highlighted that in a way that nothing else could,” she says.
“But at the time we didn’t know what was going on and the scale of the disaster wasn’t immediately apparent.”
The shocking death toll slowly revealed itself, as did the grief and anger of the Sherpas. The expedition to the summit was now up in the air.
“The immediate feeling in the first couple of days was ‘things will settle down, the Sherpas are upset of course, but they’ll go home for a few days, come back and we’ll just continue as normal’,” Peedom says.
Instead, the Sherpas united, demanding better conditions and higher compensation from the government, as well as the closure of Everest to climbers for the 2014 season out of respect for the dead.
In the confusion, some investors were getting anxious. Peedom had pitched an Everest ascent film – a trip that might not even happen. She says the support of Screen Australia investment manager Sally Regan at that time was a relief.
“When the avalanche happened one of the first people who contacted me was Sally Regan from Screen Australia, who absolutely never put any pressure on us. It was ‘how can we support you?’,” she says.
“It was really important, because it’s really unnerving when your investors are getting shaky when you’re still in the middle of trying to make the film… Screen Australia just said ‘we know you’ve got something really special here, just tell us if you need anything’.”
Peedom was now torn. Should they stay with the clients, who were on another part of the mountain acclimatising? Or should they be with the protesting Sherpas?
“In the end we split and I stayed at base camp and had to pick up the camera myself and start documenting the political story,” she says, while her climbing camera crew went with the clients, so they could acclimatise in case the expedition went ahead.
“When you don’t know what the story is and what the ending will be, you kind of just need to shoot everything.”
A data wrangler was on set as the rushes started to come in on various formats, filmed on RED Epics, Sony FS700, GoPro, and even iPhones.
“To film the Sherpa protests, it wasn’t practical to take a camera, so one of the Sherpas went down with his iPhone and shot it,” Peedom says.
“We were strapping GoPros to the skeds of helicopters and we just did whatever we could to make sure we had enough coverage to tell that story properly.”
The vast coverage also meant that when it came time to edit Sherpa, they were faced with 400 hours of footage, many of which needed to be translated, before being meticulously crafted into the 90 minute documentary it is today.
“We needed to re-discover what the story was in many ways, although I had a clear idea of the overarching narrative,” Peedom says.
Since its release, the director says she has found it validating and exciting to see the extent to which the Sherpas have embraced the film.
Norbu Tenzing, the son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (who reached the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953), told Peedom the film is a gift to the Sherpas – not only the local workers but the ethnic group to which the name also refers.
Peedom says part of her agenda was to “shine a light on the part of the story that usually gets left on the cutting room floor”.
That is, the extreme danger the Sherpas put themselves in crossing an area called the Khumbu Icefall up to 30 times a season, carrying loads for westerners, who might walk the same area twice. The Sherpas stand to earn 10 times the national income in Nepal by doing the work (although it is not a lot of money by western standards), but at what cost?
“I guess it’s the moral dilemma of risk versus reward and whether it’s worth the price,” Peedom says.
“Someone talks about the trip through the icefall being a little bit like Russian roulette.”
Last year, another tragedy occurred. The Nepal earthquake triggered an avalanche that swept through Everest Base Camp, killing 22 climbers – around half of them Sherpas.
Going forward, Peedom says there are no easy answers for the Sherpas.
“I just hope (the film) shows them the world respects them and the work that they do and I hope that they continue to agitate for better conditions and safety on the mountain.”
Five facts you didn’t know about Sherpa
Part of being able to film in the Himalayas comes down to genetics. Peedom says certain bodies are just more genetically predisposed to be able to cope at high altitudes. It meant hiring crew with proven experience in high altitudes, so they knew their bodies could handle the shoot and would not be a liability to Sherpas.
Sherpa required more camera operators than you would usually have on a documentary, because the action taking place – between the clients, expedition companies, Sherpas, base camps and villages – was spread out over such large distance. In addition to three cinematographers, Jennifer Peedom ended up shooting herself and two Sherpas were trained to be camera operators as well.
Sherpa has been 10 years in the making. In 2004, Jennifer Peedom directed a half-hour Dateline documentary The Sherpa’s Burden for SBS and it left a lasting impression. She did three more expeditions with the same Sherpa team for other documentaries, building the relationships that would eventually lead to the feature film, Sherpa.
Although the central character Sherpa Phurba Tashi speaks English, Peedom realised he really “came to life” when speaking in his native tongue and decided to interview him and all the other Sherpas in Nepali or Sherpa, unless they spoke English very well and easily.
The translator, Nima Sherpa, became an essential and integral part of the crew. Peedom says he became like an advisor in many ways and was her right-hand man. Nima lives in Sydney, but still had many relationships in the Sherpa community, being Sherpa himself with his own connection to Everest. His grandfather was killed on the mountain, which is known by locals as Chomolungma or ‘Mother Goddess of Earth’.