‘Sherpa’ takes unique look at Everest excursions
People familiar with mountaineering, especially the excursions at Mount Everest, know exactly who Sherpas are.
Sherpas are members of a Himalayan community who live on the borders of Nepal and Tibet, renowned for their skill in mountaineering.
They are the guides of excursions up and down the mountain. They are the ones who set up the camps and they are the ones who are paid little for their big jobs.
“Sherpas have been perceived as happy, smiling and incredibly strong people who did all the grunt work on these excursions,” said Katharine Wang, executive director of the Park City Film Series. “That’s pretty much all we knew about these people.”
The perception changed in 2013, when a Sherpa and a client got into an altercation.
“Fists were thrown and people were shocked,” Wang said.
One of those people was Australian-based filmmaker Jennifer Peedom.
After the 2013 incident — which actually included a brawl and a group of European climbers fleeing from an angry Sherpa mob — Peedom decided to make a documentary that focused on the Sherpa.
The Park City Film Series will present a free screening of that film, titled “Sherpa,” at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium on Saturday, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.
The documentary was originally going to be about one Sherpa, Phurba Tashi, who was gearing up to make his record-breaking 22nd ascent to Mount Everest’s summit.
“The story is also very compelling because it’s a different take on Everest and the expeditions that have gone up there,” Wang said. “Most of the films are about the foreigners, the ones from the West who spend tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain. This one is about the Sherpa.”
The documentary’s focus shifted after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa.
“The avalanche happened in the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous and least predictable areas of the route,” Wang said. “At that moment, Sherpas said they weren’t going to go any further. It was too risky.”
The film then became a documentary about the Sherpa community, which took control of the situation and shut down the season for the first time since 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit.
“The film opened up the discussion about when is the risk too much,” Wang said. “Sure the clients take on certain risks, but Sherpas are taking on a greater risk by repeatedly going up the mountain, through the Icefall and setting up camps that makes it possible for the clients to go on these excursions.”
Part of the reason Sherpas do what they do is because they love the mountain.
“Another part is because they can spend a season on the mountain and earn enough money to feed their families for the rest of the year,” Wang said. “But out of those tens of thousands of dollars, they only get a fraction in compensation.”
The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, and that’s where Wang saw it.
“The filmmakers did some wonderful interviews with the Sherpas and some of the expedition owners, including Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, the company that Phurba Tashi works for,” she said. “The lead cinematographer, Renan Ozturk, worked on ‘Maru,’ which won the audience award at Sundance. So, the quality of the film is outstanding.”
There are two reasons why Wang wanted to screen “Sherpa.”
“For the past couple of years, we’ve wanted to do something around the Tour of Utah and show something that celebrates the Tour’s spirit of adventure and sport,” she said. “We have screened ‘Slaying the Badger,’ and this year we have the opportunity to bring this incredible film to the community.
“We feel this is an important film for people to see and we hope people will come see it,” Wang said. “Living in Park City, we feel a kinship with mountain communities.”
The second reason is to raise money to help rebuild Nepal after the 2015 earthquake leveled the country and left more than 7,000 dead.
“The screening is free, but we’re asking, if attendees are so moved, for donations for two nonprofit organizations the filmmakers have identified as doing great work in Nepal after the 2014 avalanche and the 2015 earthquake,” Wang said. “I have a friend who visited Nepal and said things are slow to rebuild because there isn’t enough funding and people are suffering.”
Those organizations are the DZI Foundation, which works with remote communities in Nepal to improve these areas’ quality of life, and the Juniper Fund, which provides assistance to individuals, families and communities in underserved countries adversely impacted by their work for the mountain-based adventure industry.
“They are currently the two organizations that are identified by the people who live in Nepal as the ones who really know the community and is having the most impact in the rebuilding of Nepal,” Wang said. “Shutting down the Everest season was a huge economic loss, and then the devastation and loss of the earthquake made things worse.”
The Park City Film Series will present a free screening of Jennifer Peedom’s “Sherpa,” not rated, at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave., on Saturday, Aug. 6, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityfilmseries.com.
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