The upcoming big-budget movie “Everest” is a spectacular look at an ill-fated expedition to climb Mount Everest, but it’s only part of the story. Another key part is on display at the Toronto International Film Festival this week in the documentary “Sherpa,” which turns the spotlight on the Nepalese workers who make it possible for rich Western climbers to get to the top of the world’s highest peak.
“Everest” features Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke as real-life mountaineering guides who led expeditions up the mountain, with Josh Brolin playing one of the amateur climbers who faced one of Everest’s deadliest days in 1996. But “Sherpa” tells the story of an even deadlier day, when a 2014 avalanche killed 16 of the men who prepare the way for the climbers, ferrying supplies up and down the mountain to make things easier for the Westerners who’ll go home and brag about how they battled the world’s tallest peak.
Sherpas are natives of eastern Nepal who have genetically adapted to working in high altitudes; they are indispensable to every Everest expedition, though prior to the 2014 avalanche they were often underpaid and overworked, and didn’t receive the credit they deserved. (The most famous Sherpa was Tenzing Norgay, who accompanied Edmund Hillary on the first ascent of Everest in 1953, and may have been the first man atop the mountain.)
Director Jennifer Peedom decided to make a movie about the Sherpas after a 2012 incident in which several of them got in a physical brawl with climbers they said insulted them. But when the avalanche hit and the government — which makes millions of dollars every year on Everest tourism — offered the families of the dead only $400 each, their anger boiled over and many Sherpas demanded that climbing be cancelled for the rest of the season.
Faced with the prospect of making a mountain-climbing movie that couldn’t climb the mountain, Peedom “was desperately running around base camp filming anything and everything,” said producer Bridgit Ikin at a post-screening Q&A on Tuesday.
Peedom captured some charged meetings between the Sherpas and the expedition leaders, between the leaders and clients who’d paid up to $75,000 (nonrefundable) to make the climb, and between Sherpas and family members who’d prefer they stayed off the mountain.
The movie goes from man against the elements to class struggle, from one time-honored story to another. And the beautifully shot “Sherpa” makes both parts of the story work. The political infighting isn’t as spectacular as the climbing sequences, but it’s enlightening and a little chilling to see how casually even the best expedition guides dismiss their workers’ concerns.
And when one American climber compares the reluctant Sherpas to terrorists after asking, “Why can’t their owners get them in line?” it’s a potent reminder that man vs. mountain is hardly the only battle that plays out on the slopes of Everest.