(M) Directed by Jennifer Peedom
Starring Sherpas, climbers

by Mark Hadley

Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma, the visual essence of peace and the site of stirring human endeavor – and also the location of a life-threatening brawl at the top of the world.

For almost a century the world’s highest mountain has attracted Westerners bent on conquering its heights and themselves. Yet a new documentary shows that in all that time they have been standing on the shoulders of the Sherpas who guided them. Now, in an age of increasing commercialisation, those that benefit are increasingly prepared to trade their guides’ lives for their mountain-top experience.

The documentary Sherpa is an eye-opener, make no mistake. It is certainly one of the most visually stunning documentaries I have seen in three decades of working in that industry. Renan Ozturk, the film’s high-altitude cinematographer used an incredible combination of time-lapse photography and extreme close-ups to capture the scale of the Everest’s beauty and threat. However it is the human story that will stay with you the longest.

Sherpa introduces audiences to the Nepalese natives that have been assisting westerners to fulfil their Himalayan dreams since Tenzing Norgay helped Sir Edmund Hillary become the first European to summit the mountain. During it we learn that ‘Sherpa’ is not actually a job description but a people group who hold deeply humble religious convictions about the mountain. One of the film’s key characters is Phurba Tashi, a Sherpa who has summited Everest an incredible 21 times. Centuries of living on the knees of such a god-like peak has given them a quiet reverence that contrasts strongly with the brash self-confidence of the visiting climbers. Phurba’s mother can’t help but reflect negatively on her son’s decision as he joins countless western expeditions each year:

“It is shameful to god – he should be scared of god.”

The year is 2014 and if Phurba climbs Everest one more time he will hold the record for the most ascents in human history. But it soon becomes clear that the Nepalese father is not motivated by any western sense of individual glory. Each year the climbing expeditions come to Everest offering to the impoverished Sherpas as much as a year’s wages to climb the deadly Khumbu Icefall and other dangerous routes, transporting chairs, heaters and shelters for the pampered Westerners. The Sherpas will scale the shifting ice up to 30 times; the climbers will make the journey only two or three times. Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Edmund Hillary’s guide, describes the vast distance between the Sherpas’ experience and the adventure seekers who force them into the death zone:

“Western people approach it as a physical challenge to see how close they can get to death. What is the moral justification for that? What is the purpose for playing what is essentially a game of Russian roulette?”

What justification indeed, especially when the gun is pointed at other people? Sherpa introduces you to clients who’ve paid as much as $100,000 AUD for their ‘achievement of a lifetime’. Their reasons for climbing range from physical thrills to spiritual enlightenment, but it all sounds a bit silly when that achievement comes at the cost of someone else’s life. When an avalanche hits the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas and injuring another nine the immorality of their position comes into sharp focus.

This is individualism at its worst – a philosophy that only extends care and respect to others as long as their needs and beliefs don’t come into conflict with the individual’s fulfillment. It also happens to be the bedrock of Australian society, where we are constantly encouraged to ‘be all we can be’. Yet Jesus never saw greatness as something to be gained by climbing over the backs of the many. When his disciples pushed their agendas for personal fulfilment, he responded by teaching them the up-is-down philosophy of the Kingdom of Heaven:

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 1

It is a strange world we live in when a Christian viewer, living in a culture that has benefited so strongly from Jesus’ teachings, can find himself having more in common with Phurba the Buddhist. But he at least understands that subduing our goals for the sake of others is a more sure path. His decision to forget his world record for the sake of those who love him, and raise cattle instead:

“If I go to the mountain and my family isn’t happy, then there is no benefit in earning that money. I would rather not hold the record and live with a healthy body and a happy family. So I will stop climbing now.”

1 Mark 9:35, NIV

This article was originally published by Eternity newspaper. Click here for more Eternity culture articles.