Earlier in 2015, the visually arresting Everest restaged a 1996 mountaineering disaster seen largely through the eyes of the tourist climbers and adventure consultants for whom the world’s highest peak is both a personal challenge and an increasingly overcrowded business opportunity. In stark contrast to such star-studded spectacle, Jennifer Peedom’s gripping documentary turns to the Sherpa climbers who take the biggest risks but reap the most meagre rewards from Nepal’s booming mountaineering trade.
Having originally planned to document the frosty relationship between guides and tourists in the wake of a 2013 mountainside brawl, Peedom and her team found themselves embedded in the sociopolitical aftermath of a 2014 avalanche that left 16 Sherpas dead. United by tragedy, the indigenous workers came together in solidarity (which the tourists appallingly brand as “bullying”, even “terrorism”), bringing the climbing season to a halt.
Contrasting the smilingly submissive stereotype that flourished in the wake of Tenzing Norgay’s historic climb in 1953 with the newfound militancy of those who work in “the most dangerous service industry in the world”, Peedom focuses on Sherpa leader Phurba Tashi, who is on the brink of becoming the first person to reach the summit of Everest 22 times, but whose own view of his profession changes as events take their inexorable course.
For all its awe-inspiring scenery, this is a story of exploited labour’s struggle for power, of workers taking control of their workplace. That such a move should be greeted with slurs by those accustomed to being served is par for the course, but claims that any disruption is down to an alleged militant minority ring hollow in the face of hard economic fact.