Jennifer Peedom's film Sherpa in contention for Oscars after playing Toronto and Telluride
When it comes to climbing Everest, Sherpas have always been second-class citizens.
Ever since 1953 when Tenzing Norgay escorted Sir Edmund Hillary on the first trek to the top of the mountain, the Sherpa's role has been seen as subservient to the typical Westerner's quest to "conquer the mountain."
That reality is the backdrop to Jennifer Peedom's impressive new documentary Sherpa, which explores the indispensable role Sherpas play in getting others to the top of Everest -- and the high price they have paid for taking on that risk.
The documentary plays at the Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival this weekend, having previously screened at Telluride, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Banff Mountain Festival.
At a screening in Los Angeles hosted by the International Documentary Association, Peedom said for every person who pays to summit Everest, there are a half dozen Sherpa guides who help them make it to the top -- transporting oxygen tanks and other heavy equipment from camp to camp, preparing food, setting up tents, etc.
"When you climb Everest, let’s not kid ourselves, you’re receiving a lot of support," Peedom said.
Yet plenty of people do kid themselves about that, minimizing or eliminating the role of the Sherpa in their adventure. Said Peedom, "It doesn't really suit [their] hero narrative."
During each climbing season Sherpas may tote equipment across the most dangerous sections of the mountain well over a dozen times, while clients go up and down once.
"For certain people — these A type personalities — when they go to climb Everest they are singly determined. They just want to reach the summit. They’re aware that it’s a kind of compromising for the Sherpas but they just can’t really get that in their head. They just want to achieve that goal," Peedom said. "That’s okay, but maybe it’s not okay."
In 2014 while shooting her film, tragedy struck, revealing just how dangerous it was for the Sherpas climbing Everest.
On the morning of April 18, a 14-million ton block of ice broke free in the Khumbu Icefall, killing more than a dozen Sherpas.
"I heard the avalanche [from base camp]," Peedom said. "There was nothing on the radio for about a minute. And then the radio started to go crazy."
The reports were grim from the start. In the end death toll would reach 16 -- all of them Sherpas in the employ of expedition companies.
"We spent a lot of time crying, actually," Peedom said of that dark day. "There were moments when I did stop filming. I just didn't feel right. I was too close. I was at the helipad and when the bodies started coming down it wasn't appropriate for me to keep filming, so I didn't."
The avalanche brought the interests of climbers and Sherpas into sharp conflict -- many climbers wanted to keep going up the mountain despite the tragedy, while most Sherpas were at best uneasy about continuing.
The conflict broke into open revolt after some Sherpas demanded the climbing season be cancelled altogether. That prompted one American climber interviewed in the film -- who had paid handsomely for the opportunity to ascend Everest -- to brand the militant Sherpas "terrorists."
Canceling the season would cost the paying clients a shot at glory, but it would deprive Sherpas of their primary source of income for the year. But for Sherpas the decision to climb has always been fraught with conflict, a difficult choice between the need to feed their families and the demands of their faith, in which Everest is considered sacred.
"I spoke to some of the spiritual leaders," Peedom noted. "They see it as an irresponsibility that you’re putting your body -- this body that you’ve been reincarnated into — it’s irresponsible to deliberately put it in harm’s way."
Phurba Tashi, one of the main characters in the film, shares the record for summiting Everest 21 times. He narrowly averted death in the avalanche.
"He was so moved and so disturbed by the fact that three of the bodies got left in the icefall that those souls would still be wandering," Peedom said. "That was his motivation for stopping [climbing] because your responsibility as a Buddhist is to reincarnate. You shouldn’t put your body in harm’s way."
Peedom's film will screen in the region of Nepal that is home to many Sherpas.
"It seems that the Sherpas are very proud of this film that they’re getting recognition finally," she said, adding it was "hugely emotional" for them.
While the film doesn't open in the US until February 2016, it is in contention now for Oscar consideration. The film recently qualified for Best Documentary Feature, along with 123 other ftitles. That number will be whittled down to a shortlist of 15 by early December.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.