Sherpas: Whitewashed out of history

The climbing season was opened this year, 2016, on Mount Everest with the summiting of nine Sherpas. The Sherpas do not need assists because who would play sherpa to the Sherpas? Last year, the 2015 season was closed  after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on April 25.  Three days later, the Nepal Mountaineering Association reported 19 deaths, 10 of those were Nepalese Sherpa. Phurba Tashi, the main focus of the 2015 documentary, “Sherpa,” was not part of an expedition. That might have saved his life.

You probably haven’t heard of Phurba Tashi. He has summited Everest 21 times. In 2006, he carried double-amputee Mark Inglis down part of the descent on his back as shown on the first season of the Discovery Channel series. If there is any group of Asians who have been whitewashed out of history, it is the Sherpas. The first white person to summit was Edmund Hillary in 1953 with the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

Time magazine named Hillary one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. The expedition had 362 porters and twenty Sherpa guides. Hillary was knighted by a young Queen Elizabeth II; Tenzing was ineligible for a knighthood but received a George Medal. The late Hillary was horrified at the kind of circus Everest has become, saying in the wake of fellow Brit David Sharp’s 2006 death on Everest, “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by.” The Sharp controversy isn’t mentioned in the Sherpa documentary, but the different reception that Hillary and Norgay received is.  Hillary died in 2008.

“Miracle on Everest”

The dying Sharp was passed by the Inglis party. Days later, four climbers gave up their summit attempt in order to save Australian Lincoln Hall. Ten Sherpas went up to carry Hall down. Hall died in 2012, not from a climbing accident, but from cancer caused by childhood exposure to asbestos. Hall’s story was retold in the 2008 “Miracle on Everest.” You’ll see interviews with Hall and the expedition leader Dan Mazur who found and saved him, but you won’t hear interviews from the three Sherpas who summited Everest with him and who tried to help him down, but left him when he became maddened by brain edema. Nor will you hear from the 12 Sherpas who went to save him (some say 12, some say 13). Only Dawa Sherpa appears as himself.  Pember Sherpa and Jangbu Sherpa are played by actors in the re-enactments while Dorie Sherpa and Lakcha Sherpa were played by Jehan and Sonam Sherpa respectively. In the documentary “Miracle on Everest” when the documentary talks about Pemba, we hear not from Pemba but from Hall. When the Hall becomes delusional, we hear from Hall and not the Sherpas.

We hear from Hall’s wife before Hall recalls how he tried to whiz down the ropes out of control. Pemba Sherpa was injured by Hall’s crampons. We  never hear from the “badly hurt” Pemba or see his scars. Pemba Sherpa died in 2015 on Annapurna, Nepal with the Finn Samuli Mansikka, falling to their deaths during a descent. Pemba Sherpa’s side of the story is now lost.

Dan Mazur was with his two paying clients, Myles Osborne and Andrew Brash, and Jangbu Sherpa. We hear from Mazur and Osborne, but not from Jangbu or the leader of the Sherpa crew who went up to save Hall. Again, the Sherpas are whitewashed out of both the decision to leave Hall and the actual rescue of Hall. Hall summited, but required the aid of three Sherpas to get to the top and over a dozen Sherpa to get him down. Sharp, in contrast, had his camp maintained by the Sherpas but went up without a radio or a Sherpa.

“Mountain Without Mercy: The Everest Story”

This whitewashing is the same treatment given the 1996 Everest tragedy in “Mountain Without Mercy: The Everest Story” on ABC’s “Turning Point.” During that climbing season eight people died during a blizzard (May 10-11), including two expeditions leaders Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness died. The white people are interviewed (Ron Hall’s wife Dr. Jan Arnold, Charlotte Fox, Beck Weathers, his wife Peach Weathers, Jon Krakauer, Sandy Pittman, documentary director David Breashears, Mountain Madness guide Neal Beidleman, Tim Madsen, Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev, Alpine Ascents Guide Todd Burleson, Pete Athans), and the locals are not except for a brief clip on the helicopter pilot. The Sherpas who were part of Rob Hall’s last rescue team who decided to turn back were not interviewed.

The 1996 tragedy was the first time that the climbing of Everest became a spectator sport with journalist Sandy Pittman sending back stories over the Internet for NBC and a satellite phone call relayed a man’s last words to his wife, naming his unborn daughter. Jon Krakauer published an article in “Outside” magazine that would become a 1997 book, “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster.” Anatoli Boukreev with Gary Weston DeWalt wrote a reply that was also published in 1997, “The Climb: Tragic ambitions on Everest.” Boukreev died that year in 1997 in an avalanche. Beck Weathers was a miraculous survivor, left for dead, but willing himself to live. Over the entire season, 12 people died that year, eight of those during that May 11th blizzard making it the deadliest day on Everest until the 2014 season (16 deaths) and the 2015 season (18 deaths).

“Sherpa” is about the 2014 season. Originally, the documentary was intent on following a Sherpa make his 22nd summit attempt. Also up on the mountain was the second unit crew for the 2015 movie “Everest” about the 1996 blizzard disaster.


“Everest” is an ensemble movie that focuses on the white men at the center of the 1996 Everest disaster, in particular Rob Hall, the guide and expedition leader of Adventure Consultants, and to a lesser degree, guide and expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake) of Mountain Madness. Hall dramatically spoke to his wife via a satellite telephone call as he was dying. The movie is adapted from Weathers’ 2000 memoir, “Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest.”

The title cards at the beginning of the movie indicate that New Zealander Rob Hall pioneered the concept of commercial guiding on Everest in 1992. By the 1996 disaster, more than 20 expeditions were competing to summit Everest during the same two week window.

In the movie, the script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy doesn’t mention that like Hall, Fischer was a family man who left behind two children when he died. We learn that Doug was a mailman, but not that Yasuko Namba worked for Federal Express.

The movie is not interested in the Indo-Tibetan Border police expedition fatalities (Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor) who died on the Northeast Ridge. Paljor is believed to be the infamous Green Boots whose body became a landmark for those climbing Everest. Nor are we particularly interested in Adventure Consultants’ client Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) who left behind a husband. The leader of the Taiwanese expedition, “Makalu” Gau Ming-Ho (Chike Chan) appears in “Everest” briefly but his rescue by the Sherpas and subsequent helicopter rescue isn’t depicted nor will the typical audience member be aware of his identity when he appears.

Lieutenant Colonel Madan Khatri Chhetri  (Vijay Lama) made two trips up the mountain with Weathers graciously giving up his ride to the more critically ill Gau and almost losing hope before Madan Khatri Chhetr arrived a second time. Gau, who was found near the dying Fischer,  lost both hands and legs as well as his nose. (Gau disputes some of Jon Krakauer’s account as does Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa).

What you might not realize watching “Everest” is that there were many Sherpas involved in the 1996 expedition. The Sherpas set up camp, they help climb, they clean up after the climbing tourists have left and they are the ones who retrieve the bodies if so requested. It was the climbing Sherpas who located Fischer and Gau and rescued Gau although Boukreev did later look for Fischer and found him dead. While at first Peach Weathers speech about getting her husband down might sound brave what she is really saying is: I want the lives of the locals to be risked to save my husband. Gau can be thankful for American intervention, but not for how he has been portrayed by either Krakauer or this movie. details how this movie diverges from fact and notes, “Peach Weathers was instrumental in organizing her husband’s helicopter rescue. She enlisted the help of her friends and fellow moms, who began calling everyone they could think of. They contacted U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas and Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate minority leader. Daschle encouraged the State Department to act, and they reached out to David Schensted at the embassy in Kathmandu. After Schensted was turned down by several pilots, a Nepalese woman he worked with recommended Lieutenant Colonel Madan Khatri Chhetri, a Nepalese Army pilot who she suspected might accept the challenge.”

The daring Lieutenant Colonel Madan Khatri Chhetri might have been a natural hero for a Hollywood movie if he had been white. From a 2003 story by Mark Baker, Asia Editor for, one can see a dashing man who has just rescued three stranded Victorian police climbers in Tibet. He was then the veteran of hundreds of high-altitude helicopter rescues. As he told the reporter, “If you go above 6000 metres there are chances of engine flame out in the thin air. It was very, very dangerous because if you have problems at that altitude no one can come and help you. You are on your own. There is no margin for error and the terrain is so bad. If something went wrong I don’t think you could survive out there.”

Without Gau, the three Indian climbing fatalities and a more fleshed-out portrayal of the Japanese woman climber, the script for “Everest” can be summarized as white men get themselves into trouble on a recreational outing and some survive. The magnitude of that particular day on Everest is lost. The international scale of the 1996 tragedy and the added risk of the continued commercialization of Everest is not fully realized.


In “Everest” Boukreev is quoted as saying, “We don’t need competition between people. There is competition between every person and this mountain. The last word always belongs to the mountain.”

Fischer says, “You know what they say, man. It’s not the altitude, it’s the attitude.”

Hall explains, “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747. Okay, once we get above here, above the South Col, our bodies will be literally dying. And I mean literally dying. It’s not called the Death Zone for nothing.” This is some necessary exposition and some romantic realism from Hollywood in a movie that is more interested in white lives.

There were some Asian conflicts on Everest that year as well according to a BBC article by Rachel Nuwer. When the 1996 Indian team ran into trouble, an Indian member of the team attempted to speak to the Japanese team, “using a Sherpa who spoke some Japanese to help translate.” The Japanese team would dispute the message that was received and the two Japanese climbers and their three Sherpas passed Smanla and Paljor but did not stop to help them according to Harbhajan Singh, the deputy team leader and only survivor of the Indian expedition.

What do the Sherpa say? According to journalist Mark Jenkins who was on Everest in 2012 and interviewed Sherpa, “most of the fatalities belonged to clients who had refused to turn around.” He told a BBC writer,  “Your Sherpa will tell you, ‘You’re too slow, you have to turn around or you’ll die, and some people don’t.” From his point of view, “Mountains don’t kill people, people kill themselves,” he says.

Kathmandu-based journalist Billi Bierling told the BBC, “Without Sherpas, 98 percent of people who climb Everest couldn’t.” Bierling has been chronicling expeditions to Everest since the 1960s.

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom originally meant to tell about the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpa point of view after the confrontation between Sherpa and Occidentals during the previous season. Instead, the crew caught the 2014 Everest ice avalanche tragedy and the tensions between the mountain climbing tourists and the Sherpa guides. What more could a documentarian ask for except better exposure and distribution?

Using archival footage of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary as well as interviews with Norgay’s children, she illustrates the generational changes. Jamling Tenzing notes that many foreigners have “no idea we are actually an ethnic group of people.” Norgay was uneducated but with each succeeding generation, the educational standards of the Nepalese has increased. The simple math of how much is paid by each climber compared to the renumeration to those most at risk is stunning.

In 2016, the average cost for a standard climb is $45,000. A climb with a Western guide company is in the $60,000 range.  Alan Arnette, the oldest American to summit K2,  gives a complete breakdown of choices and costs. According to a 2012 National Geographic article, the average Sherpa makes about $5,000 for two months of work while the average farmer will likely make less than $1,000 for the whole year. In the 2015 movie, “Everest,” Weathers boasted that he paid $65,000.

Even though the pay is much higher than the average Nepalese income, many wives and families are opposed to the continued high risk. Sherpa will pass through the dreaded Khumbu Icefall as many as 30 times in a season while the foreign climbers will only do so 2 or 3 times.

The result of the commercialization of Everest isn’t only in the numbers of people and pay disparity, but also in the comforts. Peedom points out that in Hillary’s time everyone shared in the risks, in the carrying up of items. With so few people on the mountain during Hillary’s time, the problem of garbage and littered bodies wasn’t present. Focusing on Phurba Tashi, Peedom drives home what he risks. Phurba Tashi has a family who are against his continued employment on Everest, even with the number of 22 summits in sight. Phurba Tashi works for Russell Brice’s Himex.

In the “Sherpa” documentary Brice comments, “In the old days, people did everything together.” Yet now with “everyone on the summit you need much more creature comforts.” The comforts include flat screen TVs, telephones and Internet equipment.

In 2014, there were according to “Sherpa,” 38 expeditions and all that equipment has to be moved up the mountain by yak and Sherpas. If Kraukauer complained about Sandy Hill (now Sandy Pittman) as a “privileged villain” who brought a cappuccino machine to the Himalayas, and others (HistoryvsHollywood and Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa’s letter to the editor of Outside Magazine) have suggested that she caused some of the delays, comfort has become more readily available for those with the money to spend. “Sherpa” shows just how much stuff actually has to go up and down on the backs of Sherpas.

Two adventure tourists, Jeff Brown and Annie Doyle comment without irony, ” I love the Nepalese people” and add that it’s “cool you get to share it with these beautiful people.” What they don’t share is the statistical risks.

In contrast to Phurba Tashi’s family, for some, the dangers of Everest weren’t enough, or at least the dangers faced by the Sherpa guides have little meaning. American Joby Ogwyn wanted to up the danger quota by BASE jumping in a wing suit and had a Discovery Channel crew with him. Imagine how that looked to the Sherpas?

According to a 2015 BBC article by Rachel Nuwer, the majority of the deaths on Everest are people from Nepal (113). Compare that to 19 deaths of Japanese nationals, 17 each for UK and Indian nationals and 14 for USA nationals. Of those deaths 120 came during route preparation compared to 90 descending from the summit bid. In addition, the tourist industry and survivors have another concern: all those dead bodies. Yet to remove a body requires a team of Sherpa and a frozen body weighs more and must be dug out.

Since 2008, Sherpas have been cleaning up, taking down about 15,000kg of old garbage and 800kg of human waste. In 2014, when Discover and Peebom were filming, Green Boots was mysteriously absent, but controversy of the ethics of Everest and the dead was not.

The previous season, the three-person European alpine team of Swiss Ueli Steck, Italian Simone Moro and France-based Jonathan Griffith were involved in a confrontation with about 100 Sherpas on April 27. A climber Melissa Arnot had to step in between the climbers and the Sherpas. Ueli Steck was quick to get his story out to the press and give a press release and it is suggested that there was a cultural conflict that Steck isn’t quick to acknowledge. The threesome had “already benefited from the Nepalis’ labor in the dangerous Khumbu Icefall.” The account of one of the Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa,  came out in August. The 2013 incident is what piqued Peedom’s interest and using accounts and video from the actual incident she sets up the stage for the 2014 season. One of the foreign climbers called a Sherpa a “mother fucker.” Certainly, “the foreigner who swore was wrong,” but the attitudes at that altitude hasn’t really changed by 2014.

Before the Everest foreign climbers can get very far, at 6:45 a.m. on 18th April, 2014, an ice avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall kills 16 Sherpa. The Sherpas have a different name for Everest (Chomolungma) and a different connection, one that is spiritual and derived from folk and Buddhist beliefs. At the beginning of the “Sherpa” documentary, Jamling Tenzing noted, “We believe in reincarnation.”

Phurba Tashi and Brice must navigate between commercial interests, their employer-employee relationship and the anger and discontent that has finally boiled over on the chilly mountain named for a British surveyor (Sir George Everest). The Sherpas, who are genetically better suited than most people for working high altitudes, want better work conditions and compensation. While the overcrowding on Everest has continued to be a source of controversy, Everest adventure tourism has become, Brice says,  “a necessary part of the Nepalese economy” and “more Sherpas are working now than there have ever been in the history” of Everest. The money doesn’t seem to trickle down equally to the men who are taking most of the risks, the 30 trips per season across the Khumbu Icefall compared to the 2-3 for foreign climbers.

Some Sherpas do not want to continue the season out of respect for the dead. The foreign climbers must deal with frustration and disappointment. Some treat the Sherpa and the local law enforcement as little more than servants. Is that a rich person’s sense of entitlement and privilege or Western post-modern imperialism/Orientalism? That’s hard to discern, but there seems to be some disappointment that the Sherpa are no longer the smiling agreeable men of the past.

Brice tells his Sherpas, “You know before it was always friendly smiling Sherpas. These guys have spoiled your reputation.” The foreign climbers call the protestors “militant” and “completely irrational” and one says “if this were one of your Sherpas, you could have them removed from the mountains” and another described the situation as “like being held captive by terrorists.” The Everest 2014 climbing season comes to an end. All the foreigners are turned back. Phurba Tashi will not make his 22nd attempt to summit. The Sherpas have chosen respect for themselves over money. 

The Discovery crew had to cancel their BASE jump plans and ended up filming the conflict between the Sherpas, their employers and the foreign climbers to make the TV film:”The Everest Avalanche Tragedy.” The crew reportedly made a donation to the American Himalayan Foundation Sherpa Family Fund, a non-profit that supports the families of the 16 Sherpa who died. The closing titles tell viewers that the 2015 season was also cancelled by an act of God: The April 2015 Nepal earthquake. Phurba Tashi wasn’t on Everest that day, having honored his family’s wishes.

Discovery also aired “Sherpa” in April of this year, 2016, as part of their #ElevationWeek. “Sherpa” premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival before its US release. It was nominated for a 2016 British Academy Film Awards. Snow might lead to a type of blindness, but we should no longer be blind to the contributions and risks of the Sherpas who have too often been whitewashed out of fictional and documentary movies about Everest/Chomolungma. In a color blind world, we might see the tragedy of Everest as rich foreigners too often stepping over the corpses of impoverished Sherpa to leave a questionable legacy of summiting Everest.  “Sherpa” is currently available on Amazon Video for $14.99.



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