How Everest Expeditions Changed the Sherpa

As my part for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I’ve spent most of May considering Everest on film. Three documentaries help trace how the quest to summit Everest have changed the Sherpas and how Sherpas have been whitewashed out of history: “The Epic of Everest,” “Everest” (1998) and the 2015 “Sherpa.”

The first documentary, “The Epic of Everest,” is an old-fashioned view of things as one would expect from a silent movie that was originally released in the late 1920s.  The film was digitally restored and re-released in Great Britain in 2013.   John B.L. Noel was the expedition’s documentarian and recorded the ill-fated third attempt to climb Everest which ended in the disappearance and deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.  Previous attempts had been made in 1921 and 1922.

Beginning in Darjeeling, the 1924 expedition hires Tibetan and Sherpa porters at the end of February. The Tibetans and Nepalese are the objects of a Western curiosity. The peoples of these cultures are really the stars of this documentary by our standards and have more close-ups and film time than either Mallory and Irvine. We don’t see the Sherpa point of view, but we come to understand something important. The Sherpa of the 1920s, although physically adapted to the high altitude, were not originally mountain climbers. They were not driven to climb Everest. Another important point is the timing. Current wisdom limits summit attempts to two weeks during May.

The 1924 expedition doesn’t have that wisdom. The first summit attempt by Mallory and Geoffrey Bruce was on June 1, 1924. The second attempt by  Edward F. Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell was made the following day.  The last attempt was made by Mallory and Irvine on June 7.  The two men disappear on the Northeast ridge and they are given up for dead at the end of the documentary.

Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999. By then the type of climber on Everest had changed and the tragedy of 1996 had delivered a different image of Everest to the world.

Noel’s documentary shows us that Sherpa weren’t mountain climbers in the 1920s and makes us realize just how exceptional a man Tenzing Norgay was when he summited Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953 (May 29).  The following year Tenzing Norgay became the first director of field training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. In 1978, he founded Tenzing Norgay Adventures, a company for trekking adventures in the Himalayas.

The one charming aspect of David Breashears documentary, “Everest,” which was originally shown in IMAX, is that it seems unintentionally diverse. The expedition includes the leader American-born leader Ed Viesturs; a Sherpa, Jamling Tenzing (Tenzing Norgay’s son by his third wife) and a Latino woman, Spanish climber Araceli Segarra.  Segarra wants to become the first Spanish woman to summit Everest. Viesturs has brought his wife, Paula, who becomes the base camp manager.

The year is 1996 and for Everest, that was a PR disaster. Eight people died on May 10-11 when a blizzard hit Everest, including the leaders of two expeditions: Ron Hall of Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Each of those two expeditions included a journalist. John Krakauer was on assignment from Outside magazine. Sandy Hill Pitmann on the Mountain Madness expedition was filing reports over the Internet for NBC. The writers survived. Adventure Consultants lost two guides (Andrew Harris  and Hall) and two clients (Doug Hansen and Yasuko Namba).  A third, Beck Weathers, was critically ill and had to be airlifted off the mountain (after a Taiwanese climber). Mountain Madness only lost its expedition leader, Fischer. In addition, three Indian climbers from an Indo-Tibetan Police expedition died. At the time, it was the deadliest day on Everest.

Viesturs knew Ron Hall. Breashears’ expedition members were one of several who helped Weathers down. After a brief reflection Breashears’ expedition members decide to push on.

Viesturs, who passes Hall’s body,  summits first. Jamling and Segarra summit together. Segarra wonders what her friends are thinking and takes a photo of Jamling. Jamling comments, “My heart just overflowed. My tears froze to my cheeks.”

Breashears notes that in 1996, there was  “a critical lack of experience” amongst the crowd of climbers ready to take on Everest. For the 1924 expedition, consideration was given to military experience or university degrees as well as the status of their families.  By 1996, Sherpas have become an essential part of the Everest experience and the adventure tourist industry plays a growing part in the Nepalese economy.  In the credits of this short 45-minute documentary, all of the Sherpas are given recognition. Their faces are shown in photos besides their names and positions including the camp cook.

In the recent 2015 adventure feature film about the 1996 catastrophe, also named “Everest,” the Sherpas have become little more than b-roll with the exception of the helicopter pilot (Madan Khatri Chhetri ) who made two trips to airlift two survivors. Without the inclusion of the Taiwanese surviving climber “Makalu” Gau Ming-Ho and the three Indo-Tibetan Police  fatalities (Subedar Tsewang Samanla, Lance Naik Dorje Morup and Head Constable Tsewang Paljor), the 2015 feature film doesn’t indicate the significance of 1996. Up until the 2014, a blizzard made May 10-11, the deadliest single day on Everest with eight deaths, almost ten if the helicopter hadn’t lifted boy Gau and Weathers off the mountain.  The movie is adapted from Weathers’ 2000 memoir, “Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest.”

Jamling Tenzing carries on his father’s legacy, but he also noted something striking in his own autobiography: The deaths of Sherpas on Everest do not make news. 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.

Jamling figures in the documentary “Sherpa” where he reflects on his father’s legacy but the documentary originally meant to focus on another Sherpa: Phurba Tashi. Jamling Tenzing notes that many foreigners have “no idea we are actually an ethnic group of people.” Even fewer people probably know that Sherpas weren’t always mountain climbers. That’s his father’s legacy. Phurba Tashi, who works for Russell Brice’s Himex, was about to make his 22nd bid to summit.

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom became interested in filming the Sherpa point of view after the confrontation between Sherpa and Occidentals during the 2013 season. The three-person 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. We see video of that incident. Yet in 2014, there was a different cast of foreign climbers.  Instead of Phurba Tashi attempting to summit, the crew caught the 2014 Everest ice avalanche tragedy and the tensions between the mountain climbing tourists and the Sherpa guides.

At 6:45 a.m. on 18th April, 2014, an ice avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall kills 16 Sherpas. That’s twice the number of people who died on May 10-11 in 1996.  The Sherpas are divided. Some want to cancel the season. Others want better treatment from their own government that now has become reliant on the income brought by adventure travelers as well as the foreign climbers and expedition companies.

You might wince when 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.” Another described the situation as “like being held captive by terrorists.”

The 2014 season is cancelled. 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.

“Sherpa”  premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival before its US release. It was nominated for a 2016 British Academy Film Awards. “Sherpa” is currently available on Amazon Video for $14.99.

“Everest” by directors David Breashears, Stephen Judson and Greg MacGillivray (written by Tim Cahill and Judson), and narrated by Liam Neeson is available on Amazon Video ($2.99).

The restored “The Epic of Everest” has a modern touch. Simon Fisher Turner has created a new soundtrack of electronic music, using found sounds, with a mix of western and Nepalese instruments and vocals for this movie. The movie is currently available on Netflix.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s