In 2013, the world’s media reported on a shocking mountain-high brawl as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas, the ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal. Director Jennifer Peedom and her team set out to uncover the cause of this altercation, intending to film the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpas’ point of view. Instead, they captured Everest’s greatest tragedy, when a huge block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route, killing 16 Sherpas. Good’s Natalie Cyra talked to Bridget Ikin, the producer of SHERPA, which is released to New Zealand screens on April 7.
Producer Bridget Ikin with yaks on Mount Everest
The film was initially going to follow extraordinary Sherpa leader Phurba Tashi as he attempted to summit Everest for the 22nd time.
Sherpa training on the Khumbu icefall
Sherpa in training
Bridget Ikin with Yangjee Sherpa
SHERPA producer Bridget Ikin
What prompted the making of
The director Jennifer Peedom had been climbing for a number of years on and off, and she had very good relationships with the Sherpa team we filmed. They had been filmed a number of times on previous occasions and were feeling a kind of resentment as their story usually ended up on the cutting room floor – and that they were always just there in service of some western climbers ambition. So [Jennifer] felt there was a story there, and some simmering tensions. And then the brawl in 2013 sort of galvanised interest in what we were planning to do.
You could never have anticipated what was going to happen while you were filming – how did your initial ideas for the film change throughout production? And what do you hope to achieve with the film?
The story we set out to make was a story of the disproptionate risk that the Sherpas carry in shepherding the climbers to the top of the mountain and more importantly, safely back again. We had a specific story in mind with a very experienced Sherpa and a very inexperienced Sherpa, and we were going to follow their summit attempts. But because that devastating avalanche happened, killing 16 Sherpas on the mountain right in front of our eyes, no climbing happened at all. So we basically just followed the events that unfolded in front of us over the course of the next week until we had to leave the mountain. And that was a revelation. In a sense, it exemplified and drew in to much starker relief, the story we had planned to tell all along.
Were you hopeful the film would give a positive effect on the Sherpas and do you think it has?
Well, it certainly has, and many, many Sherpa people have seen the film through the world now, and they love it. They kind of say, “finally this is our story”. They’re using it in fundraising events in different parts of the world. It’s got an incredible following on Facebook now, and they just completely own it. It’s constantly being asked to screen in different countries and film festivals, and now the Discovery Channel have bought it so it’s going to be screening on that network in 220 countries in April. We had modest aspirations for it, but you never know how a film is going to turn out, and I’m very proud of it.
Mountain writer Ed Douglas explains in one part of the film how a lot of westerners don’t know much the Sherpa at all.
They are so skilled at what they do, they do things that even the skilled climbers don’t even want to do, which is to go through that extremely dangerous ice area (the Khumbu icefall) so many times. From the outset, you kind of conjure up this idea that the Sherpa are this kind of superhuman in some way – but in fact they have all the same terrors and fears of going through that area that any of us would face – except for them it’s a job so they have to do it. And they’re doing it out of sight of the westerners. The westerners are not aware of all the load carrying that goes on in the night.
The film has given the Sherpa people a voice that they previously didn’t have…
It captures 2014 as the year they found their voice. For the first time, they spoke up and said “enough is enough, we’ve got some things to say here.”
In terms of the film’s production – the cinematography was incredible. How did you come to filming the shots of the ladders over the ice and the crevices and all of those very technical things – and what were the challenges of that?
The big challenge of putting this production together for me, was finding the right little team of people who had the skills to work up there safely with the right level of experience. We found two American guys, and one was Renan Ozturk, a renound climber in his own right and a gifted cinematographer, and he’s the guy behind those really gorgeous shots that you see. We were in really good hands with those guys – they were going to summit and they knew what they were doing. For the rest of the tiny little crew, it was very hard to work at altitude – your health is impaired, you don’t feel too good and things become a lot harder, so to get the footage that we got was incredibly hard.
Were the Sherpas wearing GoPros on their heads?
Yes – we had the idea that it would be great to train up a couple of young Sherpa who were keen to work with the camera, so before we started filming, a couple of months before we went to Nepal and trained up these young guys. So a lot of the stuff that you see of them doing their training and so on, that was filmed on their GoPros, on parts of the mountain that wasn’t available to foreigners at that time.
Do you have a personal significant moment from producing the film or was the experience just incredibly surreal?
I’d never been to Nepal prior to putting the production together, so I was on a very steep learning curve, trying to work out what I didn’t know, meeting this team and gaining their trust, and resourcing it in a way that it was safe to send the crew up there. I had gone up there with the crew and made sure everything was OK (I’m not a climber, so it was a big effort for me) and I got back to Sydney and was going to manage the production from there. A couple of days later the avalanche happened – so the most horrible thing was getting the text from Jen saying it had happened, and of course no one knew what that meant but we knew it was big, and in those few days afterwards they were really struggling to make sense of what was going on. There’s no proper communication system up there and everyone was just like floundering and panicking and of course none of our little team except for our translator spoke Sherpa or Nepalese, so we were working quite blind. There were many surreal moments over the course of the week and when I came back down to Kathmandu, they were all just bedraggled, completely exhausted, wrecked little group – it really took a toll on them.
There’s one quote again from Ed Douglas in the film which really struck a cord with me: “What’s the moral justification, the moral reward for what is essentially a game of Russian roulette for these Sherpas?” What is your personal opinion about the exhibitions and how the Sherpas are continuously putting their lives on the line – because they feel like they don’t have a choice?
I don’t want to judge western climbers’ aspiration to climb Mt Everest but being there, there are many other mountains which are just as gorgeous and much less crowded, and especially for people who are not experienced, it’s a very dangerous place to be. I really do feel for the Sherpas who have come to rely on that income now, deemed to be the most dangerous job in the world. It’s very hard for them to pull back from it and find other work which is finanically rewarding, because the Sherpas live in an area of Nepal which has very low fertility – potatoes grow but that’s about all, there are no roads, there are yaks which are really the equivalent of a truck carrying things, but that’s it. There’s nothing else, no other profession unless you have a lodge or are in the subservice industry. So many Sherpa families have stories of children or brothers who have died – there’s a narrative of sadness in these families. The choice now that a lot of the families make is to insist that their children leave Nepal, to work and get education and access to the other opportunities out there – which has its own sadness.
Do you think the improved pay conditions (explained further in the film) make it worth it for the Sherpas to an extent?
I guess individual Sherpas have to make that decision for themselves. With regards to the expedition companies – there were 38 companies in 2014 while we were there, and there’s a lot of difference between the higher end companies who charge a lot and offer pretty comfortable circumstance for their clients and then bucket operators who do it for half that price and offer much less personalised experiences – different ratio of climbers per Sherpa. The difference in pay for the Sherpas can be very dramatic – there’s no unionised pay scale – it’s a very chaotic market.
What can westerners do to help if they did sign up for a climb? Is there more that they can do?
When I ask the Nepalese people this now, they say “no need to climb, just come and trek.” They want people to come and enjoy Nepal. And I would say that from my own experience too, that is the areas where people live, that is tree line and below is absolutely stunning, but when you get above that it is just shale and rock and too high for people to live, it’s less attractive, interesting and certainly there is less benefit back to the communities.
2014 season was closed, and so too was 2015. Do you have any expectations of what you might come of things in the future?
I don’t really have a sense of it – if I were a climber I’d probably think of not going this year and just seeing how things go and whether it is a stable year. But climate change is the big story and people are saying in 10 years time, this mountain might not be climbable. There are those time lapse shots of moving ice that is continuously moving, and underneath that ice is just moving water. The mountain is changing, and there’s much less snow and ice than there was. I think it’s going to continue to be unstable because there are iceblocks melting and breaking off – it’s all part of the bigger story.