31 May - 6 June 2013 #658

The people who make it possible

A stupendous documentary about Swiss expedition to Mt Everest and the Sherpas who made it possible

It was one of those flukes of history that the Swiss lost out on being the first expedition to summit Mt Everest in 1952. But it was the South Col route that they pioneered which was used a year later by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for the successful ascent. Tenzing had in fact been on the Swiss expedition and reached the altitude of 8,595m with Raymond Lambert on the Southeast Ridge of Everest. The two tried heroically to press on to the summit, bivouacking at 8,400m without oxygen or tents or stoves, and drinking water by melting snow with a candle. One wonders how different history would have been if they had made the last 300m.

The Swiss came back to Everest several times, and were there in a commercial expedition led by noted mountaineer Kari Kohler in 2008. They took along a camera crew and made a stupendous documentary about their climb and the Sherpas who made it possible, called Sherpas, The True Heroes of Everest.

The documentary was released in 2009, and won the best film award in the Kathmandu International Film Festival (KIMFF) in that year. In the year of the 60th anniversary of the first climb, and also the year when there was the first and highest-ever brawl on Everest between Sherpa rope-fixers and western climbers, it is instructive to revisit this film. First of all, the documentary has footage that makes it almost feel like you are there yourself on the South Col or on the icy cliffs of the Lhotse Face, dangling by a rope. Not as vivid perhaps as the IMAX film, Everest, but almost as dramatic. Secondly, it humanises like no other film, the porters, guides, high-altitude rope-fixers that make Everest expeditions possible. This is a film that should be seen by all who still use the word ‘sherpa’ to mean porters (or all-terrain vehicles) interchangeably with ‘Sherpa’, an ethnic group from Nepal.

The film follows Long Dorje, Norbu, Mingma and Ang Nima from their farewells with families in Kathmandu, Thame and Namche to Base Camp, up the Icefall, the camp-fixing on the Western Cwm right up to the top. Earlier in the film, Long Dorje, breaks down during an interview, wiping away tears. Surprisingly, he isn’t getting emotional remembering a friend who died on the mountain, but chokes up when he is describing how as a child he never got to go to school like his brothers. His wife, Pasang Tiki, sheds tears as well as she describes how traumatic it is waiting for news from Everest while her husband is on the mountain. He has climbed 13 times, but she has never got used to it.

This is a film that brings out the dignity, generosity, compassion, companionship and bravery of the hardy folk that the world has come to rely on to make it possible to climb in the Himalaya and beyond. Norbu, in a characteristic Sherpa understatement, calls expedition work “a hard job” but says “it has to be done”.

“Every year we come back to Base Camp, and think we will never come back, but we always do,” he says. The film shows the haggling over rope-fixing, camp-setting and portering, all done light-heartedly with the Sherpas happy to earn the “last price”

of about $5,000 per expedition. It may sound like a lot, but that is their annual income for most. The footage of the congestion on the Icefall and the Hillary Step caused by inexperienced climbers, the ladder crossings of crevasses gives viewers goose pimples.

The documentary also covers the death of one of the climbers from exhaustion on his way down, and how his guide, Mingma, risks his life and nearly dies trying to save him. The scenes of the near-vertical Lhotse face and the extreme difficulty of driving ice pitons for ropes in 6 100 km/h gales at -40 degrees gives us an idea of the conditions which triggered the fist fight on the mountain last month. Whoever was right, one walks away from this film with a much better understanding of the lives of a people who make mountaineering possible in Nepal.

Kunda Dixit

The documentary has been shown all over Nepal, including in the Khumbu. Sherpas The True Heroes of Mount Everest 2009, A film by Frank Senn, Hari Thapa and Otto Honegger,Swiss National Television and Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, 51m

Sherpas , The True Heroes of Everest, directed by Frank Senn, Hari Thapa and Otto Honegger

Read other reviews:

The Everest industry by Kunda Dixit

Mammal mania by Rabi Thapa

One of us daughters and sons by Shreya Thapa

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