Jennifer Peedom traveled to Mount Everest in 2014 with the intent of filming Phurba Tashi Sherpa's world-record 22nd climb to the summit. Peedom wanted to capture the side of climbing Everest few foreigners see or understand: the extreme danger undertaken by Sherpas who traverse the world's most treacherous landscapes to cart gear, food, and oxygen for foreigners paying well into five (if not six) figures to spend two months climbing to the top of the world's tallest mountain.
Only, Phurba never made it to the summit during that expedition. While Peedom was filming a training climb on a neighboring mountain (a routine part of expeditions, to allow foreigners time to acclimate to the extreme altitude), her radio crackled to life at 2 a.m. with news of an avalanche that pummeled the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous part of the mountain, killing 13 Sherpas while the tourists in their charge were sleeping. The incident made international news as the world began to understand and question, perhaps more than ever, the ethics of putting the Sherpa people in so much danger, year after year, for the arguably selfish pursuit of summiting the world's highest peak.
Peedom's gripping film, Sherpa, was nominated for a BAFTA for best documentary. She spoke to Cosmopolitan.com about what that expedition was like — and whether or not we should be climbing Everest at all.
You set out to make a film that was different than the one you ended up making. What were you expecting to happen during filming?
We set out to make a film which followed an Everest expedition from the Sherpa's point of view. And the original aim was to explore the changing dynamic in that relationship between Sherpas and foreigners. I've been on Everest expeditions before so I know that bad stuff happens all the time, so I had anticipated that something would probably go down. But not to this scale. This was totally different.
Had you summited Everest on previous climbs?
I've never actually summited. The way Everest works is that you get permits to go [a] certain distance. In my third expedition, I was supposed to summit. That was a big Discovery Channel documentary. The crew were fully insured to go each camp higher, and [it was too expensive to insure me to summit]. So rather frustratingly on the day, I had to sit at camp four, which is 400 meters below the summit, and watch them. My job then was high altitude director. So I filmed them all leaving and then filmed them all coming back down. On that particular day, tragedy had struck.
My teammate had to leave behind a guy who was dying. There's a ton of stuff written about it. It was a guy called David Sharp, on the north side in Tibet. He wasn't a rich man, he was a math teacher. Because he had been attempting and attempting it, he was running out of money and so this final attempt, I think it was a real do-or-die for him. He was on a really cheap expedition and he didn't have enough oxygen and he didn't have any Sherpa support. His expedition team didn't even notice when he was missing. It was all very dodgy. He was about 180 meters above where I was, but I didn't know he was there. My team took off in the middle of the night at about 11 o'clock, pitch dark, and went through the various geological places you go through, and at a certain point, they had to unclip the rope because it was hitting off in the wrong direction, and that happens quite often that it snags. So they unclipped, kept walking, didn't see anything, and then saw him on the way down.
The way that the media reported it was that 40 other climbers had stepped over a dying man to get to the summit, which wasn't actually the case. They hadn't literally stepped over him, but they hadn't seen him until the way down. Various attempts were made [to save him], but at that point, it was too late and he was frozen. He had been there all night. And you just can't carry a man off of Everest.
Can you climb Everest without a Sherpa if you are a foreigner?
You can put one foot in front of the other, without an individual Sherpa carrying your oxygen. You hear this a lot: "I climbed Everest without Sherpa support." Now, what that actually means is that they didn't have an individual Sherpa helping them unclip and clip on to the rope and carry their individual oxygen supply on summit day. So yes, you can do that but the reality is that when you climb Everest on one of these big expeditions, there's probably about four or five staff there, per person, having made that expedition possible. A lot less people would climb Everest without that support. That's saving your energy so you've got your energy for summit day, because it is a big deal to climb Everest, because of the sheer force of the altitude.
You show in the film the difference between a Sherpa climbing Everest and a foreigner, who is paying for the experience. Can you explain what the Sherpas do that foreigners do not?
Being a Sherpa, it means basically you are a packhorse. They also have to have good technical climbing skills. Being a Sherpa on an Everest expedition means that you are carrying all of the stuff and you are in service of clients. So you'll see, for example, other guys bringing the hot towels to the guys in the tents and a cup of tea every morning. They are not technically Sherpas, they are a different ethnic group called Li. The Sherpas are highly skilled, highly qualified, and genetically blessed [in that they are adapted to high altitudes].
The Khumbu Icefall, where the tragic avalanche occurred, is considered the most dangerous part of the climb. You show the Sherpas going up and down it in the night to get all the necessary supplies to the next camp while the foreigners are sleeping. How many times do they traverse it?
Up to 30 trips a season.
And that's one of the reasons their climb is so much more dangerous than a foreigner's?
Yeah. There's the icefall doctors that clip the ladders and ropes through the actual icefall from camp one. We had trained two Sherpa cameraman specifically to film this because foreigners are no longer allowed to be on the mountain when ropes are being fixed. It's a very strict rule because of that fight that broke out in 2013 [between Sherpas and foreigners]. Probably the reason that fight broke out was because they shouldn't have been on the mountain when the Sherpas were fixing the ropes. The Sherpas go all the way to the summit fixing the ropes and then they come all the way back down again. So they will actually climb the mountain more than twice in a season.
The film suggests that foreigners don't know the Sherpas are up all night while they are sleeping, carrying their stuff through the icefall to the next camp. Are they really so oblivious to that work?
Strangely. It's kind of hard to believe but they do keep the Sherpas separate. In our case, the Sherpas had to go down a hill to their tent. And all the foreigners were up the hill, with different dining tents and all of that. To take the point of view of the foreign climbers, you're so busy just staying, you know, not sick, and kind of worrying about their own acclimatization and focusing on their own goals that no, they aren't really aware. Some are more aware than others, let's put it that way. If you really wanted to know, you could find out.
Where were you when you found out that there was this horrible accident and 13 Sherpas had been killed?
We'd been up in the night at 2 a.m. when the Sherpas had left to go through the icefall, so we had been up shooting that scene, and I had a radio with me because of that. I heard the avalanche and then there was sort of nothing on the radio and then the radio sprang into life, and it was a Sherpa and Nepali being spoken. And then one of the cooks, the kitchen Sherpa, came to my tent, and he knew that I would want to know what had happened. He said, "Did you hear about the really bad accident?" So I jumped up and woke up the crew who were around me, and just grabbed a camera out of the filming tent and we just started recording.
How did you feel filming all this?
The death toll kept rising and the bodies started coming down. There were various points in the day [cinematographer] Renan [Ozturk] and I were both filming through our tears. But I think for me, some of the more emotional moments were when we got back to the villages and filmed with the wives and the mothers and the widows. That was excruciatingly emotional and difficult.
What was it like to meet with the women who lost family in the avalanche?
We had very good relationships with these people. That particular woman with the baby [whose husband died in the avalanche] — oh god, I mean that was a real moment of, "Is this the right thing to do?" Renan was really good. I said, "Do we do this or do we not do this?" And he said, "I think we do it. I think people need to know the cost, to know what they left behind." Otherwise it's just yet another disaster.
Those scenes just make you think, should we be climbing Everest at all?
I think if everyone that went to climb Everest was forced to go and visit all the widows of all the Sherpas that had died, no one would probably climb Everest. But that's obviously never going to happen, and I think watching the film will have more impact on some people than others in that respect if they were thinking about climbing Everest. It's not my job to tell people not to climb Everest. It's a really valid dream and it's an achievement in life and it's not my job to judge that.
What would you say to anyone reading this who has Everest on their bucket list?
Look, it's still a dangerous thing to do. Be aware of the risk you are asking someone else to take on your behalf. Don't be naive about that. The other thing I would say, though, is that there are plenty of other mountains to climb, particularly if you're not an experienced mountaineer. Go and climb in Alaska first.
There are some quite inexperienced climbers on Everest, people that literally just have it on their bucket list and they've never climbed anything else before. You see some people putting on crampons for the first time and that then puts Sherpas' lives in danger because it means they're going slower. Consider whether it is Everest that you actually want to climb or just some other mountain, because, in my experience, the joys of experiencing nature in that intense way are the same. It's not more beautiful than other mountains where it's less crowded. And pushing yourself to the absolute limit, you can do that on plenty of other mountains.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for an Everest expedition?
I can answer that question for the time that I was training to summit, which was a few years earlier. In some ways, you can't train for altitude. It's a genetic thing, how your body is going to handle altitude. I just discovered when I went over there and did some lower climbing that my body actually works very well at altitude.
What's your exercise regimen like leading up to it?
I run a lot, I do spin classes, I run up and down stairs. I still work and I have kids, so there's a limit to what I can do. I remember going on the 2006 expedition and I arrived at base camp and these guys were incredibly fit, and they'd been charging up and down stairs with bricks in their packs and running 10 miles a day, and I'd think, Oh jeez, I haven't done nearly that much. But once we got higher on the mountain, I was just waiting, waiting, waiting [for them].
I would run probably 5 miles, three times a week, in preparation for these last two, which isn't much because I wasn't planning on summiting. If I was planning on summiting, I would have done more strength work as well, just to build up the muscles, because you do waste away up there. Like literally, your body starts to eat itself. The other part of it is just having a mental capacity. You can't be someone that gives up easily. You are going to have to push through pain. Once you get up high, every step you take, your legs are screaming in pain. And you just have to be able to somehow disconnect from that and almost enter a sort of meditative state and push through it. And I saw plenty of guys, probably some of the most trained and prepared guys on Everest, turning around because they couldn't push past that mental barrier. There was a fear factor there.
You also need to know when you do need to stop, right?
It seems like a lot of the real tragedies happen when people don't know when they should have turned around. That's totally correct. That's partly experience and it's also partly having a good expedition operator. Someone like Russell [our expedition leader], he's literally mathematical about his calculations. He has various people radio in at certain points and he will calculate how fast you're climbing, and if you're not climbing fast enough on summit day, he will turn you around by radio. What happens on a lot of other expeditions that don't have such a kind of military-style operation and a leader like that is that it's up to the Sherpas to try and turn the client around. And the client says, "No, I've paid you the money and I want to keep going to the top," because summit fever is a very real thing. Then it's very difficult for the Sherpas. These are very quietly spoken people and they're trained to serve the foreigner. So culturally, that creates a really dangerous dynamic.