Sherpa: Trouble on Everest – the heart and soul of a film

The production story of Sherpa is a thrilling yarn in itself, with some important messages about planning, treatments and sheer tenacity.
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Image: Karma Doma, Phurba Tashi’s wife. 

Sherpa: Trouble on Everest, the feature documentary by Jennifer Peedom, is surely an extraordinary achievement, honoured with the Grierson Award at the London Film Festival. It was centre stage at the Australian documentary Conference for 2016 because it was so intelligently made, and a story of the proverbial triumph over adversity.

Peedom is an experienced climber, and has worked on several projects about Everest, including an SBS Dateline episode about Sherpas in 2005, and as a high altitude director on the six-part Discovery series, Everest: Beyond the Limit (2006).  Her friendships with the Sherpa team featured in Sherpa have grown from this time, and were intrinsic to the open access the filmmaking team were to enjoy while filming.

Sherpa is much too large to finance in Australia. In 2012, Peedom teamed up to develop the project with Bridget Ikin and Felix Films, and also interested British veteran John Smithson in becoming the international producer.  Together, Ikin and Smithson would later secure the finance, in a loose co-production arrangement.

Smithson was initially cautious but intrigued, being familiar with Peedom’s award-winning Solo.  With development funding from Screen Australia, the team created a pitch trailer to assist in raising finance.  While they were in the middle of editing this trailer, a high-altitude brawl on Mt Everest hit international headlines, and formed the first scene for the trailer, which John Smithson happened to take to a meeting about another project with executive from Universal. He showed them the pitch trailer and they committed on the spot.  The resulting presale from Universal clinched the investment from Screen Australia, and the advance from the Australasian distributor, Footprint Films.

‘A feature documentary is not just a long, flabby TV documentary,’ Smithson told the masterclass audience. ‘It is something completely different.’ He had a very simple description of the beast: ‘It’s about finding a vivid foreground story which speaks bigger truths and touches bigger issues. And that is what you need for feature docs to stand a chance.’

Peedom’s story about the production is an object lesson in development.  Central to this was the treatment, created from that legendary paradox about describing a film when you don’t know what will happen. 

‘When you are forced to do that,’ Peedom said, ‘forced to work out the essence of the story, it’s like pulling teeth and incredibly hard to do. I ended up writing a twenty-page treatment for the Screen Australia application, and to send to Universal. We batted it around a lot, and John is really big on structure, and he and Bridget pushed me until we all agreed that it was good.  The spine of the story was to be the record-breaking attempt by veteran Sherpa climber Phurba Tashi to reach the summit of Everest for the 22nd time.’

‘We had to speculate about how the main character might be transformed, because that’s what the story requires. Unless you have a transformation, you probably don’t have a story.’

They had a really solid bed of research. Peedom is a high altitude specialist who knew the people and places. In a sense she straddled the European and Sherpa worlds, with an affinity for the sheer challenge of climbing and the mystical experience of Chomolungma.  She had known the central character, Phurba Tashi, for ten years. She also recruited Ed Douglas, a key UK mountaineering writer, to rigorously fact check the treatment. 

Smithson encounters many filmmakers who don’t know their story at the beginning, with a film in their heads which is not properly blocked out. They are doomed to fail. ‘I believe firmly that a film has a beginning, middle and end, and a proper three act structure, proper storyline and an arc that would take you through the film – with the issues you want to hang from it. 

‘In my day job in London [as Creative Director, Arrow Media, a leading TV production company], I make everybody write treatments, and it is never wasted.  I’m still surprised how often it doesn’t happen. People have this idea that it’s a documentary and you’ve got to go with the unfolding veracity of the situation. It’s complete bollocks.’

‘Even though the structure changed when we went filming,’ said Peedom, ‘I had it engrained in my brain. It helped me make decisions in the field, so when things went wrong, I came back to the essence of the story and it never changed. 

‘It was a film about the disproportionate risk the Sherpas take.’ Or, according to editor Christian Gazal, ‘Respect for the mountain is respect for the Sherpas.’

High altitude filmmaking is an esoteric craft, with a special kind of physicality. ‘We really needed proven crew at altitude’, said Peedom, ‘and we chose a team of three cinematographers. That may sound like a lot, but when you are working at 8,000 metres you need a team of people, because you know you have to bank on someone getting sick and being unable to work.’ 

She chose people she had already worked with, or whose reputation preceded them. US-based Renan Ozturk is one of the best climbers in the world, and has a poet’s eye for bringing wild places to audiences. Rock-solid Ken Sauls, also American, had summitted Everest three times. She also took Hugh Miller, an Australian with no record at altitude, but whom she has worked with often. ‘He’s tough, and has a beautiful eye for character.’ In other words, she had built in endurance, a vision for the mountains and a feeling for character.  The sound recordist up for the challenge was Nick Emond, known for The Daughter, Mystery Road and The Rocket.

Christian Gazal, the editor, was a wild card. His background is in animation but he truly understood the underlying idea. They cemented the deal with a conversation by phone in a car parked at Bondi Beach, while Gazal watched the surf and talked about the highest mountain in the world. 

‘There are two clear elements that you need in a story that is to be a feature,’ he said.  ‘Firstly, you need an imbalance in the world, and the imbalance in our story is due to a lack of recognition. And then you need conflict, and the fight was pretty good evidence of the conflict. You still don’t have a story, but you do have the basis of what is potentially a feature. You need a beginning, a middle and an end –  but I just thought that there was enough for me to think there was something fantastic. I was up for it because it was not something I had seen before, and there was huge potential.’  

Meanwhile, Peedom and Bridget Ikin went to Nepal to strike a deal with Russell Brice, another key protagonist who runs the highly-regarded expedition company, Himalayan Experience. They also involved the Sherpa team in conversations about what to expect during filming, and discussed the film in depth with Phurba Tashi, the main character.  They shot test interviews in English, which confirmed a serious complication. In English, the key Sherpas were somewhat reticent and polite – evidence of their lack of fluency in English.  The team made a crucial decision – to allow all participants to do interviews in their native language, Sherpa, which allowed them to be much more articulate and emotional.

Peedom went back again a few months later, this time with Hugh Miller, and trained two local people, Nawang Tenzing and Nima Tenzing, as camera operators. Now they had a deeper conduit with the people who the film was effectively representing, and also access to places and sequences that are normally out-of-bounds to foreigners.  Having Narwang and Nima on the team also made the language barrier less of an issue.

 ‘I’m a New Zealander’, said Ikin, ‘and I grew up in the shadow of the Ed Hillary story and I was very affected by his passion for the well-being of the Sherpas after he climbed Everest. As a strange consequence of that, my family in Sydney have ended up being close support for a young Sherpa guy who arrived in New South Wales years ago’. 

Though he was not formally trained, Nima Sherpa was the right person to take to Everest as the team’s translator and interpreter. He turned out to be ‘the most incredible conduit to many people in the community, as well as an ever-flowing source of information.’

The last member of the filming crew was David Spruengli, data wrangler.  Ikin and sound designer Sam Petty trekked with the crew to Everest Base Camp, stayed a few days while the team set themselves up, then left.

When the shoot at Base Camp started, the mountain was swarming with climbers, and a number of other film crews. Discovery was following an attempt to jump off the summit in a wing suit. There was a second unit team, shooting for Universal’s feature film, Everest. Of all things, Google was there with its street view rigs. 

A few days later, part of the Khumbu Icefall collapsed, and sixteen Sherpas died.

‘It was about 6.30 in the morning and I heard the avalanche from my tent,’ said Peedom. ‘We just jumped up and spent the next two weeks running.’  No-one had more than four or five hours sleep a night. They knew they weren’t making a climbing film any more, because no-one was going to the summit. The crew was scattered across several locations. The Sherpas were suddenly driving the action and they weren’t speaking English.

And, as Ikin explained, ‘Just remember filming at altitude is not like filming anywhere else. You are exhausted all of the time, your brain is on go-slow and even tying up your shoelaces is incredibly hard. So all tasks are doubly and horrendously complicated. Coupled with that, there was the mess of people not knowing what was going on.’

Jen Peedom, not a professional cameraperson, was shooting footage and trying to deploy her crew, reframing the film in her mind day-by-day. Nick Emond tuned into the rescue frequency and recorded sound continuously in Sherpa and English as people spread across the dangerous, shifting ice field in search of the missing Sherpas.  Meanwhile, the helicopters delivered the dead and injured down the mountain in some Valkyrian pageant of grief. 

Smithson was in the Caribbean when he found out about the avalanche, and frantically tried to reach Peedom. ‘Communications with the base camp are very difficult at the best of times. I was trying to reach Jen, saying, “film everything – just hoover it up”’.

‘I didn’t answer because I was filming,’ said Jen. It was funny in retrospect. 

Feelings on the mountain were desperate and confused. The Sherpas were trying to work out what to do, and the anger crackled across the stones and beneath the prayer flags. Foreigners remembered the earlier brawl, and it fuelled their paranoia. The other crews left abruptly, because they knew they couldn’t shoot the summit. 

Peedom remembered, ‘It wasn’t much fun, it was very emotional, it was very stressful and it was very physically demanding and all those kinds of things. And we had family freaking out at home.’

Ed Douglas, the writer, turned up, and Peedom grabbed a long interview with him about the history of the mountain, and the casual exploitation of the Sherpas, never given their due. That pain went right back to the moment sixty years ago when Sherpa Tenzing was given the George Medal – not even the George Cross – while Hillary and expedition leader John Hunt were knighted. 

Peedom, Ikin and Smithson knew they were no longer making a film involving a summit climb from the Sherpa point of view, but recognised that the underlying themes of their project were thrown into even starker relief in a powerful narrative of life, death and grief.  But they also knew that Universal, one of the financiers, had read the treatment like a feature script, and clung to its apparent certainties.  The team weren’t going to be able to deliver the prized summit.

‘It was a complete train crash,’ said Smithson. ‘We had spent more than fifty percent of the funding. Suddenly we had this emergency and didn’t know how or whether we could film it.

‘The crew had no idea how long they’d be on the mountain because you could be asked to leave at any time.  One by one, the other expedition teams were cancelling, which made the inevitability of our team cancelling more apparent.’

But Peedom and Ikin had trained their local crew members well for the shoot, and now they were rewarded. 

‘That is where our relationships with the Sherpas really paid off,’ Peedom explained. ‘In all that fear and grief, we were met with generosity. 

‘The Sherpas were angry and upset but I kind of gathered that was not at us, so I just barrelled on and they got us access to the critical moments in the Sherpa meetings. The first meetings were recorded by the Sherpa camera assistants. They went down with their iPhones, and that’s what ended up in the film. And what is being said in those meetings is critical, but, at the time, I didn’t even know what had been said as it was all in Sherpa and Nepali.’

Screen Australia was prepared to roll with the changes, but Universal was a different proposition. Smithson convinced them to wait, and to make a decision only after the production regrouped in Sydney, and compiled some sample scenes.  Jen was also asked to write up a new treatment, to reflect the now-changed story.  At least they were hanging on. 

But Peedom knew that she no longer had any guarantee about her central character’s arc. Although the Sherpa team they were filming with was thankfully all safe after the avalanche, they were shaken by the event and went home to their families to recover. They were away for four crucial days of tumult on the mountain. 

Meanwhile, the exhausted film crew was trying to expand the focus on the physical majesty of the Himalayas, as well as cover the unfolding and confusing events. Said Ikin, ‘The beauty shots actually underpin the whole theme of the film, which is about different attitudes to Mt Everest. And unless you see the sublime beauty of the place, it’s harder to convey the emotional thread, and to understand the spiritual dimension to the Sherpas’ relationship to the mountain.’

The filmmakers really wanted the audience to experience the religious awe and deep familiarity which drives the Sherpas, as well as the sheer mass of the peak which drives foreign climbers into a frenzied attempt at mastery.

So the crew was desperately trying to cram two completely separate kinds of filmmaking into whatever remaining time they were allowed to stay at Base Camp. According to Peedom, ‘The mantra was get the beautiful shots when you can but when the shit hits the fan, just pick up the camera and shoot it.’ 

Renan Ozturk was up before dawn, shooting timelapses and vistas, hunting the details of yaks and burning juniper to take us into the Sherpa experience of Chomolungma. Nick Emond, felled by altitude sickness, sometimes crawled across the ice to record sound.

After two weeks, the base camp shoot finished, and the team began to walk down the mountain. While Peedom ended up with some four hundred hours of material, she still did not feel convinced she had the story about the central character’s transformation, and without that, she had no film.

‘You need the characters to work like they do in a beautifully written feature film,’ said Smithson. ‘We had a brilliant backdrop in the mountains. We had as many issues as you could shake a stick at, but you need the foreground characters to latch onto.

‘If you look at the very best feature documentaries, they all do the same thing. Characters lead you through the story.’

In her computer, Jen Peedom had her carefully crafted saga of Phurba Tashi, who was climbing to the summit of Everest for the 22nd time, and her speculation that he would finally decide to stop hauling tourists to the peak. In reality they had an Everest film with no climbing, a missing hero, and a new story about the avalanche and the conflict, with Ed Douglas’s backgrounder interview. 

On the second to last day, they went back to Phurba Tashi’s home village of Khumjung. With translator Nima Sherpa, Peedom interviewed Phurba Tashi’s wife, Karma Doma. Nima knew what Jen was after but she was afraid to interrupt the flow to get Nima to translate everything, and simply read the feelings. 

Next day she interviewed Phurba Tashi. It must have been a fantastic relief. ‘In the final interview he said he had decided to quit climbing. It was a very emotional decision, and I knew we needed to hear him say it before I got off the mountain.  It was literally on the last day. I knew if I had that, I probably had the heart and soul of the film.’

Weeks later, in Sydney with Nima Sherpa translating, she found out exactly what Karma Doma was saying as she wept softly in her kitchen. She is afraid for him while he climbs and desperately wants him to stop. ‘He promised he wouldn’t go… he promised… Phurba loves the mountain more than his family.’

In that bizarre space where real life becomes a set of images to be recombined into a story, she fills in Phurba’s character arc, and all that desperate work comes together in a great film. 

——

I have reworked the transcript to make the sentences clearer, whikle Bridget Ikin has added some production details and clarified the time frame. Karma Doma was quoted in an article in The Monthly. There is a beautiful photograph of her on Renan Ozturk’s Facebook page, which is wonderful in itself. I will come back to the editing process in another story. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.