Sherpa documentary examines tragedy and ethics on Mt Everest

A still from the movie "Sherpa" shows a group of Sherpa attending meeting after the avalanche. Photo courtesy the Discovery Channel.)
A still from the movie “Sherpa” shows a group of Sherpas attending meeting after an avalanche that killed 16 people in 2014. (Photo courtesy the Discovery Channel.)

Labored breath, crampons clanking on the rungs of an aluminum ladder, and the lonely chirp of an avalanche transceiver.

The sounds of climbing that open the documentary “Sherpa” serve as a brief nod to the often-solitary nature of mountaineering. Then the film, which shows on Discovery Channel this weekend, pans out to a jampacked base camp, and ultimately to the global controversy around climbing culture at the world’s tallest peak.

This week marks the second anniversary of the deadliest day on Mount Everest, when a falling block of ice killed 16 Nepalese guides, also known as Sherpas.

The accident almost immediately sparked debate about the treatment of guides and porters and inequality in the climbing industry in Nepal. It’s a controversy that has reverberated in the Pacific Northwest, home to an estimated 150 people from the Sherpa ethnic group, and to many international mountaineering companies. Among them is Alpine Ascents, which employed five of the guides killed in the avalanche.

“All over the world, wealthy people pay poorer people money for labor,” local mountaineer David Morton said at a recent Seattle screening of the film, which was full despite the warm weekend evening. “It’s the dynamic of the world. This film maybe seems particularly repulsive because it feels so recreational.”

Morton is no stranger to the ethical complexities of mountaineering. He’s guided professionally for more than 15 years and was on the mountain, working with the crew of the Hollywood film “Everest,” at the time of the avalanche. He’s also executive director of The Juniper Fund, a nonprofit that supports the families of Nepalese expedition workers killed on the job.

“Sherpa” doesn’t shy from uncomfortable visuals at Everest’s base camp. There are scenes of porters carrying massive piles of gear on their heads, tents with flat-screen TVs and Western climbers awakened with hot tea and warm towels. Then there’s footage of a widely publicized fight between a Western climber and a group of Nepalese guides in 2013, an event many point to as a sign of growing discontent among Sherpas, who often take more risks than Western climbers.

In the lead-up to the avalanche, the film creates an ominous mood. It’s a sense of foreboding Morton says many mountaineers and companies shared long before April 18, 2014.

“Part of the whole result of this is more awareness,” Morton told me later. He started The Juniper Fund in 2012 a few years after a Nepalese friend lost her husband in a climbing accident. “I think part of the difficulty of what happened there is that everybody knew it might happen, including the operators.”

The film’s fictionalized representation of the deadly avalanche is provocative and haunting. It starts with distant rumbles, followed by what sounds like urgent prayer, then ends in a sudden terrifying blankness.

Some things have changed since that morning. The Nepalese government has raised its mandatory minimum life insurance for guides to $15,000 from $10,000, and there has been an increasing interest in Sherpa-led climbing expeditions and Nepalese-owned climbing companies.

Locally, The Juniper Fund now works with 30 families to offer $3,000 a year for five years after an accident. They’re also developing programs to help widows build businesses to help support themselves.

But Morton is quick to point out that the issues surrounding climbing culture on Everest are difficult, from complicated economic incentives to mismanagement of the industry by an unstable government.

And then there’s the inescapable risk inherent in mountaineering.

“I think that there are very, very, very positive outcomes of the way the industry over there has affected locals,” says Morton. “And in that respect, there’s also a big downside, and that’s that it’s physically risky and people lose their lives.”

“Sherpa” documentary

  • When: Movie premieres Saturday locally at 9 p.m., with repeat showings through the weekend
  • Where: On Discovery Channel (check listings for cable channel)
  • What: Movie explores culture of climbing on the second anniversary of deadliest day on Mount Everest

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at