The world of mountain climbing might be the last bastion of old-school colonialism. While wealthy foreigners pay up to $70,000 to professional tour guides willing to take them to the top of Everest, the men and women who do the real work – largely drawn from the local Sherpa population – are paid a pittance. At least, that was the case until 2014, when the worst ever single disaster on the mountain claimed the lives of 13 Sherpa, and drove the rest to down tools until their demands for better compensation and safety standards were met.
This remarkable documentary starts out exploring the history and character of the Sherpa, but flips half way into a riveting document of a unique industrial dispute. The tourists’ attitudes to their implacable human packhorses is remarkable to watch – in a skin-crawling echo of American slavery the Sherpa are routinely referred to as ‘boys’, with one climber even asking who their ‘owners’ are. Jennifer Peedom’s film is stunningly photographed (how could it not be?) and brilliantly sly: she gives the tour guides and their rich, self-absorbed charges just enough rope to hang themselves, and they duly oblige. But it’s also a heartfelt tribute to the resilience of a people.