'Sherpa' Director Talks Challenges of Documenting Mount Everest's Worst Tragedy

"It was hugely emotional, particularly going to meet the widows," Jennifer Peedom says about capturing the aftermath of the avalanche that killed 16 local guides on film. "There were some excruciating moments."
Renan Ozturk/Courtesy of Felix Media

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Director and climber Jennifer Peedom started filming her documentary Sherpa in 2013 to tell the story of Sherpas, the local guides who accompany climbers on Mount Everest and other Himalayan treks.

The film explores their ethnicity and the risky work as well as a "growing tension in their relationship with foreign climbers that came through Sherpas wanting more recognition for what they contributed to an Everest ascent," says Peedom. That year, her team witnessed and filmed a fight on Everest between Sherpas and some of those climbers, demonstrating that the dynamic between these two groups was changing.

A year later, during production, the filmmakers found themselves documenting the aftermath of the worst tragedy in Everest's history: On the morning of April 18, 2014, a 31 million-pound block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas.

From that point, the film evolved into the story of how the Sherpas united in grief and anger, forcing the closure of the mountain for the remainder of the season. "It was hugely emotional, particularly going to meet the widows," says Peedom. "There were some excruciating moments."

The production team — which shot more than 400 hours of footage — included three cinematographers: Renan Ozturk, the film's high-altitude director and cinematographer (and a climber who also is the subject and cinematographer on Meru, another 2015 climbing doc); Hugh Miller, a longtime collaborator of Peedom's; and Ken Sauls, another experienced climber and veteran of Everest shoots. Peedom also operated a camera. The cinematographers additionally trained Nima and Nawang Sherpa on Sony Handicams and GoPros to film the Icefalls.

Sherpa primarily was shot using two Red Epic cameras, which were stripped down to minimize weight. They also used a collection of smaller cameras, including a Canon 1DC, Sony FS700, GoPros and even cellphones.

Much was shot handheld, and Freefly Systems also lent the production a MoVI lightweight stabilization rig that was used in conjunction with the Epic for some sweeping shots. Ozturk admits that while running with the rig, "I took my share of tumbles." He also took some aerials from a helicopter "hanging out an open door."

Challenges ranged from the cold to high altitudes (Ozturk worked from Base Camp at 17,700 feet and from Camp II at 21,300 feet) to keeping the equipment working (they used hot-water bottles to keep computers from freezing).

"It was an extreme physical challenge," says Oztruk. "But the biggest challenge was more on the emotional side. … I had to point the camera in really uncomfortable situations because I knew it was right for the story, and I treaded the line of sensitivity closer than ever before."