Jennifer Peedom did not dream of mountains as a child; her passion was travel. While most high schoolers were planning for university, Peedom was enthralled by stories of faraway lands. As soon as she graduated, she heeded the beckoning of the world and traveled extensively on her own in South America and Asia, experiencing the colorful stories of various cultures first hand.
Peedom first crossed paths with Everest while trekking in 2003.
"It was a very humbling experience: I remember being taken by the environment and by the Sherpa people," said Peedom, who directed "Sherpa," premiering April 23 on the Discovery Channel at 9 ET/8 Central .
"I also immediately noticed their spiritual belief is at odds with their work on Everest, and that intrigued me."
Sherpas are an ethnic group highly adapted to high-altitude living. They believe the great Himalayan Mountains are gods and call Mount Everest "Chomolungma," worshiping it as the mother goddess of the world.
Because of their high-altitude adaptation and skills, they are an invaluable part of nearly all expeditions in the Himalayas. To foreigners, "sherpa" has evolved into a job title equivalent to a high-altitude porter, which discounts the fact that climbing sherpas are expert mountaineering guides.
Comprised of Sherpas and other Himalayan ethnic groups such as Tamangs and Gurungs, climbing sherpas do everything from securing the route by fixing ropes and ladders to supplying all the camps on the mountain. They ensure that clients, who pay upwards of six figures, have the greatest chance of reaching the summit.
Climbing sherpas pave the way to Everest with sweat, tears, and, at times, their lives.
The Preparation Intent on pursuing her work in the Himalayas, Peedom spent time in New Zealand developing her alpine skills and discovered her natural disposition for mountaineering. Peedom deliberately pushed herself in this dimension because those skills were critical for her to safely access the places she needed in order to tell the stories she wanted to tell.
In 2004, Peedom returned to Everest and completed a segment focused on the climbing sherpas for "Dateline," on Australia's SBS network. It was here that she first met Phurba Tashi, the main character in the film. The following year, Peedom reunited with the same sherpa team on Cho Oyu (the sixth highest mountain in the world) in Tibet while working on a documentary for the Discovery Channel.
She took the opportunity to show them her "Dateline" piece. "The sherpas all crowded around to watch. No one had ever made a film about them before; they were just completely blown away," said Peedom. "That experience really cemented my relationship with them."
In 2006, while serving as the high-altitude director for the Discovery Channel's mini-series" Everest: Beyond the Limit," Peedom had an epiphany. In Camp 4 on Everest's North Ridge route, after filming the climbing team departing for the summit, Peedom stood alone on the shoulder of Everest, just 400 meters below the summit. The solitude gave her space to contemplate how the story of Everest, told time and again on the big and small screens, left out the contribution of sherpas.
While the omission seemed deliberate, Peedom speculated that it may have been unintentional. "There's a reverence for anyone who has climbed Everest, and to show how the sherpas do all the hard work really challenges our perception of the heroism," said Peedom. "So the story is just never told."
To right this wrong, Peedom became determined "to make a documentary about Everest in the modern day, from the perspective of the sherpas."
The Results The product of Peedom's passion is the first in-depth look at the Sherpa people, whose lives and psyche are deeply entwined with Everest. The 2014 avalanche and the tragic loss of 16 climbing sherpas in the Khumbu Icefall only made the reality of life and death on the mountain that much more stark.
The film is being hailed by critics as "the most important film on Everest since the newsreel footage from the original climb."
"It's important that people recognize that the "Sherpa" film didn't happen by coincidence," said Peedom. "We didn't just turn up to basecamp and happen to capture this terrible avalanche and nab this story. The film is the culmination of a decade of work with the sherpas, so when it came to telling this story, I had their trust... and they knew I wasn't going to be a liability."
Having collaborated with great results on "Sherpa," Peedom and high-altitude director Renan Ozturk are currently working on the innovative documentary "Mountain."
It is described as "a cinematic musical about the meaning of mountains for different people and for society." It will screen both as a standalone film and accompany live performances by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at major concert venues.
For a look at what it took to bring Sherpa from idea to reality, click here for Alpinist Magazine's coverage on the film.