Summiting Everest would be the feat of a lifetime for almost anyone. For Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to reach the peak, it also meant challenging traditional gender norms in Nepal. And it required transcending a role that Nepali mountain guides have historically played — namely, helping tourist mountaineers rather than taking the lead.
The documentary “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest,” directed by Nancy Svendsen (whose brother-in-law was a brother of Sherpa’s), explains how its title subject became a famed figure in Nepal. Opening with footage of a memorial procession in Kathmandu in 1993, it makes clear at the outset that her record requires a sad asterisk: Although she reached the summit on April 22 of that year, she died on descent.
“I wasn’t born a mountaineer,” Sherpa says in an interview excerpted at the film’s start. “I’m just a housewife.” According to the documentary, the first mountain she climbed to its peak was not in Nepal, but Mont Blanc in Europe. What she learned there served as inspiration for an ascent closer to home.
Drawing on interviews with family members and fellow climbers, “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest” describes the various social, national and financial obstacles that Sherpa encountered. Jan Arnold, a New Zealand doctor and climber who was on Everest contemporaneously, vividly explains the physical toll that acclimating to the mountain can take.
While the interviewees speak of Sherpa with sincerity and affection, “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest” never locates a satisfying big-picture idea or formal approach that would make it more than a straightforward tribute.
Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 12 minutes. In theaters.