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 "Sherpa-Unsung Heroes": A unique and exciting project

I believe one of the difficulties that an explorer of the High Himalaya has to face is finding competent porters . . . skilled in the use of rope and ice axe. If these men were at the disposal of climbers, the chief obstacle to the conquest of the great Himalaya would be removed. It is difficult to see how any first-class Himalayan summit is to be reached without such aid." - Douglas W. Freshfield, English mountaineer/explorer. 1903

Nearly a hundred years later those words still ring true. The Himalayan Sherpa is without doubt essential to high altitude mountaineering. But who are these porters, or Sherpa, and what skills and training could explain their profound influence on the conquest of the worldıs highest peaks? Would the popularity and scale of Himalayan mountaineering among Westerners be as it is if there were no Sherpa? 
Rathong Valley last leg to HMI Base Camp

THE PROJECT: Our film, a feature length documentary, will take the first outside look into the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Founded in 1954 by Tenzing Norgay and located in Sikkim, India, at the foot of the Himalayas, HMI is the worldıs first and finest climbing school for teaching mountaineering skills exclusively to the Sherpa.  Sherpa and Sherpani (as the women are called) interested in gaining coveted jobs on well funded expeditions know that getting into HMI and achieving a prestigious HMI graduation honor is the first summit on their way to a high altitude climbing career. 

If the competition to get into HMI is fierce it's quickly matched by the instructors challenge to students once they're accepted. One example: Day five; students are required to complete what would normally be a 12 hour hike in just 6 hours. In addition to this unbelievable time restriction, they must carry 60 lbs. on their back. Five minutes late on the return and they are cut from the course.  For an HMI student this is just the beginning a multitude of pitfalls that await them on the way to graduation. 

THE STORIES: We intend to follow the twenty-eight-day women's Advanced Course through the eyes of three students. Yangchen Sherpani 18 yrs old, is one of three women we will follow. Of 57 women having passed the Basic Course, she was one of 14 that received a recommendation to the Advanced Course. She hopes to graduate from the Advanced Course, which would be the highest honor and an incredible initiation into a lifelong climbing career. Two other women to follow will be chosen upon our arrival in India. We will be choosing the others with diversity of story in mind. 

The 9 HMI instructors will play as sidebar stories throughout the film. Their stories are certainly worthy of telling. Kushang Sherpa, an HMI instructor whose life is filled with heart wrenching experiences at the world's highest peaks. He ran away from home the first time at the age of 14 to work as a porter on an expedition that was passing through his village. He is the first person to have summited Mount Everest from three four points of the compass. His tales of empty promises of money, equipment and land, in exchange for his abilities to make these expeditions successful are tragic. He is not known by the Western climbing world, but the expeditions he has worked on created wealth and fame for their leaders in the form of books and film.
Kushang Sherpa on the Summit of Everest via East face 1999

Yet he is humble, as the majority of Sherpa are, and does what he does because he wants to provide an education for his children, one that he never had. He can't read or write so he climbs because he has to, not "Because it's there". 

Kunga Bhutia, another HMI instructor, was the first woman from West Bengal to summit Mount Everest. We believe her story is interesting not only because of gender but because she is of a new generation, the first among Sherpa, that now climb by choice rather than necessity. 

In October of 2000, Director/Producer Win Whittaker and Cinematographer Sarah Whittaker made a preliminary scout to HMI, successfully enlisting the support of Nawang Gombu, Director for 44 years at HMI, and many of the students. Having traveled the world both as guide and tourist, Gombu has a precious familiarity with the limited resources of the region, the struggles and dreams of his students and the potential rewards for their success. The initial footage Win and Sarah gathered from that trip is just a taste of this great project and what it can be. 

Tenzing Norgay's hut: HMI base camp's first Structure

Click on the above pictures for the full sized versions.

THE FILMMAKERS: Win Whittaker is well know among the climbing elite, having guided on Mt. Rainer, Mt. McKinley, Aconcagua, and several of the worldıs highest peaks since his early teens and trained many of todayıs top climbing guides he hails from the famous climbing Whittaker family. Gombu and Win have worked together guiding expeditions on Mt. Rainier for the last seventeen summers, and their friendship will certainly benefit this production.  Although well know for his climbing, Win is perhaps less well known for his extensive film experience. Having worked in the film industry for seven years as an Assistant Director he has both the heart of a climber and the knowledge of a filmmaker that this project requires. 

Karen Alvarez has produced a number of projects over the past twelve years. As former Zoetrope staffer and assistant to Francis Ford Coppola her insight into the sometime crazy creative process as well as the nuts and bolts of filmmaking is invaluable.  Karen's input is already evident in the preparation of the filmıs budget and her constant "reality checks" on the logistical demands of this project. As a resident of Park City, Utah, she is a mountain woman and skier as well as a competent filmmaker. Karen's coordinating skills and thorough knowledge of filmmaking will add balance and fiscal responsibility to the crew. 

Sarah Wheat Whittaker first appeared in films as a skier for filmmaker Dick Barrymore, then moved on to become a stuntwoman.  She has worked in the Hollywood film industry for the last eleven years as a First Assistant Cameraperson and has been the cinematographer for several less glamorous, yet closer to her heart, projects in South America and on Mt. Rainier. Sarah has a proven ability to accurately capture the moment at 23,000 feet, a skill that will be invaluable on this project. 

Patrick Reddish has worked in the motion picture industry for fifteen years. His list of credits include gaffing such films as "Field of Dreams", "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and most recently  "Swordfish".   Not only does Patrick have extensive experience as a Lighting Gaffer, Camera Operator, and Director of Photography, but as a longtime alpinist and resident of Park City, Utah, he has extensive mountaineering skills. Over the past eight years Patrick has worked with Sarah and Win on feature films and mountaineering projects. Having been to the Himalayas several times before, Patrick will be a tremendous asset.

THE PAYOFF: We believe we have a unique and exciting project. The market is ripe for stories of adventure, struggle, and accomplishment; all of which this film promises to have. We also believe that this project can not be given the care or visual vitality it deserves if it is under funded. We are willing and ready to discuss financial involvement from any seriously interested parties, however; as we will be the first Westerners allowed inside HMI, we are not at liberty to take any other crew into the school. 

GIVING BACK: A percentage of any profits from this film will go to the Sherpa Bhuddists Association, an organization that provides assistance to the families of climbing Sherpa who have died or become incapacitated in the field. They will also receive $7,500 when we reach half of our budget and another $7,500 when we complete the budget. Their help has provided the means to continuing education for sons and daughters of deceased Sherpa upon whose backs and selfless effort many Westerners have found glory. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Whittaker Productions winsarah@mashell.com  P.O. box 292 Ashford Wash. 98304 

Phone 360-569-2877 Whittaker Productions

Producers contact Karen Alvarez 435-647-3047  Snizik@qwest.net 

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