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At this climbing school, gender makes no difference

Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Sherpas, as almost everyone knows, are those hardy, high-altitude porters who help Westerners climb Himalayan peaks.

But what the heck are Sherpanis? Not even Win Whittaker, who is in Sikkim in northern India to document the story of three Sherpani climbing students, knew what Sherpanis -- pronounced Sher PAN ees -- were when he began planning the project.

Sherpanis are female Sherpas. And, yes, they climb, too. Whittaker, nephew of Jim Whittaker, the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest, traveled north from the Indian hill station of Darjeeling to film three female students undergoing the school's 28-day advanced mountaineering course. The Sherpani's goal: to gain the skills they need to earn the coveted jobs as climbing support on Western expeditions.

For his first feature-length documentary, Whittaker originally intended to focus on the critical role played by Sherpas in high-altitude mountaineering. But after a reconnaissance trip to the school last fall, and a little prodding from his wife, Whittaker decided the Sherpanis were the more compelling story.

''My original goal was to show how these guys go up the mountain -- fix lines, carry oxygen, establish camps, make the route happen -- while the 'climbers' are down in Base Camp playing cards,'' he said. ''Whether it's women or men, without them, the climbs would be nowhere near as successful as they are.''

Whittaker is co-producing the film with his wife, Sarah, and Karen Alvarez of Park City, a former assistant to Francis Ford Coppola. Another Park City resident, camera operator Patrick Reddish, is also part of the crew.

From the 18 hours of video they plan to shoot, they will distill a feature-length documentary, which they hope to enter in the Sundance Film Festival and mountain film festivals in Banff, Alberta; and Telluride, Colo.

More than 50 women are taking part in this month's advanced course. To gain a place, all had to perform exceptionally well on the institute's basic course. Any Indian citizen or Nepalese Sherpa is eligible for the basic course, even if they hail from sweltering Calcutta and have never seen a mountain.

The cost of the courses, subsidized by the Indian government, is $80, a huge sum in a country where the average income is less than $400 a year. Foreigners are not permitted to attend.

Nor have foreigners ever been allowed to film at the school. But Whittaker has personal connections to school director Nawang Gombu. Not only did Gombu stand on the summit of Mount Everest with Whittaker's uncle Jim in 1963. Gombu and Win Whittaker also work together on Mount Rainier in the summer as guides for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., the guiding company co-owned by Whittaker's father, Lou, twin brother to Jim.

The family connections don't end there. Gombu took over as director from his uncle Tenzing Norgay, who founded the school in 1953, the year after Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary became the first men to scale Mount Everest.

Women started attending the school in 1973, after Gombu met Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. ''Why are there no women?'' Gandhi asked him.

There promptly were.

Whittaker and his crew spent a few days at the institute's headquarters in Darjeeling, selecting two more students to film. Their third subject is Yangchen, who settled on mountaineering after trying college. Previously, Sherpas were often illiterate and worked as porters so that they could educate their children.

''Here's a girl who has a choice -- the opportunity for an education -- and she's going climbing,'' said Whittaker. ''She's from a new generation who are climbing because they want to, not because they have to.''

From Darjeeling, Whittaker and his crew traveled to the school's Base Camp, a five-hour drive north, followed by a four-day trek to the head of the Rathong Valley at 14,700 feet. The camp consists of a collection of stone huts, unserviced by electricity or other modern conveniences.

Last fall, the Whittakers climbed a nearby 18,700-foot peak scaled by students on the basic course and experienced firsthand the type of gear used at the school. ''I swear it's straight from Hillary and Tenzing's time,'' said Whittaker, who has worked as an assistant director on 14 feature films. ''But they're so competent with it.''

With the economic downturn causing many potential sponsors to tighten their budgets, the Whittakers are taking a pared-down approach to their film. They're shooting exclusively with their own digital video equipment, for example, rather than using film for some shots, as they had originally intended.

But even though finding backers has been tough, they weren't willing to accept help from companies, such as Home Box Office or National Geographic, which would have insisted on assuming control.

''We stayed away from approaching them because we knew we'd just be working for money,'' said Whittaker. ''The only way our film is going to be shown on there is if it's shown exactly the way we give it to them.''

The Whittakers, who met on a film set in Salt Lake City, believe so strongly in the film that they've refinanced their house to help make it. ''With Everest being so big now, with the IMAX film and Vertical Limit, it's really out there now,'' said Whittaker. ''Here's a completely different angle. I believe in it. And if it doesn't work, it's money. It's meant to be used.''

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