Monday, October 21, 2013
Keeping the summit dreams alive
What is different about seeing a wide-shot Everest, the world’s highest mountain for the first time in The Epic for Everest (1923), to seeing it captured on camera today? To my untrained eye, at least, nothing observable about the mountain has changed but context here is everything. To see the mountain rear up above the cameraman as an pure unconquered frontier of our planet feels entirely different to seeing it now, knowing the mountain is strewn with commercial expeditions, egos, industrial disputes, rubbish, fixed ropes, corpses, and a ladder allowing the most difficult climbing to be bypassed.
It’s not just getting to the top and back that matters, climbers and mountaineers rigorously debate the ‘ethics’ of what they call ‘style of ascent’. That’s why the climbing community made such a fuss last week when Ueli Steck climbed the smaller (though fiercely dangerous) Himalaya mountain Annapurna. Not only had he found a new route on the South Face, he’d gone up and down unroped and alone without supplemental oxygen in one astonishing 28-hour push.
While most modern mountaineers wouldn't object to the tactics used by Mallory and Irvine on Everest, the footage of the Tibetan people that the climbers used as porters and passed through en-route to Everest certainly lacks a different kind of style. The raw Imperialist viewpoint espoused by the intertitles which seems to barely distinguish Tibetan man from baby donkey is enough to make anyone squirm, though this patronising tone gives way in parts to an irrepressible wonder at the ancient monastic civilisation the team passes through in the high valleys of the Himalayas.
One thinks of Steck again, earlier this year the victim of a horrific confrontation between the Sherpas and a group of fast and light Alpine climbers on Everest, possibly exacerbated by the Western team having apparently outgrown the need for traditional Sherpa support. The Epic of Everest shows us this mutually exploitative relationship that shaped 20th Century Himalayan mountaineering in its very infancy.
Do we crave and seek adventure in our own lives? What level of risk do we deem acceptable in pursuing it? For most of us it would fall far, far below the risks that Mallory and Irvine knowingly and paid for with their lives. Even today Everest remains, by any scale of human activity, phenomenally dangerous and yet thousands attempt it, sometimes controversially suppressing the most basic human instincts to aid ailing climbers to avoid harm or to keep their own summit dreams alive.
We’ll probably never know if Mallory and Irvine summited Everest before falling; it seems unlikely. But The Epic of Everest is a great chance to see a real frontier of human exploration.
The Epic Of Everest is showing, EXCLUSIVELY at the IFI, from October 18th to October 24th.