Mountain

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There have been a few times in my life when I have felt truly privileged to view the world in a particular way, once while deep sea diving and another time while paragliding. Wow, I thought, not many people get to see the world this way.

Mountain, by director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest), took me to that same place of wonder.

“The mountains we climb are made not only of rock and ice, but also of dreams and desire,” narrator Willem Dafoe crooned as my heart raced up a cliff-face, was dazzled by sunlight on crystal snowflakes, and shocked by the roar of avalanches. I was swept up in the majesty of mountains.

While Peedom’s 2015 BAFTA Award-nominated documentary Sherpa delves into the risks sherpa’s take for wealthy thrill-seekers on Everest, Mountain is more of a tribute to both mountains themselves, and the brave souls who feel the call to conquer them. This is a tone poem of grand proportions.

The documentary is a collaborative masterpiece. We are captivated by the extraordinary words written by Robert MacFarlane, the beautiful score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and the incredible footage compiled and shot by Peedom and cinematographer Renan Ozturk whose partnership began with Sherpa.  

In a Q&A session at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Peedom explained that it all started with the music. The ACO came to Peedom with the idea to do something with mountains. Richard Tognetti, the principal violinist and artistic director, was fascinated by mountaineers and by Ozturk’s mountain footage.

The project was originally designed as a concert work, with the ACO touring with it across Australia. But it was important to Peedom that the film stood as a stand-alone narrative piece.

During Peedom’s early years as a climbing camera operator, she had been captivated by the book Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane. It explored the revolution of our feelings towards mountains, where only 300 years ago climbing a mountain was thought lunacy. Peedom invited MacFarlane to collaborate on the film and the themes of his book became the overarching thesis of the documentary along with Peedom’s own experience. As someone who had felt the allure and siren song of the mountain, she wanted to express her experience as well.

About 30% of the film was shot with colleague Ozturk, supplemented by his own incredible library of footage, as well as that of other mountain cinematographers, resulting in over 2,000 hours of footage, across 15 countries. The technology utilized in this environment was cutting edge, with the cinematographers pushing the limits of what drones were able to do.

In the Q&A, Peedom explained that mountaineering is a “very blokey world.” She said that she kinda becomes one of the boys in that environment as she is usually one of the only women on expedition. But while it might be blokey, she says many of the mountaineering men are beautifully romantic souls, including Ozturk himself. In saying that, she did try to put as many women in the film as she could and she herself brought a feminine gaze to it as well.  

Mountain is an inspiring, soul-nourishing, and at times clench-butt-cheeks scary, sensory experience. If you’re lucky enough to see it with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, then you can count yourself very lucky. The rest of us will need to find the biggest screen we can in order to be fully absorbed into this magnificent treasure.

Sherpa

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Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa is successfully encapsulated early in the film: Sherpas are an ethnic group living in the Himalayas, not simply guides helping Western climbers summit Everest.

The theater briefly descended into whispers when this was explained, and I could relate because for a long time I thought “Sherpa” was synonymous with the words mountain guide too. The fact that Everest is such a visible and familiar endeavour in Western popular culture, while little is known about the people who assume much of the work and risk, is what’s at play in Sherpa.  The film brilliantly delves into the relationship between the guides and the adventure tourism industry.

It was hard to watch Sherpa without thinking of my own superficial relationship to mountaineering and Everest… and my many misconceptions. As a teeneager I spent a week in Nepal with a view of the Himalayas (from a great distance).  Those mountains are my most significant memory.

During the 2014 climbing season, I worked at a rock climbing gym with a colleague who was a Sherpa and had worked on Everest. I only discovered that this guy had been an Everest guide when I lazily spied him watching an amateur video of people actually on the mountain. I asked him about it and he said that one of the climbers was his cousin, and of course my colleague was the one behind the camera. He’d been planning to work the 2015 season when the avalanche seen in Sherpa derailed his plans.  Sadly, a friend was one of the 16 guides caught in the avalanche of snow.

The film largely follows Phurba Tashi, a Sherpa mountaineer who is setting out as the head guide of an Everest expedition company.  This is his 22nd ascent of the tallest mountain in the world.  He already holds the record for the most ascents of mountains over eight thousand meters, of which most are in the Himalaya Mountain Range. The number is significant because above that height is the “death zone” where there isn’t enough oxygen to support human life.

The company Tashi works for is run by Russell Brice who had cancelled an expedition to summit Everest in the 2012 climbing season due to concerns about the conditions.  He was forced to recall his guides and his clients who had paid significant amounts of money for the opportunity.

The play of risk and reward is an ongoing theme in the film. Filming took place just one year after widely reported fist fights broke out between a group of guides and European climbers.  Matters are further complicated when we learn that Sherpa guides often assume far more risk by making repeated trips between camps to provide the supplies for the climbers who are paying exorbitant amounts of money - at times more than $75,000 USD.

A memorable scene involves Sherpas carrying a large flat screen tv into basecamp among other recreational items for use by clients.

What is simultaneously compelling and harrowing about the film is that shooting was taking place when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides as they were stocking advanced camps. The incident was the most deadly event on the mountain in its history until the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal.

The incident is foreshadowed early in the film.  The audience knows it’s coming while the guides and climbers do not. It was impossible to divorce myself from the very real suspense that the looming avalanche creates, exacerbated by how intimately Sherpa documents its characters.

The first half of the movie is devoted to beautiful cinematography of the mountain and climbing with helmet mounted cameras of climbers navigating ladders suspended over truly treacherous crevasses. Then the avalanche happens and the film very quickly steps up the intimacy.

It’s a somber turn that rightly highlights the disproportionate dangers that the Sherpas undertake for little reward and no glory.  

Sherpa is awesome; it’s engaging, the cinematography is awe-inspiring and it’s moving. It’s also a great portrait of the forces at play in the tourism industry of Everest, the Himalayan culture and the skewed perspectives that are popularly held.

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As a footnote, my friend had to post-pone climbing Everest again after the 2015 earthquake, so his sights are now on the 2017 season.

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Sherpa