The Epic of Ever­est

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The Epic of Ever­est, his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles

There were some thou­sand peo­ple on Mount Ever­est’s south side in April when the Nepalese earth­quake, its epi­cen­ter about 140 miles from the moun­tain, sent an avalanche into the base camp in Nepal, sit­u­ated at about 17,600 feet. Nine­teen climbers were killed there, the ma­jor­ity of them Nepalese Sher­pas em­ployed to get the for­eign­ers to the top. Other climbers were briefly stranded on routes higher up the moun­tain. The crushed tents and de­bris at base camp, look­ing much like the Mid­west­ern sub­urbs of Amer­ica af­ter a tor­nado, are a far cry from the tiny, iso­lated camps of ragged can­vas tents seen in the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute’s restora­tion of John Noel’s 1924 si­lent film, The Epic

of Ever­est. More art film than climb­ing doc­u­ment, it fol­lows that year’s ill-fated Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tion to­ward the peak’s north side, through a land­scape that’s been largely ob­scured be­hind the head­lines.

Ever­est, a moun­tain that has of­ten seemed to be de­fined by its tragedies, is leg­endary for its oxy­gen-de­fi­cient Death Zone above 26,000 feet, where climbers begin a long process of con­sum­ing their own bod­ies. Since Ten­z­ing Nor­gay and Ed­mund Hil­lary first reached the sum­mit in 1953, the moun­tain has slowly been los­ing its rep­u­ta­tion of ex­tremely for­bid­ding re­mote­ness, func­tion­ing in­stead in mod­ern times as a sym­bol of achieve­ment for thrill-seek­ing, mostly wealthy, and in­ex­pe­ri­enced moun­taineers known to turn a blind eye to fel­low climbers down and dy­ing along the way.

Noel’s re­mark­able 90-year-old film re­stores the moun­tain’s won­der and mys­tery. With long fixed-cam­era takes, it cap­tures the des­o­la­tion, scale, and si­lence of the peak now as­so­ci­ated with evac­u­a­tion he­li­copters, trash-dis­posal prob­lems, and la­bor dis­putes. In Noel’s film, the land­scape takes the lead­ing role. The small­ness of the climbers cross­ing the vast, vir­ginal, and vis­ually stunning scenery brings per­spec­tive to the cir­cus that the climb­ing sea­son now brings to the moun­tain.

The Epic of Ever­est serves up layer upon layer of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion, be­gin­ning with the long trek past Ti­betan vil­lages and land­marks and up glacial river val­leys to reach the moun­tain’s base. Noel, film­ing places lit­tle known at the time — and as yet to ap­pear on film — cap­tured ways of life in Ti­bet be­fore out­side pres­sures be­gan to in­ter­fere with them. The film has un­com­fort­able mo­ments, such as when it con­de­scends, through a subti­tled nar­ra­tive, to lo­cal cul­tures in ways most Western­ers wouldn’t have been as sen­si­tive to in the 1920s. The vil­lages and their “un­washed” peo­ple con­sist of “hov­els be­grimed with the smoke of the Ar­gos fires,” each with a bark­ing mas­tiff tied near the en­trance. Early in the climb, the deaths of two porters from frost­bite and ex­po­sure are treated mat­ter-of-factly. On the other hand, there are some en­tranc­ing, lin­ger­ing por­traits of in­di­vid­u­als — for in­stance, de­pic­tions of women wear­ing hair adorn­ments and her­mits en­sconced in their cliff­side dwellings — that sug­gest a lost world.

The footage can fol­low Ge­orge Mal­lory, An­drew Irvine, and the other climbers only so far up the 29,035-foot moun­tain. Noel and his crew made it to 23,000 feet and a camp called Ice Cliff, a re­mark­able ac­com­plish­ment for men tot­ing hand-cranked cam­era equip­ment. On the way to Ice Cliff, the climbers strug­gled through a sur­real land­scape of glaciers, snow­fields, ice­falls, and im­pos­si­bly steep rock. It’s sug­gested, as a way of play­ing up the moun­tain’s mys­ter­ies, that it has su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers and is home to gnomes and imps — that, in the end, larger forces are at play. “Some­thing more than phys­i­cal had op­posed us in this battle where hu­man strength and West­ern science had bro­ken and failed,” the ti­tles tell us, and the vi­su­als leave no doubt about the moun­tain’s mag­i­cal qual­i­ties. Some black-and-white scenes in the film were orig­i­nally color-tinted, but this new restora­tion brings back the true tones — with a blue wash giv­ing the icy “fairy land” a par­tic­u­lar chill and red hues deep­en­ing the sun­sets. In black and white, the ice fields ap­pear to be sculpted, with rock cliffs that have been blown clear of snow glis­ten­ing like steel. The ever-present clouds move at time-lapse speeds, surg­ing off the ridge tops, stream­ing from the peaks, ris­ing thick from the val­leys. Above Ice Cliff, the cam­era fol­lows the team as far as three miles away by tele­scope, the sur­pris­ingly sharp scenes framed in a cam­era lens’s cir­cle.

The mu­sic to this si­lent film is an im­por­tant part of its hyp­notic char­ac­ter. Simon Fisher Turner’s new score is part field record­ings, part orches­tral and elec­tronic back­drop. Fan­fares her­ald sun­sets, and the swirling sounds of syn­the­sized winds ac­com­pany the rush­ing clouds. Much of the mu­sic im­parts a strange sense of fore­bod­ing. De­spite its con­tem­po­rary elec­tron­ics, Turner’s sound­track is time­less, as sur­real and ma­jes­tic as the film it­self, de­spite the oc­ca­sional pops and clicks that give the new score a dated sound, as if it were the re­sult of restora­tion too. The writ­ten ti­tles some­times reach po­etic heights — Ever­est is de­scribed as “smok­ing with driven mist and snow” — but can also be triv­ial, oc­ca­sion­ally even used to glo­rify the ex­pe­di­tion’s Bri­tish he­roes. Howard Somervell, a sur­geon as well as a moun­taineer, and Mal­lory, we’re told, save the lives of men stranded for four days on the side of a cliff by way of their “sheer moun­taineer­ing skills.” The ac­com­pa­ny­ing footage shows the men, seen through the tele­scope, floun­der­ing across a dis­tant snow­field. As men­tioned be­fore, when the sub­ti­tles cite lo­cal folk­lore or make vague ref­er­ences to spir­i­tual forces, the con­de­scen­sion be­comes some­what un­bear­able for au­di­ences with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties. Death, the only con­stant in Ever­est’s long and var­ied climb­ing his­tory, makes it­self felt when Mal­lory and Irvine fail to re­turn from their sum­mit at­tempt. Had they made it to the top al­most 30 years ahead of Nor­gay and Hil­lary? Or had they per­ished in the in­hos­pitable winds and tem­per­a­tures of the chill­ingly beau­ti­ful Death Zone, help­less in their low-tech moun­taineer­ing gear?

— Bill Kohlhaase

Props: moun­taineer and film­maker John Noel at his cam­era on the Ti­betan side of Ever­est, 1924

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