Sunday, 24 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... Mountain Disasters

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

I think there may be something wrong with me. For some reason I have for a long time been fascinated by mountaineering disasters. Even though I have zero interest in partaking in mountain climbing myself (I rarely consider even walking to the shop down the road), I have been through loads of books and films on the subject. I can take or leave stories about successful mountain climbs where all is well, but when it all goes horribly wrong, I'm in. Now I realise that the climbers (and their families) have suffered terribly as a result of these events, but you can't get away from the fact that they do make for quite the cinematic experience. I find it fascinating to hear stories of the people who go onto these mountains knowing full well that they will be perilously close to serious injury or death at any moment. At least retelling their stories means they will be remembered, whether they survived or not. With Everest having just been released on DVD, I thought I’d have a look at that and pick out a couple of other true accounts of unimaginable nightmares that occurred on the most dangerous mountains on Earth.

Everest (2015)

Perhaps the most high profile story of mountaineering tragedy happened on Everest in 1996, when two expedition groups were hit by a huge unexpected storm that left many dead. This is an ambitious retelling of those events, I wouldn’t say the script is anything special but it is for the most part a spectacular film to look at. It’s one of those films that I wish I’d gone to see in IMAX 3D, I’m not usually fussed about such things but watching it on a TV somehow didn’t feel like it was doing it justice. I’m a big fan of the journalist Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, his character features in this even though it isn’t apparently based on his book. If I was him I would sue. Anyway I enjoyed the film well enough because of the convincingly harrowing situations and visuals, even if I doubt I’d watch it again. Also, just in case it was ever in any doubt, it did remind me never to attempt scaling any kind of mountain. Unless there’s a car park and restaurant at the top.

Touching the Void (2003)
In 1985 two climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, attempted to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in Peru. No-one had ever previously reached the summit. A long way up, Joe suffers a horrific injury and events lead to the two of them being separated. In an incredible feat of human endurance, and a situation that would be the end for most people, he somehow made it out alive. A riveting documentary that is part reconstruction and part interviews with those involved (it's obviously not a spoiler to say he survived, given he's retelling his own story). The cinematography is also pretty remarkable, how they managed to film scenes of this quality in such harsh and dangerous places is beyond me. If you only ever see one mountain disaster film in your life, make it this one, it's fantastic.

North Face (2008)

This is the story of a disaster that struck a group of climbers trying to win the race to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland. Although Everest has the highest peak, the Eiger’s North Face is regarded by many as the toughest climb in the world. Pushed on by Nazi "encouragement" to beat other nations to the summit, two German climbers make an ascent on a route that hadn't been attempted before. On the mountain they achieved feats of climbing that have passed into mountaineering legend, yet things went badly wrong, and this is an impressive dramatisation of what happened. I think some of it may use a bit of artistic license, Joe Simpson followed up Touching The Void with The Beckoning Silence (2007), which tells this same story but with quite a few differences of opinion on what unfolded. When it comes down to it though, North Face is the better film.

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