Mountain spirits

While absentmindedly surfing channels a few evenings ago I was fortunate to chance on what turned out to be one of the most compelling films I’ve ever seen: The Epic of Everest, a new version of a 1924 documentary recording one of the earliest efforts to scale the mountain.

Shot and edited by expedition member John Noel the film captures the first moving images of Everest and the Himalayas. Restored by the BFI National Archive with a new – and highly effective – soundtrack the film is still available on the BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks.

We will ever know whether the expedition was ultimately successful. The two climbers who attempted the final stage of the ascent, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, among the finest mountaineers of their generation, were last seen alive closing in on the summit before disappearing from the range of Noel’s camera. What is known for sure is that they never returned. They died on the way up – or on the way down. Mallory’s body was found just a few years ago. Irvine’s is still up there, somewhere.

Noel’s camera technology may have been limited, but he uses what he had with great inventiveness. His film is a ceaseless succession of extraordinary images that powerfully evoke the sheer strangeness of the Himalayan landscape. If anything, the filtering of Everest and its sister peaks through the flickering, grainy monochrome footage reinvests those eerie summits with an alien ambiance that the sharpness of modern film tends to erode.

Noel is fascinated by the ever shifting play of light on the mountain ranges, often using primitive but effective time lapse sequences to evoke the passage of wraiths of cloud across the peaks, and to capture the fantastic chiaroscuro patterns they cast on the slopes below. He sometimes uses colour filters to accentuate particular scenes: red to indicate sunset on the summit, blue to intimate the bitter cold of the glaciers.

But the most memorable scenes are those setting the expedition members against the backdrop of the titantic vistas through which they moved. Noel typically stands hundreds of yards back from his colleagues, filming them as tiny figures inching forward across the brilliant wastelands, the mountain peak forever looming in the background.

Noel’s carefully edited film frames the quest as an elemental confrontation between humankind and nature at its most raw. In freighting the expedition with something of the quality of myth he followed in the tradition of other Victorian and Edwardian explorers, who, during that age of doubt, were conscious that their explorations had a religious dimension. For them, the sublimity of nature took the place of an absent god, the realm of spiritual struggle moving from the interior landscapes of the religious imagination to the attempt to conquer the Alpine and Himalayan ranges.

The film brought to mind a chapter from Anthony Kenny’s collection The Unknown God, in which he discusses the work of the Victorian mountaineer and philosopher of religion Leslie Stephen. Stephen was one of the first in what has become a long line of rugged British adventurers, usually from well-to-do backgrounds – originally intended for the clergy Stephen was educated at Eton and Oxford – who have sought to prove their mettle through self imposed tests of endurance in the wilderness. As Kenny writes:

Matthew Arnold used the mountain scenery of the Grande Chartreuse as the setting for the most famous poetical expression of the Victorian crisis of faith … Those who abandoned Christian belief were anxious to exhibit, in the stoic traits of character essential for success above the snowline, that loss of faith need involve no diminution of moral fibre. Those who gave up belief in the eternal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were glad to retain a sublime object of awe in the everlasting snows of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn.

Kenny’s chapter also notes how the mountain writing of the time disputed different understandings of the sublime, setting Stephen’s reflections in dialogue with those of John Ruskin.

For Ruskin, the sublime must be unapproachable, contemplated from a distance. The majesty of the mountain range, the forest or the great lake is lost if it is encountered at first hand. Kenny quotes Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies:

The real beauty of the Alps is to be seen, and seen only, where all may see it, the child, the cripple, and the man of grey hairs. There is more true loveliness in a single glade of pasture shadowed by pine, or gleam of rocky brook, or inlet of unsullied lake, among the lower Bernese and Savoyard hills, than in the entire field of jagged gneiss which crests the central ridge from the Schreckhorn to the Viso.

But for Stephen it is the climber rather than the Platonic observer who gains access to the full grandeur of the mountain. Proximity opens uncanny vistas and perspectives that the distant watcher can only imagine. In The Playground of Europe Stephen writes:

I might go on indefinitely recalling the strangely impressive scenes that frequently startle the traveller in the waste upper world; but language is feeble indeed to convey even a glimmering of what is to be seen to those who have not seen it for themselves, whilst to them it can be little more than a peg upon which to hang their own recollections. These glories, in which the mountain Spirit reveals himself to his true worshippers, are only to be gained by the appropriate service of climbing – at some risk, though a very trifling risk, if he is approached with due form and ceremony – into the furthest recesses of his shrines. And without seeing them, I maintain that no man has really seen the Alps.

Much as I love Ruskin, Stephen is surely right, as Noel’s film demonstrates. Here the reality of the mountain moves from the picture frame or the lyric, and confronts us, in all its uncompromising otherness, new worlds opening with every turn of the camera lens.