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The view from the top

  • There have been some great documentaries on climbing and mountaineering in the recent past
  • After Free Solo’s Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature, here are 5 other movies you should watch 

A scene from ‘Meru’
A scene from ‘Meru’

Now that a bona fide climbing movie has won an Oscar, one that tracks the most breathtaking—and record-breaking—free solo ever attempted, hopefully Hollywood will take a cue. Free Solo’s subject, Alex Honnold, 33, has been pushing the limits as the climber’s climber since 2007, when, at the age of 22, he free soloed two of Yosemite’s toughest climbs in one day, thus shattering an over 20-year-old record. Hailed by many as the world’s most supreme athlete in any sport, he’s a climbing wunderkind who has been taking the sport to the next level for over a decade now. When the movie won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, it didn’t further his legend, but it did bring to the fore the sheer brilliance and drama that a great climbing movie can generate. Here are five of the best.

Meru (2015)

Directed by the same team behind Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Meru tracks the successful first ascent of the mountain of the same name in 2011 in the Garhwal Himalaya by Chin, cinematographer Renan Ozturk and the legendary Himalayan climber Conrad Anker. Chin and Ozturk are highly accomplished climbers themselves. Ozturk is also an acclaimed painter. The cinematography, especially at Himalayan altitudes, is breathtaking, as is the suspense, which doesn’t let off till the very end. The movie’s protagonist, Anker, goes through a full emotional wringer in the course of the climb, while Ozturk survives a terrible injury. When the three get to the top, there’s no exulting, just the quiet satisfaction of a great job spectacularly done. You can watch Meru on Prime Video.

A scene from ‘Sherpa’
A scene from ‘Sherpa’

Sherpa (2015)

Jennifer Peedom is one of the most talented documentary film-makers today. Her 2017 feature, Mountain (available on Netflix), based on writer Robert Macfarlane’s book Mountains Of The Mind, is an immersive meditation on the allure of high peaks. Her earlier feature, Sherpa, which turns the spotlight on Nepal’s famous Sherpa community, is a masterpiece. Filmed in the immediate aftermath of the deadly 2014 avalanche on Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, which killed 16 sherpas, the film is a much-needed antidote to the narrative of exceptionalism that surrounds Western, white climbers.

Told from the point of view of the community without whom not just summitting Everest, but most Himalayan mountaineering, would be impossible, Peedom’s movie is unflinchingly honest. From terrible working conditions, to putting their lives in danger for a pittance to fuel the “achievements" of overbearing white climbers, Sherpa takes viewers deep into the world’s problematic obsession with Everest. A winner of multiple awards, and stunning cinematography by Ozturk, Sherpa shouldn’t be missed.

Valley Uprising (2014)

In Free Solo, when Honnold climbs El Capitan, he brings to fruition a 50-year-old dream of the climbing community of the Yosemite Valley. Since the 1950s, the valley has been home to generations of maverick climbers, colourful personalities who married their craft and skills to an almost pathological anti-establishment philosophy. Directors Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s film is a labour of love about a community of misfits who changed the sport forever. Figures like Royal Robbins, Lynn Hill, Dean Potter and Warren Harding pushed the limits of climbing, helped usher in changes in technique and gear, and, more importantly, injected a sense of can-do playfulness into the sport. Fittingly, the movie ends with the advent of Honnold to the scene, as a fresh-faced geek who would upend everything about climbing. Catch Valley Uprising on Netflix.

Touching the Void (2003)

Awarded the Bafta for Outstanding British Film, Touching The Void is a documentary that dramatizes one famous climb, and its even more famous aftermath. In 1985, young hotshot mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates completed a spectacular alpine-style first ascent of the west face of Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Peruvian Andes. While on their way down, Simpson slipped and fell into a crevasse, and Yates had to cut the rope connecting them to save himself after his efforts to help Simpson failed. But Simpson didn’t die. With a shattered leg, and suffering from severe frostbite and delirium, he managed to climb out and drag himself down the mountain and across a glacier to the camp over the next few days.

Simpson wrote a book about his harrowing tale of survival called Touching The Void. A best-seller and an acclaimed classic of mountaineering literature, it was the basis for director Kevin McDonald’s docudrama of the same name. Filmed on location with mountaineer actors and overseen by Simpson and Yates, this is a classic among climbing films. Apart from the events, it also investigates Simpson and Yates’ relationship—the fear of being abandoned and the guilt of leaving your friend behind. The Guardian has called it the most successful documentary in British film history. You can watch Touching The Void on Netflix.

Director Werner Herzog (left) with Reinhold Messner during shooting ‘The Dark Glow Of The Mountains’ in the Karakoram
Director Werner Herzog (left) with Reinhold Messner during shooting ‘The Dark Glow Of The Mountains’ in the Karakoram

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

When you bring together an auteur like Werner Herzog, and the world’s greatest mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, you get a climbing movie unlike any else. Herzog’s movie isn’t so much about a climb as much it is a probing look into the psyche of a mountaineering Olympian like Messner. Filmed in the Karakoram in 1984, Herzog interviews Messner and his climbing partner Hans Kammerlander just before they are about to set off for a record-breaking alpine style (climbing without ropes and oxygen) ascent of Gasherbrum I and II, both 8,000m peaks, at one go. They were successful, but at the time of filming, nobody could foretell the outcome.

Herzog takes the opportunity to tease out Messner’s hopes, fears, and the trauma of losing his brother while climbing Nanga Parbat, with the skilful precision of a surgeon. The result is a remarkable glimpse into the vulnerable core of one of the world’s most iron-willed climbers. A veritable masterpiece. 

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