“The Man Who Skied Down Everest” (1975)
When George Mallory famously responded to the question as to why he wanted to climb Mount Everest with the seemingly flippant remark- “Because it’s there” -his brief answer would prove to provide a succinct definition as to rationalizing the existential challenge to the modern adventurer. However, when the specific nature of said adventures fall into the category of novelty rather than that of significance, then such a conquest of historic inconsequence calls for outside observers to apply the brakes of practical comparative criticism. Such a novelty challenge is not so much explored than merely recorded in the Bruce Crawley production of “The Man Who Skied Down Everest”, in what, in essence, is a testament to Man’s persistence in personal glory regardless of the sacrifice or expense to others.
The film relates, in interestingly documented logistical and technical detail, the method by which hundreds of porters, Sherpas, technicians, journalists and fellow climbers journey from Katmandu to Mount Everest so that Japanese alpine skier Yûichirô Miura may try his hand at being the first man to every ski down the world’s highest peak. The film is narrated completely from the journal of Miura, his words given voice by Canadian actor Douglas Rain (familiar as the voice of HAL 9000 in “2001”), and since his perspective is the only directly articulated window we are given as to nature and purpose of the venture, we are beholden to his judgment in all matters except for one: what we see for ourselves in the remarkable captured footage, which often either contradicts or minimizes the often pie in the sky philosophical ramblings which fail to account for the reality of the hardships his singular quest for adventure is wreaking on his absurdly vast support team. Rather than a heroic figure, the spoken text reveals the skier to be something of a narcissistic, arrogant jerk, as well as a singularly unimaginative tour guide; espousing prosaic musings meant to memorialize his own status, yet never once do the thoughts of the man capture the poetry of aesthetic splendor in a single one of the wondrous images captured by the camera crew headed by director of photography Mitsuji Kanau.
For all of Miura’s pontifications of the spiritual bond of Man and nature, his journal entries emerge as self-aggrandizing metaphysical drivel as his attitude toward more practical matters is colored by an insensitivity that is quite appalling; in dismissing the hardships suffered by his literal army of bearers that will make “his” adventure come to fruition. (He compensates each of the 800 barefoot porters lugging the tons of equipment over mountains and valleys with a generous one dollar a day in compensation.) Unintended amusement rears its head in one sequence where footage of Japanese professional subway packers are shown stuffing Tokyo commuters into cars like meat in sausage casings, reinforced by Miura’s dreamy expressions about “the life of adventure I have chosen, to escape the labyrinth of the cities”, while he seems unaware of the irony that he literally carts a small city behind him, across his precious solitary landscapes, in order that they cater to his needs. There is an equally telling sequence in which the privileged status of the civilized adventurer is thrown in sharp contrast to the demands placed upon the native labor hired to do the heavy lifting is delineated in startlingly sharp detail. While teams of Sherpas are sent to find a clear path through the deadly icefalls, an arduous and extremely dangerous task, Miura continues to speak of his own exhaustion while sharpening his skis.
The visual documentation of this journey is breathtaking in a way that purposeless travelogues fail to capture, for there is a grandeur in the majesty of untamed nature juxtaposed with the puniness of those who profess to conquer such grandiosity, and for that reason alone the recording of Miura’s quest (not the quest itself) has an artistic purpose. But as six men perish in an icefall avalanche, the need to question the practicality of the essentially trivial purpose of the climb leaps to the forefront. One would think that deeper questions about the necessity of such vanity projects would find a deep and abiding home in this retrospective chronicling, and it is this absence of sincere introspection that makes “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” far less of an accomplishment than its stunning visuals might suggest. In the finale, when Miura’s intended 8,000 descent on skis falls short through his own inability to conquer the length of the ice field, he quite offhandedly wonders “was it a success, or a failure?” The narration ends with the vacuous words: “The end of one thing is the beginning of another. I am a pilgrim again.” One can’t help but notice that the Six took the project more seriously.