This edition of Armchair Travel is staying in the mountains, but we’re going to the movies with a selection of my favourite mountain films.
Many of these films are documentaries or based on true events. Brace yourself for exhilarating thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ve ever seen, all from the comfort of your own sofa.
A dramatisation of the infamous 1996 expedition season on Everest, which culminated in a disasterous storm as teams made their attempts on the summit, trapping several climbers in the so-called death zone. It focuses on the friendly rivalry between mountain guides Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhall), competing to take their clients to the summit, and draws from several sources to try to give as truthful an account as possible, including books by Jon Krakauer and Beck Weathers, and the IMAX film taken at the time by Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. The heart-wrenching final call made by Hall seems straight out of Hollywood, but is devastatingly true to life.
The Conquest of Everest (1953)
A historical documentary film detailing the various expeditions to gain the summit of Everest, culminating in the successful attempt by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. It covers details of the expedition often absent from later accounts, the 282km (175 mile) trek from Kathmandu to base camp (now often completed in helicopters) by around 400 individuals, including 362 porters laden with equipment, blazing a trail through the Khumbu icefall and setting crevasse ladders, and establishing advance camps on the Lhotse Face and South Col. All filmed on a bulky film camera by Tom Stobart, which pushed the boundaries of expedition film-making. It can be found free online.
In my student life, my housemate and a few friends were aspiring mountaineers, and this was one of our regular late-night movie choices. Two climbers (Michael Biehn and Matt Craven) blag their way into an expedition team headed to the Karakoram to summit K2, the second highest and reputedly most difficult peak in the world. The majority of the film focuses on the challenging climb and even more difficult descent, and feels an authentic representation of the mountaineering adventure, with a little human drama thrown in to drive the plot. Mount Waddington in British Columbia stands in for the savage peak of K2, though establishing sequences were filmed in Pakistan.
The Summit (2012)
A documentary film piecing together the events of the 2008 K2 disaster, where 11 climbers on were killed, and a further three seriously injured. A serac (ice block) collapsed into the notorious couloir known as the Bottleneck, stripping fixed lines and sweeping away Rolf Bae of the Norwegian team, as his wife Cecile Skog looked on. Climbers faced the decision to bivouac above for the night, or attempt to “free solo” down in the encroaching night. Two or three further serac falls the following day devastated the attempts at descent and rescue by other climbers. Footage from survivors, support teams, and re-enactments filmed on the Eiger’s mordwand (North Face) tell the shattering story.
Touching the Void (2003)
A documentary re-enactment of the expedition to Siula Grande in the Peruvian Huayhuash mountains by British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Believing Simpson dead after a huge fall in a storm on their descent, Yates makes the gut-wrenching decision to cut the rope tethering them together, and continue to base camp alone. It’s no understatement to say that miraculously, broken, exhausted, and delirious, Simpson crawled off the mountain into camp, just as a devastated Yates was preparing to leave. Both Simpson and Yates provide narration for the film, and returned to the mountain to film the climbing sequences.
An excellent documentary film following a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb Lhakpa Ri, a 7,045m (23,244′) peak in the shadow of Everest. Rejected by the community, and disabled by fear and ignorance of their condition and the challenging environment of their home, they find hope and support in the school established by Sabriye Tenberken, founder of Braille Without Borders. Under the inspirational leadership of Erik Weihnmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest, the group achieve far more than they ever could have imagined.
Not a film about the heart-stopping thrill of high altitude mountaineering, rather a rainy Sunday afternoon with a cuppa and cake-type film. Cantankerous, fiercely independent, eighty-something Edie (Sheila Hancock) dreams of climbing Suliven in northwest Scotland. The plot re-treads used tropes, an oldie on a last life-affirming adventure, intergenerational odd-couple friendships, small town life in Scotland blighted by boredom, but the scenes filmed on the mountain and surrounding Glencanisp Estate show off the stunning landscape of Assynt at their very best.
Free Solo (2018)
An outstanding, Oscar-winning, documentary following rock climber Alex Honnold’s jaw-dropping free solo (without ropes) ascent of El Capitan, the first of the 900m (3000′) near sheer granite edifice that dominates Yosemite Valley. Although Honnold’s astonishing achievement is the backbone of the film, it also records the thoughts of the film crew, roped climbers and drone pilots, that followed the climb; what would happen if…, how would they film…, what would happen with the footage of…?
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Documentary auteur Werner Herzog follows legendary climbers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander in the Karakorams as they attempt to scale Gasherbrum I and II, each over 8,000m, on a single expedition. The film doesn’t linger much on the technicalities of the climb, but as with much of Herzog’s work, it focuses on the personal motivations and obsessions of the subjects, and pries into the mindset and driving forces that make people do exceptional things.
Ok, this is not really one of the greatest mountain movies ever made, but it’s firmly in the category of “so bad it’s good”. Minus the mountain backdrop (with stunning Cortina d’Ampezzo standing in for the Rockies), it’s an absolute howler of a 90’s action film filled with guns, explosions, awesome stunts, and improbable kung-fu skills, but it’s just so much fun. Exactly as you would expect from Stallone.