Home Video Hovel: The Man Who Skied Down Everest, by David Bax

28 Jul

Visual documentation of Mount Everest is not hard to come by, especially in the 21 years that have passed since the 1996 disaster that was chronicled in IMAX’s Everest (as well as Jon Krakauer’s landmark book Into Thin Air). But Bruce Nyznik and Lawrence Schiller’s The Man Who Skied Down Everest, filmed in 1970 and released in 1975, represents a sort of time capsule. Only seventeen years after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited the mountain for the first time, the industry of Everest-climbing is still in its infancy here. Hillary himself appears in the film, providing a link between eras. But Nyznik and Schiller have something other than an adventuring chronicle in mind. The Man Who Skied Down Everest is lovely, contemplative and, at times, surreal.

Yuichiro Miura, a Japanese skier, had a fun idea. He would lug his skis as far up Everest as he could and then cut down his return time by skiing down a portion of the mountain. He ended up skiing for about 6,600 nearly vertical feet on the mountain’s South Col pass, which resides in the death zone – a mountain climber’s term for the range above 26,000 feet where the oxygen is too thin for people to live. The movie covers much more of the ascent and anticipation than the skiing itself, as Yuichiro’s plan was a lot more complex to execute than to describe, requiring a massive crew (some of whom perished) carrying literal tons of scientific and athletic equipment. The film is narrated by Yuichiro himself and then overlaid with an English translation read by actor Douglas Rain, best known as 2001’s HAL 9000.

Nyznik, Schiller and cinematographer Mitsuji Kanau shoot in the widescreen aspect ratio, fitting for a nature documentary—especially one about something as grand as Everest—but also ideal for the thrilling action photography. As Yiuchiro skis, both in his daredevil run down the South Col and in practice sessions lower on the mountain, the frame allows the space to appreciate how fast he is moving as well as the entire visual effect of his progression, from the spraying plumes of soft snow to the shallow, snaking trenches his skis leave on the mountain’s face as he carves his path.

This visual poetry echoes that of the film’s subject. His narration is full of thoughtful turns of phrase, describing an ice fall as looking “like the tongue of some gigantic demon” or simply stating that, “Breathing begins with exhaling and then inhaling.” He even ventures into proto-Malickian ponderances like, “Numbers have meaning in the world below but, in this almost airless world, what do they mean?” It would be elitist to describe The Man Who Skied Down Everest as something “more than” a sports documentary. It is absolutely a sports documentary; it’s just one of the best ones ever made.

Whatever source The Film Detective used for this transfer must have been in remarkably good shape, especially for a documentary of only moderate renown. The picture looks great and gratifyingly grainy. This is a film that depends more on its look than its sound, especially with so much narration, but the stereo tracks are good.

There are no special features.

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