In concept, the 1970 endeavor to enable Japanese daredevil skier Yuchiro Miura to become the first athlete in his sport to descend Mount Everest seemed like an expensive folly: a $3 million budget that initially involved 850 men and 27 tons of equipment. And documentary footage covering this adventure seemed destined to become a standard-issue travelogue, at least in its initial journeys through too-picturesque stretches Nepal.
But the resulting production, which is now being re-released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of The Film Detective Restored Classics series, evolves into a compelling portrait of struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of an achievement that could either be defined as the ultimate in audacity or the depth of pointlessness, depending on the viewer’s appetite for outrageous risks.
As the expedition ascends into the Himalayas, the immensity of Miura’s challenge begins to take shape as a small army with massive supplies slowly march to their lofty target. The camaraderie between the Japanese team and their Nepalese Sherpas develops quickly – in the film’s funniest moment, the Japanese set up a video player to show their local guides Seven Samurai and a Bonanza episode. But their bonds are tested when an ice cave-in results in the deaths of six Sherpas. After careful consideration from both sides, it is decided to push ahead with the quest, although the emotional aspect of the journey is more somber.
The danger of the trip becomes more acute as the climbing party reaches new icy heights. The thin air of the higher elevations and the uncertainty of using a parachute for Miura’s skiing feet at a 27,000-foot altitude makes his challenge seem like an invitation to disaster.
The film’s narrative is based on the extensive diary that Miura composed of his Everest project. But while he is seen in various states of pensive meditation and intense exercise, he never expresses himself directly on camera. Instead, the film’s soundtrack consists solely of a recitation of Miura’s diary by Douglas Rain, a Canadian actor best known as the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rain’s narration is initially academic and feels like the wrong voice to attach to the reckless Miura. But as the film progresses, Rain’s voice relaxes to a point that it becomes as hypnotic a presence as the massive peaks that dare Miura’s conquest.
As for the climactic ski challenge, the early 1970s technology did not allow for a closer capturing of the event, and the film follows Miura’s effort via a 1600mm telephoto lens from a considerable distance. The descent of Everest is captured in a silent, slightly grainy take lasting less than three minutes, with Miura as a tiny being barreling downhill seemingly out of control. It is one of the most harrowing athletic accomplishments ever captured on film – whether it was deserving of the financial costs and the lost lives can be debated.
Although the release print of The Man Who Skied Down Everest does not carry directorial credit, the DVD and Blu-ray release identifies Bruce Nyzink and Lawrence Schiller for that honor. The film is also recognized as one of the major nonfiction films of the 1970s via its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and its return will be welcome news to Oscar completists eager to experience prize-winning productions.