The Oscar-winning documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest is a prime example of how artistry and nonfiction storytelling can gracefully coexist. Comprising extraordinary 35mm footage that was captured during a 1970 Japanese expedition and embellished with narration adapted from the journals of the real-life figure after whom the film is named, The Man Who Skied Down Everest explores themes of ambition, challenge, hubris, humility, spirituality, and tragedy. Because almost none of the people depicted onscreen speak English, the sole voice heard throughout most of the film is the narrator who recites translated excerpts from the title character’s journals. This makes The Man Who Skied Down Everest feel like the interior monologue of a bold individual undertaking something that should be impossible. (The narrator is Canadian actor Douglas Rain, best known for another audio-only role: He played HAL 9000 in the 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
At times, protagonist Yuichiro Miura comes across as a poetic iconoclast determined to chart his own path in a world that steers most people toward conformity. At other times, he seems like a spiritual wanderer questioning why misfortune often strikes the most vulnerable among us. Unquestionably, Miura had a role in guiding how he was portrayed, and producer Budge Crowley (who oversaw the transformation of the raw materials into this elegant film) set out to tell a particular story that requires a particular sort of protagonist. Nonetheless, the sum effect of the picture is quite powerful even if the content was skewed to embellish Miura’s stature as a daredevil with depth.
The statistics featured in the narration, all of which seem borne out by the accompanying visuals, are staggering. The expedition, which embarked from Katmandu, involved 800 porters carrying 27 tons of gear. It took the group 12 days just to reach the halfway point of their journey, and then Sherpas assumed the responsibility for guiding the way and transporting gear. The last three miles of the trip—a final ascent to the top of the world’s highest mountain—took 40 days because of long rest stops required for acclimation to changes in air quality and temperature. By the final stretch, men carrying approximately 65 pounds of gear apiece traveled through an environment in which the temperature drops 100 degrees at night, and in which the air contains half the oxygen it does at sea level. As Rain says in the narration, “It is almost too much effort to live” near the top of the mountain. Adding to the hardship of the endeavor is a cave-in that kills six Sherpas, and the most contemplative passage of the film concerns Miura asking whether it’s worth continuing a athletic challenge after such a loss of life. “These mountains are beginning to steal my identity,” the narrator remarks, “They tell me how to feel.”
The climactic ski run, during which Miura wears oxygen gear and uses a parachute to keep from achieving deadly acceleration, is presented by way of a long, unbroken shot, and it’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Less a testament to the power of man and more a somber meditation on man’s struggle to find harmony with his environment, The Man Who Skied Down Everest is so much more than a sports documentary, even though the heart of the film is a remarkable physical achievement.
The Man Who Skied Down Everest: RIGHT ON