Archive for the ‘Tibet and Himalaya’ Category

Everest The Movie

September 23rd, 2015 No comments

everestEverest as a film has perhaps been unfairly criticised for having some of the messiness of  a real-life expedition – too many characters and an untidy ending –  faults (and strengths) it shares with the other adaptation made from a Jon Krakauer book, Into The Wild. And it’s true there are moments the only way you can tell the men with frozen beards apart is by the colour of their product placement North Face jackets.


The class British scriptwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – have fashioned a story which ostensibly has no links with the Krakauer book, but given that it was his Into Thin Air which made the 1996 tragedy on Everest so famous, his shadow looms large over it. He also makes an appearance in the film as an embedded journalist in the team who accompanies them to the summit.

The film hits one nail hard on the head – that some of the dangers which arise are the consequence of the new phenomenon of commercial guided expeditions up Everest, so that less competent mountaineers are able to attempt a summit they should arguably not be on.  But they fail to bring out one crucial argument in Krakauer’s book:  whereas in the past all members of a team would look out for one another, now the guides look out for the clients but who is looking out for the guides?  Of those who die on screen in the film, three are guides and two clients.

There is one crucial moment when lead guide Rob Hall has an uncharacteristic failure of judgement and allows himself to escort a client up to the summit way past the cut-off point when they should already be returning; the sort of misjudgement that is easy to happen when people are hypoxic and under extraordinary stress.  But also one that occurs when you are no longer dealing with a band of brothers but rather of responsible uncles with their nephews.

Everest_poster highr res 2The filmmakers were lucky to have David Brashears on board, both because of his presence on Everest in 1996 at the time the tragedy unfolded (Brashears was making an IMAX film and his character is played by an actor in this one), and for his help on how on earth you make a movie at such challenging altitudes.  While some sections were shot on Everest itself – in mid January, so freezing temperatures – which cinematographer Salvatore Totino described as extraordinarily difficult in the Hollywood Reporter – the Hillary Step, where much of the most intense dramatic action occurs, was recreated at Pinewood.  As the second unit crew were shooting some remaining scenes of the film at Camp II on Everest, an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpa guides with other expeditions.

A facile criticism of the film is that this is such an exclusively male affair.  This just mirrors the actual expeditions which were almost exclusively male – although it is true that the two female climbers are given paper thin characterisation – but also is a reflection of how a tunnel-visioned imperative to get to the top of something, regardless of disruption to family, is a not very commendable part of the male psyche.  Scenes of the two wives back home – Rob Hall’s is played by Keira Knightley – and the way they react as events unfold on the mountain are handled deftly and movingly by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, an interesting choice, given his indie background.  The wives’ reactions are not nearly as forthright as those of the widows of some Everest fatalities, who have sometimes expressed bitterness in documentaries at the way their husbands put summits before family.

The movie succeeds in many ways – a particularly fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as rival, maverick guide Scott Fischer, and a stunning recapturing of the landscape of Nepal.  See it in 3-D, so that, in the best traditions of filmmaking, the movie takes you there in a way which means you never, ever have to do it in real life – thank God. For one thing, the film amply demonstrates is that the death toll on Everest is not worth it.  Anyone who wants to experience a sublime mountain moment can do so elsewhere below the death zone without putting their own lives – and others – at risk.

In Memoriam Peter Matthiessen

April 14th, 2014 No comments

The-Snow-Leopard-for-blogThe Snow Leopard is a book more quoted than read these days.  It should be celebrated not just for its spiritual  honesty, but for the courage with which it fails.  Imagine a TV channel or even publisher today prepared to put up with a book that does not even glimpse its subject.

“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” Peter Matthiessen told the Guardian in 2002. “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”



A Touch of Zen at Xmas

December 14th, 2009 No comments

I  recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a Buddhist Centre retreat in the idyllic setting of the Somerset Hills.  Like many people, I have long been interested in Zen Buddhism without knowing that much about its practice – but I did know that meditation (or za-zen, from which it derives its name) is absolutely central to it. 

The actual meditation proved very difficult. The idea of ‘mindfulness’, where you not so much empty your thoughts as become very focused on the here and now, is not one that comes easily to me.  

I found myself being continually distracted by the soft smoky runs of the boiler igniting  its regular puffs of disbelief in the background, and by the distant catcalls of children playing in the garden, while we sat inside, in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence.   Hard to avoid the ticking clock in one’s head that counts down the days, the hours and the minutes, both in the past and the future, but never quite reaches the present tense.

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The Reluctant Lama

July 26th, 2009 1 comment

We are used to tales of disaffected teenagers leaving Europe to join ashrams and communes in India.  Now precisely the reverse has occurred.

It is an extraordinary story.  The young man formerly known as Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche and venerated by Buddhist monks in India almost as a living god has renounced his status and told of the ‘unbearable’ conditions that he endured.  At present he lives in Madrid.

 Singled out as the reincarnation of a previous lama at just 18 months, the young Osel originally came from a Spanish family of Western Buddhists who had taken the boy to Dharamsala, where he was chosen by the Dalai Lama.  After being enthroned aged six, he then spent his youth within the walls of a monastery in Southern India.  From his previous incarnation, a guru called Yeshe who had died in 1984, he inherited the spiritual leadership not just of that monastery but of 130 other Buddhist centres worldwide.

Yet shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he cast off the saffron robes and fled to the West, where he has lived in anonymity for the last five years before deciding to speak of his ordeal:  ‘I was put in a medieval situation in which I suffered enormously.  It was like living a lie,’ he told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Read more…