Setting up camp: Perched on the edge and taking cover from potential avalanches, Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain
Setting up camp: Perched on the edge and taking cover from potential avalanches, Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain

Stuck inside out of fear of the ever-mutating strains of the coronavirus or because it’s just too cold out? Wishing for a glimpse of vistas beyond your room, your familiar street or your crowded, smoggy city? On our watchlist for this week are three documentaries that will take you into the pristine alpine air of the highest mountains in the world and get you high.

The Ghosts Above (2020, YouTube)

He lives, breathes, sleeps mountains. Renan Ozturk lives in the mountains and the mountains live within him. As one of the most famous mountaineers in the world, he is also one of the finest cinematographers/filmmakers specialising in mountain films, extreme altitudes and adventure sports. 

For anyone that has even the remotest interest in mountain documentary films, there’s a chance you’d have come across his work. Needless to say, any Ozturk film that comes out is not to be missed.

Almost at the top, Breathtaking: K2 the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain
Almost at the top, Breathtaking: K2 the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain

In his latest production, The Ghosts Above (2020), made for Sony Alpha Films in collaboration with National Geographic, Ozturk tries to unravel the mystery of who really reached the summit of Mount Everest first. He joins an intense expedition in search of the long-lost body of British mountaineer Andrew Irvine, the climbing partner of George Mallory, both of whom disappeared in one of the earlier attempts to summit Everest in 1924. They were last seen close to the summit before their death. Mallory’s body was found in 1999. Irvine’s body is yet to be found, his pocket camera could contain a summit photo that could rewrite history. 

A historical mystery thriller in the Himalayas, friendship, love and loss in the Hindukush and endurance and resilience in the Karakorams...

Fun fact: New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay are officially the first to successfully summit and make their way back down in 1953. 

The film has been directed by Ozturk along with his wife and alpinist, Taylor Rees and sports filmmaker Jay MacMillan. From the opening scene until the very end, every frame in The Ghosts Above is breathtakingly beautiful, often giving a perspective — from extreme altitudes, hostile environments and dangerously precarious moments — previously only limited to big mountain alpinists, now available for regular humans to feast their eyes on.

Climbing Everest in the dark, *The Ghosts Above*
Climbing Everest in the dark, The Ghosts Above

Ozturk narrates the film and includes his observations about how much things have changed in the years he’s been climbing. We also get flashbacks into his own life via some of the previous films he’s shot and starred in — Meru (2015), in which he ended up with a life-threatening injury while on a climbing expedition, and Sherpa (2015), about when high-altitude porters at Everest went on strike and shut down the 2014 climbing season after 16 porters died in an ice avalanche. He explains, presumably to the novice viewer, about the hostile conditions these climbers are in, even at base camp, and about the burden on those tasked to carry the bulk of their gear and to keep them safe. “We’re risking our lives and their livelihood,” says Ozturk about the anxious Sherpas on their expedition. 

This expedition in particular, seems to encounter one major problem after another. One of their team members is dangerously ill and has to be taken away to a hospital and there are terrifying storms at Camp 3 that reduce some tents to pieces and blow off others, among other things.

Adrian Ballinger near the top, 'Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain'
Adrian Ballinger near the top, 'Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain'

Perhaps most shocking is seeing the unglamorous side of Everest in this film — the mess on the camps, the crowds and the one thing no one talks about: death. “The higher we go, the more bodies we see,” says Ozturk as his camera pans from his climbing partners to frozen bodies lying face down on the ice next to their fixed ropes. You suddenly realise why Ozturk has called this film The Ghosts Above — in the death zone (above 8,000m when the brain and body is starved for oxygen; your body is dying while you are still alive) all you have are the ghosts of those who never left the mountain. 

But these are not enough to deter Ozturk and Co from trying to find Irvine’s body. 

Unsung Heroes (2020, YouTube)

Carla Perez near the top, 'Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain'
Carla Perez near the top, 'Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain'

At this point, I’ve seen enough brilliantly-filmed and edited vlogs by Mooroo to find his signature style now a bit predictable and not terribly exciting. That’s how I felt when this video first started but, in spite of myself, after the first couple of minutes, I couldn’t help being so drawn into the storytelling that I felt myself choking back tears during the more moving moments of the film. 

Unsung Heroes is a story about friendship, adventure, love and loss in the mountains. Mooroo, his wife Iraj, and his sidekick Ahsan Ahmed are off on a trek deep into the heartland of big mountain territory in Pakistan. They’re doing it with some of the biggest names in Pakistani mountaineering — Ali Sadpara, Sirbaz Khan, Hasan Jan, Saad Munawwar, Abdul Joshi and Nadeema Sahar among others. 

Holding down tents during a storm, 'The Ghosts Above'
Holding down tents during a storm, 'The Ghosts Above'

Before the trek, that will take them to Zani Pass with the mighty Trich Mir (7,708m) — the highest mountain in the Hindukush range — in the background, their stamina and skills are ‘tested’ (in the most fun way possible) in the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. Once their journey begins, we’re treated to stunning vistas via aeroplane window, jeep (“Mountains ki shahzadi [The princess of the mountains],” as Ali Sadpara calls them) travel and when they do their journey on foot. Interspersed with the footage of the scenery are clips from the trek and some from the archives — you’ll get Sirbaz’s dizzying perspective of climbing over glaciers, his and Ali Sadpara’s summits, Saad Munawwar’s last record-setting trek with his mountaineer friends until news of a tragedy in the mountains reached them etc. 

And then there is Mooroo of course, adding a bit of humour in his classic self-deprecating style. The vlog itself is edited as if we’re in Mooroo’s head with his soothing tone, while narrating, switching to gently singing his points across as well.

There is mountaineer Nadeema Sahar’s harrowing account of getting caught in an avalanche at Melvin Jones Peak (5,800m), unsure if she — or anyone — had truly survived. Abdul Joshi seems to be the resident big mountain rescuer, risking life and limb to find a way to access the Khurdopin glacier, after it had surged and created a little glacial lake that had authorities worried — the lake could burst and drown Shimshaal.

Sirbaz Khan, 'Unsung Heroes'
Sirbaz Khan, 'Unsung Heroes'

He’s shown frequently on the phone, coordinating with authorities and even has to leave to rescue a pair of stranded Polish climbers in the mountains. Then there’s Saad Munawar, the mountain writer who, along with accomplished alpinist Qudrat Ali, trekked 665km across all three of the tallest mountain ranges in the world — the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush in 23 days. All three of them are connected by tragedy, a loss they recently experienced that was a stark reminder of how precarious life can be in the mountains. 

Watch Unsung Heroes not only for the natural beauty of the north and the promise of adventure, but to know more about those that have pushed the limit of human strength and endurance and helped others, and also, to get a little perspective on life. 

Breathtaking: K2 The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain (2020, YouTube) 

Nadeema Sahar, 'Unsung Heroes'
Nadeema Sahar, 'Unsung Heroes'

“K2 isn’t some malevolent being. It’s indifferent to suffering but it isn’t cruel. Its environment is hostile, but it isn’t angry. It doesn’t have a voice but it does speak. One of the greatest lessons a climber can learn is how to listen to the mountain.” 

These words were narrated by Ed Viesturs — the only American to have climbed all fourteen 8,000m peaks in the world — in the recently-released documentary film Breathtaking: K2 the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain. The film follows accomplished alpinists and mountain guides Adrian Ballinger and Carla Perez as they aim to summit the 8,611m mountain in 2019.

This is a film for both mountain enthusiasts and those looking to be informed and entertained by an adventure only a few people will ever be able to do. I remember, along with thousands of others, following Ballinger’s push for the summit of K2 last year. His unforgettable Instagram photo showing the infamous ice seracs towering menacingly over him as he spent five hours under them making his way to the top, provides a mere glimpse of the challenges that face mountaineers as they attempt to summit K2. It’s considered the hardest mountain in the world to climb and requires an alpinist to be exceptionally good in all kinds of climbing techniques, including but not limited to, rock and ice climbing.

Presenting from the top: Mooroo, 'Unsung Heroes'
Presenting from the top: Mooroo, 'Unsung Heroes'

We’re reminded in the film that more people have been to space than to the top of K2. That, out of 117 years of expeditions from 1902-2019, less than 400 people have stood on the summit. “Yet, despite the danger and objective hazard it’s a calling for some, almost a religion for others. [To have] the chance to test one’s limits and do what so few have done before,” narrates Viesturs about why anyone would choose to climb an 8,000er — the only mountains in the world with a ‘death zone’ near the top — the altitude at which humans cannot survive.

We see that, from the very onset, their expedition is riddled with challenges. The mountaineers fall sick either on the trek or while acclimatising, porters strike due to low wages, bad weather (they walk into basecamp to the sight of a huge avalanche cloud on the base of the Abruzzi ridge on the mountain), the most snow in 30 years, one avalanche has already wiped out one team’s camps, missing mountaineers on another mountain etc. Everything points to this being a bad climbing season. 

The ‘crowd’ at K2 also makes them nervous. In 2019, the Pakistani government issued the most permits it ever has, and over 200 climbers would attempt to summit the mountain. But K2 is the hardest mountain to climb in the world and it cannot afford an Everest-like rush. “On this mountain you need to be independent, fast, you need to be ready for when sh*t hits the fan, which is all the time… It’s not that people shouldn’t be here but you need the experience to stay alive,” says Ballinger. Cautionary words that must be heeded by both mountaineers and the authorities allowing them there. 

The trek took a lot out of Ahsan, 'Unsung Heroes'
The trek took a lot out of Ahsan, 'Unsung Heroes'

It’s all very scary, which is why the team understands that even a little humour goes a long way. During a particularly difficult moment in the climb, when they camped above 7,000m on an acclimatisation round, climbing partner Carla Perez, says to Ballinger, “We are here to enjoy, to learn.” “Are you enjoying right now?” asks Ballinger with a mix of humour and a lot of pain. 

Watch the film for never-before-seen moments on K2, to fully understand how complex and challenging this mountain is; for the jaw-dropping, steep, kilometres-long drops and the incredible beauty of mother nature in its wildest and most intimidating form. Watch it to see two people push the limits of their resilience and endurance to simply, well, get high.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 27th, 2020

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