“I wonder how many people died in the making of that film,” quips my white-knuckled neighbour as the lights come on in the Sydney Opera House concert hall after the world premiere of Mountain, a screening accompanied by sweeping live orchestration that will tour Australia in August.
I saw only one body bag flash across the screen in this masterful documentary – a cinematic and musical collaboration between the director of Sherpa, Jennifer Peedom, and Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra.
But from the opening shot of a spreadeagled (and, astonishingly, smiling) Alex Honnold, hundreds of metres up Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso without a rope, the stomach rarely leaves the mouth.
Where Sherpa – Peedom’s Bafta award-nominated 2015 documentary – was a critique of the Everest industry in which local guides take disproportionate risks for wealthy and thrill-seeking foreigners, Mountain is an unashamed tribute to the western adventurers who are willing to risk their lives climbing the world’s great heights.
Collated from more than 2,000 hours of footage shot in 15 countries, Mountain is a 70-minute rush of adrenaline; a safari into the sublime; a vertiginous voyage to the top of the world.
Renan Ozturk, the high-altitude cinematographer who worked on Sherpa, is back behind the camera, with his footage making up more than 60% of the final cut. The archive of the Canadian production house Sherpas Cinema is also mined, with the end result providing astonishing vision of mountaineers, ice climbers, free soloists, speedflyers, heliskiers, snowboarders, wingsuiters and parachuting mountain bikers.
Flashing back to footage from the early days of western mountaineering, the film asks why humans are drawn to high places, plumbing psychological depths for an answer that goes beyond the British climber George Mallory’s riposte about Everest: “Because it’s there.”
“What is this strange force that draws us upwards – this siren song of the summit?” asks the Mountains of the Mind author, Robert Macfarlane, whose words – and answers – are threaded through the film.
“As everyday life becomes safer for some, we seek out danger elsewhere,” he suggests. “You never feel so alive knowing that any minute you could die.”
High altitudes are “a space where time warps and bends and sensations are thrillingly amplified … [It] induces in us forms of insanity and forms of grace.”
The peaks in Mountain are both irresistible and formidable: snow cakes on sunlit heights like lashings of whipped cream; climbers huddle in a tent swinging on a sheer rock face, waiting out a blizzard as avalanches thunder around them; mountaineers celebrate their arrival at a peak by passing around a joint; a rock climber plummets, his body slamming against the cliff like a flailing Spider-Man; a lone hiker’s fist punctures the sky upon arrival at a summit; a stranded Australian climber whimpers, “Oh God, take me home.”
Mountain is sparsely narrated by the Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe, whose subterranean tones give gravitas to Macfarlane’s words, leaving space for the ACO’s score to create the real drama. The live orchestra synchronises Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven and Sculthorpe to scenes of awe and pathos, while the giddy arpeggios of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres soundtrack the churning somersaults of aerial skiers, and Richard Tognetti’s own compositions capture both the majesty and the terror (and crescendo in just the right places to mask me screaming “Holy shit” as yet another idiot, I mean athlete, freefalls off a ridge).
The audience creates an additional, parallel, soundtrack, with collective gasps, sighs of relief and, when the feats of daring verge on implausible, incredulous laughter (footage of the mountain biker Danny MacAskill on Scotland’s Cuillin Ridgeline has everyone guffawing).
Mountain briefly revisits territory trodden by Sherpa, with footage of hundreds of climbers in a cold-climate conga line to the Everest summit. “This isn’t climbing, it’s queuing,” Dafoe intones as we see an oxygen-masked climber revel in his moment at the peak as those behind him wish he’d hurry the hell up. Breathtaking footage of the 2015 avalanche that hit Everest base camp and killed 22 people, many of them Sherpas, reminds us that “the most risks [are] taken by those who have least”.
Despite its glorification of thrill-seeking, the message that runs through Mountain like rivulets over rocks is that our highest peaks are places to be revered and respected.
“Mountains are so much more than a challenge, or an adversary to be overcome,” Macfarlane reminds us after a sobering close-up of an active volcano.
“Mountains humble the human instinct … restore our wonder and challenge our arrogance. More than ever we need their wildness.”
• Mountain screens at the Sydney film festival on 17 and 18 June. The ACO will tour Mountain Live throughout Australia from 3 to 20 August. The film is out in Australian cinemas on 21 September