Six Climbing and Mountaineering Documentaries Worth Watching
From the Everest-inspired Ascent of Cabourn collection in 2003, to this season’s range influenced by the Stonemasters of Yosemite National Park, rock climbing and mountaineering have always been a huge inspiration to Nigel Cabourn—not just for the functional design of the clothes involved, but for the strong characters that have been drawn to these bold activities over the past hundred years.
Only a certain sort of person happily risks their life on the side of a mountain—and when you combine that rare individual drive with some particularly scenic, visually appealing, backdrops, it’s probably not much of a surprise that countless documentaries have been devoted to these bold adventurers over the years.
Considering it looks like the great outdoors if out of bounds for a while, here’s six classic climbing and mountaineering documentaries to help you through the lockdown…
The Conquest of Everest - 1953
The Conquest of Everest tells the story of the first successful attempt to climb the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Rather than simply focus on those who reached the top, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the film shows both the history behind the expedition (using rare footage captured during the fateful 1922 expedition which cost George Mallory and Andrew Irvine their lives), as well as all the logistical work which was involved—from testing oxygen tanks to fixing ropes into cliffs of ice. Hillary and Tenzing may be the names people know, but The Conquest of Everest shows just what a huge team effort it was to get them to the roof of the world.
Mountain of Storms - 1968
Mountain of Storms follows an intrepid band of climbers (including a young, pre-Patagonia Yvon Chouinard and North Face founder Doug Tompkins) as they drive from California to Chile in a camper-van to conquer Mount Fitz Roy. Although scaling this icy behemoth is most definitely no mean feat, this film has a particularly laid-back feel to it, helped no doubt by the sun-soaked 16mm film and the relaxed guitar noodling on the soundtrack. There’s even a slightly strange soft-focus dream sequence in the middle when the four climbers, temporarily trapped in an ice cave, pine for their loved-ones back home.
This carefree feel definitely adds to the appeal, and although the climbers in this film were some of the most accomplished of the era, this casual document of a road trip, complete with a quick stop-off to catch some waves in Peru, feels particularly relatable.
The Dark Glow of the Mountains - 1985
Made by notorious filmmaker Werner Herzog, The Dark Glow of the Mountains documents Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander’s attempt to ascend the two highest peaks of the Himalayan Gasherbrum mountains in one session—a first in the mountaineering world. Like a lot of Herzog films, Dark Glow of the Mountains looks beyond the technical aspects of the subject at hand, instead focusing on the more universal aspect of the story… the philosophies of the people involved.
During some well-earned breaks in their trek, Messner and Kammerlander sit down with Herzog as he tries to get to the bottom of their obsession with scaling massive mountains. The interviews with Messner are particularly interesting, as the Italian mountaineer has clearly spent a long time pondering over his addiction to mountaineering, and why he keeps going when he’s lost countless friends, and toes, along the way.
If you like this, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner from 1974. Another documentary on the subject of bold human endeavour, this one focuses on a world-class ski-jumper and full-time carpenter by the name of Walter Steiner.
Don Whillans’ Last Climb - 1985
Don Whillans was a wise-cracking, cig-smoking, beer-supping plumber from Salford who, along with the late Joe Brown and Chris Bonington, was amongst the first to scale countless summits during the 60s and 70s. Made just a few months before he died of a heart attack at the age of 52, Don Whillan’s Last Climb sees Whillans and Brown attempt to clamber up a route they first climbed over thirty years before—Snowdonia’s notorious Cemetery Gates.
In the same way that fishing programme with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse is so enjoyable to watch, this is a real gem of a documentary, showing two old friends, both well past their prime, having a laugh on the side of a large chunk of Welsh rock.
Valley Uprising - 2014
This one tells the tale of how Yosemite National Park became the rock-climbing capital of North America, from the early days as a magnet for counter-culture climbers like the Stonemasters, up until today’s new wave of ropeless free soloers and BASE jumpers. Featuring interviews with countless legends of the scene, and a huge wealth of never-before-seen photographs, Valley Uprising shows how a rag-rag band of beatnik dirtbags helped make rock climbing what it is today.
On the subject of Yosemite climbing, the 1978 film El Capitan, which documents one of the earliest ascents of ‘The Nose’ of Yosemite’s El Capitan, is also worth a look if you can seek out a copy.
Free Solo - 2019
And finally, there’s Free Solo. Following on from the Yosemite action shown in Valley Uprising, this Oscar winning documentary follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to scale the 3,000ft El Capitan… without any ropes. It goes without saying that this is a bit of a nerve-wracking watch, and you don’t need to be a fully-fledged cliff-scrambler to appreciate what’s going on here.