Friday, 29 August 2014

The Epic of Everest: 'Still climbing - and then, no more'

Image courtesy of
I have finally found time to watch the BFI’s new release of The Epic of Everest, the contemporary film of the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, directed by Captain John Noel, who accompanied George Mallory, Andrew Irvine and the rest of the party on their – ultimately doomed – third attempt to scale the world’s highest peak. Appropriately, it is a breath-taking piece of work.

This is a fairly instantaneous reflection, which will hopefully inspire anyone who has not seen it to seek out this ninety minute masterpiece. Once again, BFI have done a superlative job of restoring, packaging and sound-tracking this, now ninety year old, artifact of another era. They seem to have an endless conveyor belt of such gems: Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, Robinson in Ruins ... the list goes on.

The initial scene-setting intertitles of the film are 'of their time' in conjuring up a context for the expedition based not just on the mountaineering challenge, but articulated through the language of empire and conquest, of battling against nature to subdue it. This was a time when the conceit that the natural world was something to be tamed was at its zenith; we now kid ourselves that we know better, whilst seemingly unable to pull back from this (unstoppable?) sham. However, as the film progresses, the original on screen commentary, written by the director, becomes more impressive, substantial and somewhat spiritual; the words of someone who bore direct witness to the events as they unfolded, sparsely dramatic and often poetic: "Into the heart of the pure blue ice, rare, cold, beautiful, lonely - into a fairyland of ice". 

Expertly restored, the antique frames - seemingly, like their subject matter, antediluvian - have an otherworldly quality entirely suiting the epic images of ice and cordillera on screen, surely more so than the technically superior results of modern day filming. This feeling is enhanced by the colour washes (blue, purple, red) applied to some of the frames. The hues producing a dream-like sense that evokes the Antarctic Gothic of HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, as well as the imagery from the pioneering days of Victorian Alpinism reproduced in Fergus Fleming's Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps and Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind: haunting precipices, corniced ridges, looming towers of ice, endless glaciers.

Still from The Epic of Everest (Image courtesy of

Noel, in the words of Wade Davis in the film's accompanying booklet: "a soldier by profession, but an artist in spirit", was a pioneering and highly innovative photographer and film-maker. The technology and equipment utilised to produce the film was both state-of-the-art and ingeniously deployed, enabling footage of unprecedented clarity to be shot from up to three miles away. Particularly striking are the circular telescopic stills that intersperse the film. These were created using a powerful telescope clipped to his camera and synchronised with the lens so that the image of the telescope appeared in the aperture. The imagery that these frames bring to mind is of an even higher realm than the five and a half miles that Everest stands proud of sea level; we could be looking at the lines etched into the moon seen through a high powered telescope gazing out to space.

The film would be spell-binding enough if silent but is brought to life ever more vividly by the new score composed by Simon Fisher Turner. Perfectly pitched, the soundtrack lithely shape-shifts from sparsely beatific piano-led sections to appropriately ominous strings (like Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most portentous) mirroring the epic build of the images; whilst at times melting into a drone-like murmur of echoing sound-effects: creaking ice, the noise of ropes secured and pitons hammered home, yak bells. Musically the film takes a startling turn as it tracks Mallory and Irvine's ill-fated attempt on the summit; reaching 28,000 feet they attain the outer limit of human breathing and reluctantly resort to oxygen gas. At this point we hear the heavy, laboured breathing of oxygen masks, the sound of pioneers of a different frontier in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Human breath then mutates into emerging elemental tumult: a sonic apotheosis reached in a roaring crescendo evoking a soundscape of avalanche and approaching storm, constructed by multi-tracking internet storm recordings from Everest and elsewhere; a fitting coda to, in the words of John Noel's on screen commentary,: "The historic climax of our adventure - glorious because of the marvel of attainment - sad because of the tragedy of death".

Mallory and Irvine were last seen by fellow climber Noel Odell, who placed them at 28,400 feet, above the Second Step - a 40 metre wall of exposed rock and the most technically difficult barrier before reaching the summit. "Still climbing - and then, no more" reads the commentary. The last shots of the mountain are red tinted as cloud shadow slowly envelopes the immensity of the rock and ice; darkness overcoming the light.  

The cult of Mallory and Irvine has continued to inhabit our imagination ever since, an endless expedition into the mountains of our mind; ironically in many ways eclipsing the evidenced first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay thirty years later (not helped by the pragmatic New Zealand persona of Hillary; his prosaic account of the record-breaking ascent, High Adventure, makes it seem anything but). The most intriguing mystery in mountaineering history remains: did they fall or collapse before reaching the summit or after it was attained? Tantalising evidence of the possibility that the climbers of 1924 had reached the summit was found during the 1999 Mallory and Irvine expedition, which – sensationally – found Mallory’s body within hours of its commencement. Jake Norton, the American mountaineer who was part of that and subsequent research expeditions believes that they probably did reach the summit before, in unimaginable exhaustion, they followed the wrong gully and Mallory fell to his death, leaving Irvine alone and stranded to perish in the impossible cold during the night. Norton's fascinating theory (and he admits it can only be guesswork) on what may have happened can be found on his The MountainWorld blog site.  

The expedition party: Irvine, first left on back row, and Mallory, second left (Image courtesy of
Although the futility of the deaths of the two climbers (and others who also died during the expedition), particularly so soon after the horrors of the Great War, is hard to comprehend there is, when following the party's progress on screen, an aura of residual nobility; surely the incendiary spark for the Everest fever that has grown ever since. All we see here contrasts quite strikingly with the current commercial imperatives that dominate activity around Everest, which seems to revolve around enabling appropriately rich, though often inappropriately skilled or fit clients, to 'reach their goals'; sucking away at the mystique of this sacred landscape, filling it with both real and metaphysical pollutants. All the while risking death and disfigurement. 'Because its there' sounds a hollower call to arms by the year. But perhaps this is over romanticising. The 1924 attempt was supported by a huge logistical effort, with over 500 people involved and camps strung out along fifteen miles of glacier above the base camp at 17,000 feet (the limit of the range of the main means of transportation, the yak). All this enormous effort cost money and a large part of the process of getting to the mountain, as now, was raising funds from wealthy sponsors and backers. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mallory in particular had become so obsessional about reaching the summit that he had drifted into a form of madness in which all else, including his family, was disregarded. In his history of the often fatal fascination that mountaineering can weave, Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane poignantly recounts the moment that Mallory's wife and three young children received the telegram of his death.   

The film also stands as an ethnographical record of the peoples of Tibet and Nepal and their way of life before outside influences started to seep across the scene. Here we see monks, sherpas and nomad shepherd communities, their dress and customs, and dependence on the yak. A patronising tone occasionally creeps into the commentary ("We cannot call them a musical race...") but generally the footage is left to speak for itself. Most striking is the image of the fortress monastery of Kampa Dzong ('The Shining Crystal Monastery', surely a psych-rock album title in waiting), looming into shot like a Crusader castle in the twelfth century Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Llama from the monastery had wished the expedition well but predicted that the spirits guarding the mountain (known as Chomo-Lung-Ma in Tibet: 'Goddess Mother of the World') would oppose their endeavour, and by the end Noel wondered whether this had come to pass.

The combination of ground-breaking use of film and photography - both still in their infancy as art forms, the unrivalled drama of the setting and the multiple narratives culminating in tragic yet heroic death make this an unmissable document of modern humanity's long climb to, what - conquer? understand? meet with? nature at its most raw and unforgiving. After the climactic last view of Mallory and Irvine before they disappear from view and in one of his final sections of on screen commentary, we get the feeling that Noel has left behind the bombast of imperial conquest as he muses: "We must think of ourselves and of nature. We spring from nature. In life we defy her, at death we return to her. We, who are so little, and nature who is so immense!".    

The last shot of Mallory, Irvine and the summit party from The Epic of Everest before they disappear from view (Image courtesy of


Davis, W, 2011. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. Vintage. 

Fleming, F, 2000. Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps. Granta.

Hillary, E, 1956. High Adventure. The Companion Book Club.

Macfarlane, R, 2003. Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. Granta.

Nelsson, R (Ed.), 2007. The Guardian Book of Mountains. Guardian Books.

Tyndall, J, 1906. The Glaciers of the Alps and Mountaineering in 1861. Dent.

Traer, M. A tale of two men and geology on the roof of the world.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Landscape in particular 8: Siarpal in the Vale of Ewyas

“In the deep vale of Ewias, which is shut on all sides by a circle of lofty mountains and which is no more than three arrow-shots in width...”
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), The Journey Through Wales, 1188

The Vale of Ewyas, more commonly known as Llanthony Valley, winds its way through twelve sinuous miles, one of four major valleys dissecting the upland massif of the Black Mountains; its eastern ridge forming both the English-Welsh boundary and also a section of the Offa's Dyke National TrailAt the heart of the valley lies Llanthony Priory, magnificent in its ruination. Here, the Black Canons of the Augustinian order, backed by lands and patronage from the de Lacy Marcher Lords, had the vision, faith and tenacity to build a monastic community that lasted for over 400 years. 

Despite a National Park location, an iconic heritage site in its midst and the National Trail traversing the valley, not to mention easy accessibility from the urban areas of South Wales and Bristol, the Vale retains the atmosphere of a remote and little known place. Even in summer the sense of a tourist honey-pot is largely absent; yes, the three camp sites and handful of self-catering cottages will be peopled, there will be cyclists, hikers, pony-trekkers and day-trippers, but these are generally word of mouth folk, often returning year after year.

Looking north-eastwards from the Priory ruins to the ridge, England just over the horizon, the view beyond sheep pasture and mature trees is of a dip in the skyline, the hillside incised by a number of steep gulley's. This is Cwm Siarpal, the backdrop to a thousand photographs, traversed by several footpaths up to the high ground and yet largely an unknown place to visitors to Llanthony and walkers going up to or coming down from the Offa's Dyke path.

Section of 1:25,000 map, courtesy of Ordnance Survey (from Digimap).
An unmetalled track runs from Llanthony up the cwm to a lonely farmstead hidden behind Wiral Wood. As the track bends sharply to the right at the break in slope it passes a collection of ruinous buildings. On the face of it, just another abandoned farm, a fading ghost of upland toil. However, this architectural relic has a more interesting back story.

Image from
In 1809 the forgotten and quietly declining backwater estate of Cwmyoy-Llanthony was purchased by the Romantic poet and prose writer Walter Savage Landor. He was held in high esteem by his literary contemporaries but never widely popular and is now largely forgotten. Sidney Colvin opened his 1881 biography of Landor with the memorable line: "Few men have ever impressed their peers so much, or the general public so little, as WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR". He was one of a number of eccentrics attracted to the remote beauty of the valley: in the late nineteenth century the self-styled Father Ignasius built a new Llanthony Abbey at Capel-y-ffin, four miles north of the Priory and later owned by the artist Eric Gill who established a bohemian artistic community there; and the beat poet Allen Ginsburg spent time here in the late Sixties. 

Taking temporary quarters in one of the surviving towers of the Priory, the 32 year old Landor entered into his new career as country squire and 'beneficient landowner' with gusto, as he contemplated the "wild and striking country that he had chosen for his future home". A lover of nature, Landor had a particular passion for flowers and trees, "...not with any scientific or practical knowledge, but with a poet's keenness of perception" (Colvin). Of the wild flowers of Llanthony, he observed: "I love these beautiful and peaceful tribes". His most striking scheme was to reinvigorate the neglected woodland of the valley through the mass planting of cedars of Lebanon, popular at the time for the their Classical associations, with the eventual preposterous sounding aim of adding two million trees to the landscape. He also engaged construction gangs to build new roads and bridges throughout the estate, and sought to change the moribund nature of the agricultural activity of the estate through the introduction of sheep imported from Segovia in Castile and new tenants bringing improved methods of cultivation.

For a time Landor was ebullient in his praise and affection for his new home:
“Homeward I turn; o’er Hatterils rocks
I see my trees, I hear my flocks.
Where alders mourned their fruitless bed
Ten thousand cedars raise their head.
And from Segovia’s hills remote
My sheep enrich my neighbour’s cote
The wide and easy road I lead
Where never paced the harnessed stead…”
Letter to Robert Southey, 1812

Due to his position as a son of the landed classes, Landor was able to push a personal Enclosure Act through Parliament in 1813. However, his scheme to enclose the upland grazing land surrounding the valley was never completed. Indeed, Landor's ambitious plans to turn the property into a grand country estate predictably ran out of money, local goodwill and motivation before most of his designs could be realised. Ill-advisable financial decisions (including the installation of an expensive printing press) led to eventual bankruptcy. A disillusioned Landor abandoned the estate (his affairs brought " such a pass as utterly to disgust him with Llanthony, Wales and the Welsh") and left for a new life on the Continent after just five years of hopeful activity, over-expenditure and neighbourly dispute. His ire was especially reserved for his local tenants and labourers. In a viscous but undoubtedly memorable parting shot he claimed:

"If drunkenness, idleness, mischief, and revenge are the principle characteristics of the savage state, what nation - I will not say in Europe, but in the world - is so singularly tattooed with them as the Welsh?" and further, in case the point had not been made clearly enough "The earth contains no race of human beings so totally vile and worthless as the Welsh". 

The views of the inhabitants of the valley have not been recorded but the feeling was no doubt mutual. Llanthony was left in the hands of trustees of the Landor family, who remained as unspectacular absentee landlords as the valley returned to its familiar pattern of gentle decline and neglect and the estate was finally broken up in the early twentieth century.

In the midst of this eventful period in the estates stewardship, the jewel in the crown was to be Landor's mansion at Siarpal, the building that now stands ruinous in this quiet corner of the valley, a quarter of a mile uphill from the Priory. With no known plan or picture of the house to study, the remaining structures are all that provide an indication of the scale and ambition behind its construction. Iain Sinclair provides a distinctive fictional account of Landor's vision for the house and wider estate in his novel Landor's Tower

"He saw the avenues of his planting, pastureland and parkland declining to the ruined priory. Here is my place. Siarpal. A mansion, commodious but plain, facing the warm south, respecting the nature of the chosen site; a vervent spirit responsive to method, the laws of proportion, simple husbandry. The Roman model. Senatorial retirement from the fuss of society. Estates, well-managed, conversing quietly with the original rudeness of this remote valley; withdrawn from the vanity and pomp of the careless world, its princes and popes. Here Landor declared his republic. Here would he bring his new bride." 

There is no indication that the building was ever fully completed or lived in, although it would seem that during the summer of 1811 Landor and his new wife, Julia, played host to a number of house guests, including the poet Robert Southey and his wife. Shortly after Landor's theatrical retreat the half-built mansion was mostly pulled down and remained in use as a hay barn into the late twentieth century. Colvin noted that the adjacent stream "is all but dried up, and silent, as if its Naiad had fled with her master, while all the rest are vocal", and indeed, the watercourse has often seemed surprisingly wan for a Welsh mountain brook when I have visited.  

Although Landor was both a quixotic dreamer and an arrogant incomer (possessing, in Colvin's words a "lordly, imaginative, sanguinely unpractical manner"), his imprint on the landscape remains in the form of a range of features, including trackways, dry stone walls across the higher slopes, the remnants of avenues of trees, as well as the remains of his mansion. The vision of a wide parkland vista narrowing to then reveal the handsome mansion as the approach track curves its way uphill can still be clearly realised walking up to the ruin from Llanthony. A noticeable number of the beech, cedar and larch that he had planted have survived and are now, two centuries later, magnificently mature specimens.  

Landor’s house was probably built on the site of an existing upland small-holding: Siarpal was recorded as a farm of 2 acres, let on a lease for life and worth 1 shilling, in the 1799 particulars of sale for the Cwmyoy, Llanthony and Llanvihangel estates. The name therefore predates the Landor period, its origins lost in the bastardised Welsh-English etymological fog of centuries of border interactions, consistency in the written word an irrelevance. Siarpal, recorded as Sharpole and Sharpwell on nineteenth century maps; possibly originally from the Welsh Siarp meaning 'sharp': Sharp Hill, an accurate topographical description for this steep sided cwm. Iain Sinclair, with Welsh-born insight, adds: "The Sharples. Sharpil or Sharpll: so they cursed it. Sharp Hill, something of that sort. The Welsh had a flair for stating the obvious and making it portentious by speaking in an awe-struck whisper". There are numerous other examples in the area, probably Welsh in origin but anglicised into arcane mutation: Hatterrall Hill, Loxidge, Llanthony itself (in the original Welsh, Llanddewi Nant Honddu, meaning ‘the church of St David on the Honddu brook’).

As a postscript, the current long-standing custodians of the site have recently had an impressive new roof constructed on the coach house, the best surviving part of the house, and repaired the walls to prevent their imminent collapse. With the owners kind permission I have been lucky enough to camp in this special place on two occasions, the first a memorable birthday party. On the more recent camping weekend I was told by the owners that they are not yet sure what to do with the buildings. As, in Robert Southey's words in his poem The Ruined Cottage, "I pass this ruin'd dwelling oftentimes, and think of other days" I hope that these relics of a Romantic poets vision, loaded with memories of unrealised dreams, will continue to bear quiet witness to the layered landscape that they survey.  

This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes and places that are particularly meaningful to me, for whatever reason; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.
Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:

The Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy
Bolton Abbey


Bradney, J, 1907. History of Monmouthshire Vol. 1 Part 2a: Hundred of Abergavenny (Part 1). Academy.

Colvin, S, 1881. English Men of Letters: Landor. MacMillan.

Craster, O, 1963. Guide to Llanthony Priory. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Evans D et al, 1980. Excavations at Llanthony Priory, Gwent, 1978 in Monmouthshire Antiquity 4, p5-43.

Fancourt, L, undated. Llanthony Priory: History and guide. Leaflet.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), 1978. The Journey through Wales/ The Description of Wales (Trans. Thorpe L). Penguin.

Sinclair, I, 2002. Landor's Tower or the Imaginary Conversations. Granta.