The Ghosts Above – 36 minutes of Everest porn, free on YouTube

In 2019, the mountaineering film maker Renan Ozturk and climbing writer Mark Synnott led an expedition to the north side of Everest, sponsored by National Geographic. Their aim was to find the body of Sandy Irvine, who went missing on the North-East Ridge in 1924. They hoped to retrieve his camera and solve the 96-year mystery of whether Irvine and George Mallory were the first to reach the summit.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say as far as this aim was concerned, the expedition was something of a damp squib – had Irvine been found then you’d know about it by now. But in another way their expedition was a magnificent success. The team took high-altitude drones, and produced film of Everest that has never been seen before.

The resulting documentary about the search for Irvine, Lost on Everest, is available on the National Geographic channel for those of you located in the United States. For the rest of us, there is a little 36-minute taster, The Ghosts Above, available on YouTube.

The Ghosts Above, a film by Renan Ozturk
The Ghosts Above, a film by Renan Ozturk

The storyline of this film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and nor will some of the production. It’s narrated by Renan Ozturk himself in the form of a personal diary. Renan’s photography is some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen, but narration isn’t his forte and the film would have a little more zip had he given this job to a professional actor.

The crux of the story is a dispute between the team and their Sherpas, which transforms the expedition from a search for Irvine to a struggle to reach the summit. This dispute is misleadingly portrayed in the film to the detriment of the western team members. It appears that they hid their intentions (to search for Irvine) from their Sherpas and only revealed them halfway through the expedition.

In fact, this wasn’t true. The local operator, Expedition Himalaya, and many of their senior Sherpas were fully aware of the expedition’s main aim. Some had even carried out searches for Irvine before. But on arrival at base camp, the Chinese authorities in the form of the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) imposed conditions on the team that made it almost impossible for them to carry out their search.

These conditions were crucial. The team were not allowed to stay at Camp 3 for more than one night, and they could spend no more than 12 hours on their summit push. This put Expedition Himalaya in a difficult position. On the one hand, they had their commitment to National Geographic to help them make their film about Irvine. On the other hand, they were worried that if they broke these new rules then they risked a ban from operating in Tibet. They chose to obey the new rules, even if it meant forsaking the film.

This ‘12 hour rule’ is alluded to in the film, but because the conditions imposed on the team are not explained, it’s easy for viewers to assume that the reason the Sherpas don’t want to spend 12 hours above Camp 3 is because they think it’s too dangerous. I spent two nights at Camp 3 either side of an 18-hour summit day, so I can tell you from experience that it’s possible to spend longer up there. Sherpas far more experienced than I am will know this.

Why Renan doesn’t explain these nuances in the film is unclear because he ends up making himself look bad. Judging from the outrage in the YouTube comments, the overall feeling is that they tricked their Sherpas, but this wasn’t true.

Renan certainly seems to be quite an earnest chap. There were times when I found myself admiring his approach, such as watching him struggle to communicate with his Sherpas in Nepali, lapsing into English from time to time, but making an effort nonetheless. I appreciated when he said his duty as a photographer is to avoid clichés because they don’t honour the complexity of people’s lives.

But this earnestness also led to the story becoming entangled in a mass of contradictions, and it sometimes felt self-righteous.

There are many examples. The film begins with the line ‘I never wanted to be here, but here I am crawling to the roof of the world’. This seems a little disingenuous because in reality he has succumbed to the lure of Everest just like everyone else. Whether going there to look for a corpse is any more noble than going there to reach the summit is open to question.

He describes himself as a ‘champion of indigenous communities’, in this case Sherpas, but then acknowledges that he and Mark Synnott are ‘anti-Everest’, by which people usually mean anti-commercial mountaineering on Everest. But commercial mountaineering on Everest and the Himalayas in general has been the Sherpa lifeblood for the best part of a century. If you want to support Sherpa communities in Nepal, you have to reconcile yourself with commercial mountaineering, particularly on Everest.

The Ghosts Above, a film by Renan Ozturk: The view from Camp 3 looking across Changtse towards Cho Oyu
The Ghosts Above, a film by Renan Ozturk: The view from Camp 3 looking across Changtse towards Cho Oyu

The summit push is a dramatic piece of cinema, and will be an eye-opener for those who believe that climbing Everest is easy. This team of highly experienced climbers clearly find it a struggle. They arrive at Camp 3 too tired to pitch their tents, so they crawl into abandoned ones, left by previous expeditions. Footage of exhausted faces creased in pain are all too plain. Above Camp 3, every step is a battle. Climbers stagger for a few metres then stop with shoulders hunched to get their breath back. All of the team find it hard, even Jamie McGuinness, who is making his sixth successful ascent.

Renan chooses to stop a few metres short of the summit because he considers it sacred. This seems a little overboard. His teammates, including the Sherpas, are happy to walk onto it. This is not like Joe Brown reaching the untouched summit of Kangchenjunga, and stopping short because the local people have asked him to. Nearly 6,000 have stood on top of Everest, and Edmund Hillary even peed up there.

There is more drama on the way down when Mark Synnott unclips from the rope to go and look for Irvine. This is presented as a big thing and disrespectful to the Sherpas, but I don’t see it that way. He’s an experienced climber and professional mountain guide; it’s what he came for and he’s invested a lot; he doesn’t need to feel bad. (You may be wondering why they didn’t send drones to look for the body: in fact, they did but Mark decided to go for a final check.)

I also found the ending a bit annoying. After telling us he avoids clichés when filming people because it doesn’t honour their complexity, Renan resorts to a howling Everest cliché in the final moments as he approaches ‘the earth’s highest dump just below its highest graveyard’ (the issue of shredded tents and bodies left high on Everest is a nuanced one that also deserves better than this).

‘Part of me is shell shocked… aware now that the ambition it takes to summit Everest tends to twist and contort all who come,’ he says

To which some Everest summiteers (myself included) will be thinking: ‘speak for yourself’. Learn and grow, certainly… but twist and contort? That would be twisting things.

I’m sure Renan learned and grew from the experience too. He certainly emerges with more respect for the Sherpas he already championed. He must know by now that climbing Everest isn’t easy however experienced a climber you are. And he is no longer ‘anti-Everest’.

‘I never wanted to be here.. But it is so strangely beautiful,’ he enthuses.

But I’m probably sounding churlish. What makes this film great isn’t the script, but the photography: from the lights in tents as the sun sets over mountains; to the time lapse shots of clouds moving across the summit, that have been done many times but never fail to dazzle; to the aerial drone shots of the North-East Ridge, North Col and Changtse that have never been seen before; to the anguished faces of exhausted climbers pushing to their limits. Every visual is a work of art.

This is a sumptuous feast of mountain porn that I could watch over and over again. This is Renan’s true gift to Everest.

And here it is:

Watch on YouTube

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6 thoughts on “The Ghosts Above – 36 minutes of Everest porn, free on YouTube

  • December 25, 2020 at 2:50 pm
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    Mallory and Irwin’s expedition is the most fascinating and revered Everest expedition for me. Even if the camera of Irwin is found, I don’t think that pictures would be retrievable from is film.

  • December 25, 2020 at 4:26 pm
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    The Chinese 12 hour rule prevented them from doing any searching, but they can not say it out loud, because they fear retribution against Sherpas, National Geographic and the Agency handling the expedition. Simple as that. The Chinese simply do not want any out-of normal climbing action on their soil.

    All movie/Tv companies are bending over backwards to accommodate the Chinese these days, new normal. For the Expedition agency and the Sherpas it is a question of their livelihood.

    Another though is why not use drones to comb the suspected areas. These guys did not even have binoculars to scan the area when they made the 20 foot foray outside the fixed rope trail.

  • December 25, 2020 at 7:40 pm
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    Second comment and note: I tried to make the same comment as above on YouTube, but it was not published. Hit a sore spot?

  • December 27, 2020 at 1:27 pm
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    Unfortunately I agree with everything you’ve said here. The visuals are fantastic, but Renan comes across poorly. From the heavily cliched voice over containing lashings of the oh-so-en-vogue white man’s self-hatred, to the completely OTT indigenious fawning. There are ways to tackle and discuss these issues in mature manner, but apparently nobody is capable of doing that in the current climate. Nauseating virtue-signalling is the order of the day.

    Could have been a good documentary, but I ended up turning the volume down and playing some music of my choice to drown out the God awful script.

  • Pingback:Weekend Warm-Up: The Ghosts Above

  • January 23, 2021 at 9:19 pm
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    I agree with your criticism of the film. Renan’s voiceover makes it all so hackneyed, and the use of music is a text-book example of how not to use music in a film. So yes – lovely visuals, but everything that has to do with audio and content – is poor…. Roll those images without any music, just with the ambient sound of wind and mountains, and it would be so powerful.

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