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The notion of a man skiing down Mount Everest is absurd, but on May 6, 1970 one did, and we have proof of it in an 80-minute color documentary just released in the U.S. by Specialty Films. Last month the movie won an Academy Award as Best Feature Documentary, but skier Yuichiro Miura deserves considerably more than a 10-inch statue. To tackle Mount Everest he had to be an expert mountain climber as well as an expert skier. He had to withstand cold, blinding sun, the extremely rarefied air and the 100-mph winds that whip the summit. He had to schuss down the sheet of ice falling away at 40 degrees from the 26,351-foot South Col and stop his flying body above the Bergschlund, the abyss looming at the end of the run. The man who skied the wall of Everest and limped away is a stocky Japanese—37 years old at the time—who calls himself an adventurer, poet and philosopher. He believes that life should be challenging.
Everest was an expensive challenge, costing Miura's supporters $3 million and six Sherpas their lives. But since Miura took a camera crew along on his journey, we now can witness the extraordinary event.
Miura's run in The Man Who Skied Down Everest lasts two minutes, 20 seconds, but the film covers all phases of the adventure. It opens in Katmandu, the gathering place of Himalayan expeditions, with the eerie sounds of gongs and long horns coming from Nepalese monasteries. From here, Miura and his party of 32 Japanese and some 800 porters and Sherpas set out on an 18-day trek to Base Camp at 17,712 feet. They walk through lush rice fields and hike over arid mountain passes; they skirt stupas—Buddhist sanctuaries with "all-seeing" eyes—and wander through settlements alive with the curious. They spend their nights in a yellow-tent village, always set up near a stream. Frequently, the cameras focus on Miura, a steady hiker with a transistor radio in his hand and a rucksack on his back. Often he is bare-chested and bare-legged, displaying his powerful torso and calf muscles.
There are flashbacks to Tokyo, where Miura makes his home, and to earlier skiing feats that qualified him for this ambitious endeavor. He is seen skiing in the speed trials at Cervinia, Italy in 1964, setting a world record of 172.084 kilometers per hour before crashing. He is shown schussing straight down Mount Fuji. And the narrator reads from Miura's diary: "I have traveled the world to ski, soaring with the winds." At the Sherpa village of Khumjung he meets with Sir Edmund Hillary. "I wish I were younger," Hillary tells him, "and I wish I could ski that well."
After the party reaches Base Camp, the film dwells on the hostile beauty of the icefall, a cascade of towering, shifting ice blocks that is the gate to Everest. It has claimed more victims than the mountain itself. The six Sherpas are buried in a cave-in here, and after the bodies have been recovered a despondent Miura notes: "There can be no happy ending now no matter what I do."
On his way to the South Col, which takes the party some 40 days, Miura has dreams—of being Icarus, which frightens him, and of being a samurai, which gives him strength. He takes practice runs, sailing off cliffs in his graceful style. Below the black summit he gathers stones to form a memorial and he offers to Chomolongma, the "Goddess Mother of the World," as the natives call the mountain, the names of the dead Sherpas and a mirror as the symbol of man.
Finally, the moment comes for his bout with the mountain. Just below the South Col, Miura dons a crash helmet, an oxygen mask, an orange air-cushioned life jacket, old-fashioned leather ski boots, standard recreational skis and poles and a parachute to slow his descent. Breathing deeply, he pushes off. He had intended to ski in a straight line, but as soon as he is on his way and releases the chute he and the chute become a toy of the violent crosswinds. He skis an erratic course and is unable to gain control. He attempts to stem in the turns, but the edges of his skis do not bite into the ice. His skis clatter down the steep washboard. After a run of 6,600 feet, he falls. He falls 1,320 feet, his body flipping and bouncing like a rag doll. Astonishingly, Miura was using safety straps, which are required in recreational skiing to prevent runaway skis. As he falls, his ski bindings release, but his skis, still dangling from the safety straps, continue to bounce with him, beating his body as much as the rocks in his path. When the skis finally tear free, they break like matches. And Miura tumbles on toward the Bergschlund. He loses consciousness when he flips over a large rock. After he comes to his senses and weakly raises a pole—incredibly, he is still holding on to a pole—he lies 220 feet above the crevasse.
Although three cameramen had been positioned on the mountain, only one, Mitsuji Kanau, was able to follow Miura's descent all the way with a 1,600-mm lens. His footage is understandably rough and badly focused—it had to be greatly enlarged—but it catches the madness and the glory of Miura's feat more vividly than images in perfect focus could ever do. Miura himself asked, "Was it a dream?"