The Beckoning Silence

TV/DVD review

Even seen from a safe distance on a benign summer day, the North Face of the Eiger has a sinister look. In Switzerland's Berner Oberland, this was last of the great North Faces of the Alps to be climbed, and the attempts on it gave the mountain a legendary status. Officially named the Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) or Nordwand (North Wall), newspapers of the 1930s took to calling it by the ghoulish pun of Mordwand (Murder Wall). Even now, in these days of high-tech gear and helicopter rescue, the North Face retains its brooding aura of peril. Here be, if not dragons, 6000 feet of near-vertical rock and ice, subject to rockfall, avalanche and sudden fierce storms, sufficient to test the skill, nerve and luck of any climber.

In this 90-minute documentary film, climber Joe Simpson tells the moving story of the four young Austrian and German climbers who attempted the Eigerwand in July 1936. Joe Simpson is best known for his astonishing feat of self-rescue in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, when he survived a 100-foot fall into a crevasse and crawled for three days across a glacier with a badly shattered leg to reach safety. The episode is recounted in his book Touching the Void. Aspects of his Peruvian experience have some eerie parallels with the 1936 Eigerwand expedition, making Joe Simpson uniquely well-placed to tell the story.

The documentary has three main strands:

The photography is superb. Even if you're not interested in mountaineering, you could watch the film for the breathtaking scenery alone. But it's the insights into mountaineers and mountaineering that lift the film above spectacular travelogue.

The whole tone of the documentary is refreshingly understated, with none of the breathless high-adrenaline commentary that can be so irritating. This seems to me to suit the subject matter admirably - the straight facts of the 1936 expedition are dramatic enough to require no embellishment whatsoever.

Joe Simpson's technical demonstrations of the crucial sections, using modern equipment, are an excellent way of bringing home the extraordinary technical skill required for the climb. I had read about the Hinterstoisser Traverse, a 100-foot section of ice-polished rock wall above a 2000-foot drop, but understood it far better after seeing it for real with an expert explaining the difficulties. Simpson's personal reflections on his own experiences give some insights into the lure of the high mountains and probably come as close as you're ever likely to get to explaining why people - usually, but not always, young men - risk their lives for such an ephemeral and irrational goal.

All this is seriously worth watching, but the real star of the show is the reconstruction of the 1936 climb. I defy even a non-mountaineer not to get drawn in to the gripping story of Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willi Angerer and Edi Rainer battling rock, ice, frostbite, rockfall, avalanche and storm first for glory and then for their lives on five fateful days in July 1936. I'm not going to tell you what happens - you could Google for it easily enough anyway - though in truth I think the story is so moving and so well-told that it would have you on the edge of your seat even if you did know the end. I knew the outcome and I was still hooked from start to finish.

Heinrich Harrer said of his successful 1938 ascent of the Eigerwand, "We had entered another world, and we had come back." This powerful documentary brings a glimpse of that other world into your living room. If you have even the slightest curiosity about high mountains and the strange breed of people who climb them, don't miss it.