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Art and science

Mountains take centre stage in Madrid

21 Nov 2019 James Dacey

I remember a conversation in the Physics World newsroom about the sheer volume of physicists whose profile photo features them alone in remote mountainous locations. Perhaps it fits nicely with the ideal of a physicist exploring the wonders of nature unfettered by the distractions of the city. Or it could just be that lots of physics labs are located near mountains – think CERN and all those mountain-top observatories. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that physicists have a special relationship with the great outdoors.

If you are one of those people, I’d highly recommend checking out the 2019 winter edition of the Mountains on Stage film festival, which is taking place in 100 cities in 15 countries across Europe. On Tuesday night, I attended the Madrid edition at CINESA Proyecciones, featuring five short documentaries shot in different mountainous regions across the world.

If you’d prefer a technical lecture on the geomorphology of glacial landforms, this is not the festival for that. Instead, the films focus on the human endeavour of exploring extreme environments – documenting true stories about climbing, skiing, trekking and other creative forms of alpine transport. All the while, the scenery is spectacular and there is plenty to discover about how professional adventurers deal with geological and other weather-related hazards.

For sheer production quality, the final film of the evening, This Mountain Life, was the pick of the bunch. Producer Grant Baldwin documents the epic six-month trek across British Columbia of daughter–mum pair Martina and Tania Halik (who turned 60 during the trip). Carrying a stash of home-produced dried fruit, the pair relied on aerial food drops as they covered the 2300 km from Vancouver to Skagway in Alaska, regularly encountering temperatures around –20 degrees Celsius.

In the film Changabang, we heard first-hand accounts from climbers who have tackled the notoriously difficult north face of this Himalayan peak. British mountaineer Andy Cave recalls the 1997 trip when his team member Brendan Murphy was swept to his death by an avalanche during the descent. The focus of the film is a 2018 expedition by three members of the French High Military Mountain Group, who retrace the footsteps of that 1997 adventure.

One moment in Changabang that captured my attention was a brief side-story about the Cold War era that could make for an intriguing documentary in itself. Apparently, the US worked with Indian intelligence agencies in 1965 to install a plutonium-powered sensor array on neighbouring peak Nanda Devi (the second highest mountain in India). According to Broughton Coburn, author of the book The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest, the Americans wanted to keep an eye on The People’s Republic of China, which was testing missiles in a shielded area just north of the Himalayas. The covert mission was interrupted by poor weather and the plutonium has never been recovered to this day.

The other films in the festival are:

Félicité (director: Antoine Frioux), a story narrated from the point-of-view of nature, following snowboarders Pierre Hourticq, Victor De Le Rue and Jeremie Heitz as they tackle the impossibly steep slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif.

Blutch (director: Nicolas Alliot), following eccentric French adventurer Jean Yves Fredriksen as he travels across the entire Himalayas, paragliding, playing his violin and sleeping in a bivouac. En route, he meets old friends among the local settlements, gets set upon by a pack of dogs and gets arrested twice.

Coconut Connection (director: Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll), another fun film with a musical flavour. Adventure-seeker Villanueva and his Italian friends go to Baffin Island to tackle some of the previously unclimbed big walls, always finding time for a jam with guitar, violin and tin whistle.

Throughout the films, I was less interested in some of the technical climbing details, though I’m sure that was appreciated by the many others who turned up to the cinema in full adventure gear. Of course, advances in science and technology have made mountaineering more accessible in the past few decades. Modern technical clothing is much lighter now than during the original ascents of Mount Everest in the 1950s. Exponential improvements in weather forecasting have made it safer to plan trips, and there have been giant leaps in navigation and communications equipment.

To find out more on that topic, take a look at ‘Physicist on top of the world’ by Melanie Windridge, a nuclear fusion researcher who successfully climbed Everest in 2018. I spoke to Melanie shortly after her trip for the Physics World Weekly podcast and she also made a series of films on the science of Everest for the Institute of Physics.

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