In doing so, we look at the symbolic association between mountains, mountain climbing and capitalism, and explore how what we see in Lee's documentation of 'K2' in Pakistan seems to affirm the symbolism, but in a way that feels more cutting than celebratory. The image of Mount Capital quickly becomes an ominous and treacherous warning forever dominating the horizon.Part 2 of our @iara_lee feature looks at one of the director's more recent documentaries about Climbing 'K2', and the local porters who work carrying gear and luggage up mountains.
It would not be the first time someone uses mountains as a metaphor for Capitalism. It works in many ways, as capitalists themselves, the kind of new age neoliberal corporate employers that dominate the upper echelons of society often speak like this: we have to work as a team to strive to the top, to fight the competition and plant our logo at the apex of the market’s peaks. In this form the metaphor is particularly insidious as it serves to promote the narrative that those who stand at the top of mountains are those who have proven themselves as superior individuals, who have worked harder than everyone else and deserve this seat of great stature; thanks to such metaphors, those who stand at the top of mountains believe they are without competitors, without doubt.
As has been explored a lot in the mythology of capitalism, the mountain climbing metaphor mirrors the mythology of the ‘self-made hero’. Capitalism has successfully convinced its subjects that nothing is more sacred than upward movement, particularly in terms of social mobility and market value. It is fundamental to Capital’s societies of control that there can be nothing that exceeds individual upward movement in virtuosity. What better a metaphor for this supposed virtue of beginning at a humble position and committing to upward mobility at all costs; better to die on the way up than be seen trying to stay at the bottom. In UK Grime and Ghetto culture, the mountain metaphor is swapped for the idea of “crabs in a bucket”, something much more suitable and indicative of life on the slopes of Capital. The metaphor is simple, as one crab attempts to escape the bucket, another crab will intervene, grabbing the leg of the other and pulling them back down. For the poor, it is not a fight to the top of the mountain, it is a fight to escape the plague pits at the base of the mountain by going the only way you can: up!
Readers of Foucault might even be tempted to extend such mythology through the territories of sexuality, after all, those who do not care to reach the top, and those who are happy to be on the bottom are treated as if they are afflicted by some kind of degenerate madness.
Unexpectedly, one interesting commentary on this Western Capitalist mythology of mountains and upward movement can be found for a brief moment in this Brad Pitt film ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, and I quote:
Here lies a point of entry into the topic because it is a very rare moment where the whole metaphor of climbing a mountain transforms from being undeniable to being foolish. Pema Lhaki, through these words, implicates the ideology of Capitalism as egomaniacal and grandiose. At this position, the metaphor of Mount Capital remains as true as ever, but it takes on an entirely new depth of truth - it is not to say that Mountain climbing is no longer the ideal metaphor for Capitalism, rather in fact it becomes the most cutting and accurate criticism of its values. In other words, the metaphor of Mount Capital and the virtuosity of social altitude and individual dominance inverts into a metaphor of nightmarish and ominous dissent.
A passage from Eli Clare in a text entitled “The Mountain” could be offered as a compliment to the words of Pema Lhaki:
“The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people, people whose bones get crushed in the grind of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy. How many of us have struggled up the mountain, measured ourselves against it, failed up there, lived in its shadow? We've hit our heads on glass ceilings, tried to climb the class ladder, lost fights against assimilation, scrambled toward that phantom called normality.”
“We hear from the summit that the world is grand from up there, that we live down here at the bottom because we are lazy, stupid, weak, and ugly. We decide to climb that mountain, or make a pact that our children will climb it. The climbing turns out to be unimaginably difficult. We are afraid; every time we look ahead we can find nothing remotely familiar or comfortable. We lose the trail. Our wheelchairs get stuck. We speak the wrong languages with the wrong accents, wear the wrong clothes, carry our bodies the wrong ways, ask the wrong questions, love the wrong people. And it's goddamn lonely up there on the mountain. We decide to stop climbing and build a new house right where we are. Or we decide to climb back down to the people we love, where the food, the clothes, the dirt, the sidewalk, the steaming asphalt under our feet, our crutches, all feel right. Or we find the path again, decide to continue climbing only to have the very people who told us how wonderful life is at the summit booby-trap the trail. They bum the bridge over the impassable canyon. They redraw our topo maps so that we end up walking in circles. They send their goons -those working-class and poor people they employ as their official brutes- to push us over the edge. Maybe we get to the summit, but probably not. And the price we pay is huge.”
It has been shown time and time again that the metaphor of the self-made social climber is a myth, all of those stories of Capitalist heroes like Richard Branson to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Donald Trump, have all been proven to be extrapolations and manipulations of the truth. At the bottom line, being born as a wealthy White Male American in America grants an exceptional set of privileges that open doors and induce opportunities that are unavailable to huge percentages of the world; these privileges on top of a million dollar inheritance are a pre-requisite for anyone to peak Mount Capital. Ironically, the metaphor of the mountain can be expanded to include something that illustrates this rather aptly.
Perhaps one of the more surprising documentaries by Iara Lee is from 2020, called “K2” and it documents local people who live around a famous mountain that the elites of mountain climbing orbit; it is the second highest peak in the world, and this documentary focuses on an access point that enters the mountain from the side of Pakistan.
The premise of the documentary is an attempt to foreground the lives and roles of local people who, due to economic struggles, are forced into a working culture that seems akin to people in mining towns getting sucked into miserable and dangerous labour. In a town with little money, poor natives find it hard to turn down the only real economic prospect offered to them by the presence of the mountains: that prospect is to work as a porter for mountain climbers, to carry luggage as far up the mountain as possible. The money may be better than what could be attained through engagement with the local economy, but there are no illusions here, the wage is still pittance, certainly it is not conducive of any social mobility.
The documentary hammers home the perils and danger that these porters face given the how extreme the work is in terms of physical demand and literal risk of disaster (injury, rock falling, avalanche, altitude-related issues, the combination of freezing mountain and sunlight, sweating, and so on). To those living at the foot of the mountain, there is little glory represented by the peak towering above them, it is more symbolic of doom and of risk. Until an event described in the documentary, no Pakistani had ever reached the summit, likely only going as far up as the 30kg of luggage on their back would permit them. The documentary excellently dispels the idea of these people being virtuous guides who are totally at peace with their destiny as mountain wanderers; the Sherpas are exploited, poor stranded in “a game of life and death”.
There are a lot of obviously problematic things going on here, beyond the basic premise of exploitation, including the realisation that reaching the peak of a mountain would simply not be possible without this exploitation on multiple levels. Without Capitalism disproportionately distributing wealth and power along biopolitical lines, or without the concentration of money and power in the West allowing for the necessary technologies of mountain climbing to be developed, none of these people could hope to helicopter to a mountain in Pakistan and make it to the top of the mountain with their camera. The entire hobby of mountain climbing is only possible due to the way Capitalism siphons wealth out of the Global South, and the literal practice of climbing the mountains is only possible by further exploiting poor people into dangerous work.
What makes such a thing even more bitter is that reaching the peak of the mountain comes with a lot of “rewards”, a lot of glory is bestowed upon the climber. A question that emerges as a shadow of this, simply asks if climbing the mountain is so meaningful and impressive, how heroic must we see the porters, who ascend and descend the slopes time and time again, carry so much weight, with such relatively limited access to training and resources.We are left with a trace image of the strength it takes to endure the struggles that come as a result of the tensions emerging from Global Capitalism. A story so elegantly situated on the side of a mountain, quite an elaborate take on the metaphor of Mount Capital.
Cultures of Resistance:
K2 AND THE INVISIBLE FOOTMEN (Cultures of Resistance Films)
Directed and produced by iara lee
Cinematography and editing by Jawad Sharif
Located on the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is the second-highest mountain on Earth. For many climbers, it is an even greater prize than Everest, with limited routes, a steeper ascent, and a harder push to its summit. Nicknamed the ‘Savage Mountain,’ K2’s peak juts unprotected into the atmosphere, regularly exposing climbers and porters to life-threatening weather conditions.
Despite being paid at rates far below those received by international expedition leaders, such porters—whether they provide critical supplies to expedition base camps or take on higher-altitude tasks in support of ascending climbers—do some of the most difficult and dangerous work and these efforts make them worthy of recognition as the true heroes of mountaineering.
In K2 AND THE INVISIBLE FOOTMEN, filmmaker Iara Lee and team chronicle the lives of both Pakistani porters and Nepalese sherpas. The film also follows the first official all-Pakistani climbing team, made up of former porters, who successfully summited in 2014, in celebration of K2 60th anniversary. Amid breathtaking scenery, the film depicts the everyday sacrifices of porters and the courage of those indigenous climbers who choose to return to scale K2 in spite of past tragedies. In their striving to perfect their craft, these mountaineers provide a fresh look into the cultures and national traditions of Pakistan, a country typically portrayed in the foreign media as merely a land of conflict and sectarian strife.