Screenshot: Patagonia

Screenshot: Patagonia

The Inertia

A superordinate goal is an aim that two or more people must be involved to achieve, a type of goal that becomes increasingly relevant or even necessary when considering mountain objectives. In fact, many of these so-called mountain objectives cannot be achieved by soloists. There certainly are the oddballs — the Jeff Lowes and Alex Honnolds of the world — but even these daring free climbers often rely on their teammates for success on the more difficult routes.

Last weekend, at Mountainfilm in Telluride, two particular films highlighted the importance of the team dynamic in the context of first ascents and unclimbed route. These films are A Line in the Sky and Down to Nothing.

A Line Across the Sky

“We felt like such gumbies…” – Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold are the unlikely subjects of a Sender Films and Big Up Productions 40-minute film depicting their epic first ascent of seven summits of the Fitzroy Massif, from Guillamet to l’S, all in one go. These two have led the big-wall pack for years, but  in A Line Across the Sky — after an apt and ample background into the the origins of their relationship — they find themselves departing the delightfully mild Mediterranean climes of central California to head south to Patagonia for a true alpine climbing experience. After sitting idly by through a season of poor weather, a lengthy window of high pressure rolls into the area around El Chaltén.

Two teams set out to attempt the long-coveted Fitz traverse. On one hand: scrawny Caldwell and boyish Honnold, hardly the grizzled hard men we expect to find scraping rime from an offset crack high in the atmosphere to place a cam. On the other: Colin Haley and Rolo Garibotti, two of Patagonia’s most experienced and accomplished climbers, men at home in the harsh alpine. Hell, Rolo wrote the guidebook for the zone.

Screenshot: Patagonia

Screenshot: Patagonia

A nerve was struck when it was revealed  — after a lengthy and committing approach — that Alex Honnold was so unfamiliar with the equipment required that he had brought crampons incompatible with the soft alpine shoes he was wearing. Their decision to proceed left me wondering if this was a good example to set for the climbing community. Honnold acknowledges that he’s on “the cutting edge” of the sport, but to attempt such a challenge with inappropriate and potentially dangerous equipment smacks of an excessive recklessness. (Then again, it is Alex Honnold.)

Fortunately (and touchingly enough), the issue was resolved early in the climb. Prior to even summitting Guillaumet, the first peak in the set, Rolo Garibotti came down with some illness and decided to turn back. He and Haley gave Honnold and Caldwell whatever support they could, including the appropriate crampons, before descending, a much-appreciated dose of collaborative attitude in a sport too often deemed competitive.

Ultimately, A Line Across the Sky was an impressive film depicting a phenomenal physical and aesthetic feat. Access to the lynchpins of the Patagonia climbing community — including on-camera interviews with Yvon Chouinard — did much to enrich the narrative and communicate the depth of the challenge, as well as the profound reverence these legendary climbers hold for the Patagonian alpine.

Screenshot: Patagonia

Screenshot: Patagonia

It is a testament to the delicate genius of Lowell and Mortimer, to watch them develop a very strong visual story around the scant 18 minutes of amateurish comedic dialogue and footage Caldwell and Honnold captured en route. Of special note: an extraordinary 3D rendering of the range, almost indistinguishable from a high-resolution fly-by, gave the filmmakers the opportunity to bring to the viewer a sense of scale.

The key take-away from A Line Across the Sky was the importance of the team dynamic. “There were a lot of times when I thought we were in way over our heads,” Caldwell at one point reflects. “But that’s what makes for really rich experiences.”

Yet humor pervades from the first appearance of the two key characters and persists through the experience, delaminated fingernails, rocky bivouacs and all; without such a positive and light-hearted attitude commitment to the mission could have easily crumbled. This impression was only magnified in contrast with the next film, shown at the same screening Saturday.

Screenshot: National Geographic

Screenshot: National Geographic

Down to Nothing

Probably the most powerful glimpse into the inner selves of mountaineers I have seen on film, Down to Nothing shared the National Geographic-sponsored autumn 2014 attempt on Hkakabo Razi, a mountain hidden deep in the Burmese wilderness that is in contention for the yet-undetermined highest peak in Southeast Asia. The expedition was led by Telluride local and North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill, a seasoned skier who cut her teeth in the Cascades and above Chamonix. Through the early 2000s, O’Neill established herself as an elite ski mountaineer with major descents from the Tetons to Himachal Pradesh. O’Neill’s presence at the screening — in her hometown no less — made the experience all that much more emotionally charged and humbling.

The idea for a trip to Hkakabo Razi was born on the congested flanks of Mt. Everest two years prior. O’Neill and her climbing partner, Mark Jenkins, longed for a more raw and pristine mountain experience, a journey into unexplored and isolated terrain. After a two-year planning period during which a team was assembled, sponsors’ support garnered, grants awarded, and grueling training sessions endured, the team of six: Hilaree O’Neill, Mark Jenkins, Emily Harrington, Cory Richards, and Renan Ozturk, plus base camp coordinator Taylor Rees, set out for Hkakabo Razi in northern Myanmar.

The peak’s first and only ascent happened in 1996 after years of reconnaissance and months of effort by prolific Japanese mountaineer Takashi Ozaki. However, Ozaki and his team did not have accurate GPS equipment with them, leaving the exact height of Hkakabo Razi’s summit unknown. This gave O’Neill and her team their reason to stage a second ascent, to confirm once and for all which was the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.

Technically, the team was incredibly prepared for the expedition. O’Neill had clearly done her research on the four-week approach to base camp, including a lengthy trek by foot through the tangled Burmese jungle. But despite her planning, O’Neill failed to anticipate certain challenges. First, the five-day motorized approach exhausted the team far beyond anticipated: an overnight bus, a boat, a horrendous 20-hour train ride, a flight, then a two-day overland motorcycle journey, all laden with hundreds of pounds of equipment stuffed into North Face haul bags. Used to climbing in countries with a developed mountaineering industry, O’Neill did not expect that the Burmese, especially in October (during the rice harvest), would not spring to support the expedition with reliable porterage. Furthermore, a series of accidents on Hkakabo Razi in the months preceding the National Geographic team’s arrival left the region depleted of resources and wary of climbers bringing more bad press to the area. In the outpost town of Putao the team was held in detention (without explanation) for four days. The ripple effect this delay had on the expedition was pronounced: many of the porters disappeared, forcing the team to leave behind much equipment including food and winter clothing.

By this point in the film cracks in the relationships of the team members were already showing. For these fissures to begin to show so far from the base of the mountain did not bode well for the rest of the expedition.

It must be asked, though: was this tension created in post-production to tell a stronger story or were those conflicts as apparent as early as they seemed? I suspect not — the jungle took a larger toll on the members than they foresaw. These unanticipated logistical and relational challenges put a strain on the team and leader before they even began their foot trek in. Renan Ozturk, the cinematographer, employed an interesting contextual device throughout the film: as the narrative progressed the remaining distance to the objective and remaining supplies were displayed on screen as percentages. This lent the viewer the sense of urgency and built tension by communicating the pickle the team was getting itself into.

As one might expect, the human conflict came to a head high on the ridge below the summit. The team of five was split into two tents — Harrington and O’Neill in one with Ozturk, Jenkins, and Richards in the other. After a miserably windy night acclimatizing during which the men decided that they would comprise the summit team, Jenkins and O’Neill meet to discuss the next day’s plan. By this point Emily Harrington, an experienced high-altitude mountaineer, had conceded that this was beyond anything she’d ever done and had decided not to attempt to summit.

Until this point in the film Mark Jenkins had been portrayed as an experienced mountaineer with an at-times brash disposition. However, in an emotional conversation discretely captured on film by Ozturk, Jenkins reveals the decision that O’Neill, the expedition leader, should be left out of the summit attempt. O’Neill’s despair and frustration is palpable: “I felt super disrespected to not have been included in the initial conversation.”

In the end, she decides to stay back at Camp 3 to support Harrington, but not without a great deal of internal turmoil. As this scene played out on the screen at the Sheridan Opera House, whispers of “sexism” rustled through the audience. The perception of betrayal in O’Neill echoed through the final minutes of the film, and it was not apparent whether she and Jenkins resolved their conflicts. However, O’Neill does not believe that her gender was the reason for the mens’ decision; rather, the fact that they had more experience climbing in the conditions that they faced informed the choice.

Jenkins actions were cast in a contentious light when it was revealed to both the viewers and the climbers that he had an ulterior motive for attempting Hkakabo Razi. In 1993, Jenkins had attempted to climb the mountain from the Tibetan side, but was detained by Chinese authorities. Since the expedition one of the 1993 team had died; Jenkins saw reaching the summit as a way to honor his memory. This was his true but irresponsibly undivulged impetus for joining the expedition.

Ultimately, the team failed to summit. Emaciated and beaten, the group began a 12-day trek out.

O’Neill has since expressed the intention to return to Myanmar for another attempt on Hkakabo Razi. And in that, Down to Nothing is an important film to be made in 2015. The climbing community , and contemporary society in general,  is ashamed of failure. It seems that only the successes are shared; aborted attempts are swallowed discretely into the past without much light being shined on them.

I believe that failure teaches us more than success does. Hilaree O’Neill is a phenomenal athlete and mountaineer . Her failure to summit Hkakabo Razi does not change that. Rather than to look upon her and her team with pity, I’d rather celebrate them for trying something that was so far beyond their comprehension; that takes true courage.

Climbing a mountain that thousands have climbed before can be an exciting challenge, but journeying to a remote place to attempt a route never before ascended deserves far more credit in my book. Down to Nothing is the honest and beautiful account of a dying breed of explorer going deeper than they’d ever gone before.


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