Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Film Review: The Alpinist

Sender Films has long been a leader in the documentary filmmaking of climbers and climbing. They were originally responsible for the Reel Rock Film Tour, Valley Uprising and The Dawn Wall. All of these have had a deep impact on climbing culture, the way we see the leaders in the climbing world, and the way we see ourselves.

The Alpinist joins the ranks of the other films within their portfolio. This profile of the iconic Canadian climber, Marc-André Leclerc takes us into the mind of one of the world's leading young alpine soloists as he makes extreme ascent after extreme ascent.

Like The Dawn Wall or Free Solo, the film explores not just the serious side of this individual, but the quirky elements of a climber. It covers the weirdness of Marc-André's dirtbag lifestyle, living in a stairwell. It covers his experimental drug phase. And it covers his obsession with soloing hard and very serious alpine climbs, things that anyone would be proud of completing with a partner. And finally, it covers the young man's untimely death...

This is an engaging, funny and often scary, film. We are certainly transported into a different world, a world that is a throwback to climbers of old. Marc-André didn't post on social media, he didn't have a following aside from inside some internet forums, and he didn't even have a phone. We got to see an old-school adventurer taking on things in a way that was -- at least in his mind -- very pure.

The psychology of Marc-André in the film was a bit tough though. And maybe this is my age and my experience managing people, but there is a moment in the film, where the filmmakers can't find the young climber. They have no idea where he is. And he certainly doesn't pick up his phone. They're frustrated, and in some ways, it's easier to get into the minds of these people who are managing a project, than into the mind of an early-twenties individual that doesn't believe in social media or phones...

And this is a weakness in the film. We think we know who Marc-André is, but just barely. I'm not sure we got as deeply into his mind as we got into the minds of people like Tommy Caldwell or Alex Honnold in similar films. But I'm not sure this is the fault of the filmmakers. Marc-André was a tough subject.

There is a piece of adventure documentary filmmaking that has become a little overdone with these types of films, and that's the outside commentary. The filmmakers find well-respected members of a given community and have them talk about the documentary subject's adventures. Inevitably, someone will say, "who is this guy?" They'll say what the person is doing is "groundbreaking," or the "future of the sport." And then -- like with Free Solo -- they'll talk about the danger that the person is facing while completing his adventures.

It's a bit of a contradiction to say, in one paragraph that we didn't get to know Marc-André well enough, while in the next to say that there was too much outside commentary on him. And this really gets to the heart of the difficulty of making a film about someone like this. We want to know this person. We want to know their motivations and who they are. But their motivations and who they are are obscured by the fact that they're not totally interested in our interest in them...which is not something we're used to in the 21st Century.

Criticism aside, this is a good film. And it's a hard film.

When Marc-André death is presented late in the film, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater. No. Maybe we didn't know him as well as we could have. We wanted to know him better. We wanted to understand him and see him continue to succeed in the mountains.

But now he's gone...

And in his passing, we are left with what we're always left with when a person dies in the mountains: Deep feelings of grief. Grief for the loss of a special person. As well as grief for that person's family and friends. 

The documentary film crew gave us a glimpse into this person's life. And for that, I feel gratitude. We all got to know somebody who left us far too early. In many ways, The Alpinist film was a beautiful and thoughtful memorial to Marc-André Leclerc...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, September 13, 2021

Pro Tip: How to Eat Your Climbing Partner if You're Starving

Backpacker Magazine did a poll recently. They asked their readers if they would be willing to eat their partners in the event of an emergency. A large percentage of those who responded said, yes! Yes! Of course I would eat my partner!!!

So what did Backpacker magazine do about it? What any responsible outdoor magazine would do. They put together a somewhat perverse video on how to eat your partner.

And what did we do about that...? What any responsible guide service blog would do. We reposted the video below for your -- clearly -- perverse viewing pleasure...

I do think it is important to note that the meat in a mountain guide's body is much worse than any other meat...anywhere.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, September 10, 2021

Film Review: High Lane

There are a lot of horror-style movies out there that involve climbing in some way. Most of them are not just bad, but are really bad. It's actually somewhat uncommon to come across one that is...mediocre.

The reality of most film of all genres is that it's mediocre. You're often not totally bored. You find some engagement with the characters and then when the movie is over, you quickly forget it. Surprisingly, really bad films tend to stay with you a bit longer.

High Lane (2009) is one of those mediocre films that will likely drop out of my brain shortly after I write this blog. But that doesn't mean that I wasn't engaged by it. For a "horror-thriller" style film, set in the mountains, it was much better than most of its competitors, but that's not really saying much.

Five friends decide to go on a trip to Croatia where they will take a via ferrata route up into the mountains. For those who are uninitiated, via ferrata is a form of climbing where one wears a harness rigged with lobster claws. The via ferrata routes follow cables and ladders -- many of which were set during World War II -- through the mountains. If you fall, the lobster claws attached to your harness will catch you.

In any case the friends are composed of two women and three men. One of the women, Chloé (Fanny Valette), previously dated one of the men, Loïc (Johan Libéreau) and is currently dating one of the other men, Guillaume, (Raphaël Lenglet). This provides a bit of tension throughout the story, and indeed, is one of the subplots that raises this film above many of its competitors.

The group is lead by Fred (Nicolas Giraud), an accomplished climber who is sure that he can bring the group up into the mountains on a via ferreta route that is rusty and falling apart. Needless to say, he doesn't do a good job and the team gets caught in the mountains. And of course, the fact that they're caught is compounded by the fact that there is a delusional psychopath in the mountains that has set traps all over the place and might be a cannibal...or something. All of this leads to where most horror movies lead to, a combination of blood and guts and edge-of-your-seat tension.

There is one scene that is particularly interesting for climbers. The via ferrata completely falls apart and the climbers are stuck with two injured people in the forest above the cliffs. They have a rope, but pretty much nothing else: no gear, no extra clothes, nothing.

One of the great values of a film like this is that we tend to put ourselves in the characters shoes...and I have to admit that this was one time where I wasn't sure what I would do. The situation was incredibly difficult. Especially with the lack of equipment to rig anything. It's scenes like this that make this type of film worth watching. What would you do...?

High Lane is a French film that has been dubbed. This is a bit disconcerting at the start. I generally prefer films that have subtitles. But the dubbing is doubly disconcerting because there are sections in English where the characters lips line up, but then they start speaking in French again. This is annoying. However, the plot is just interesting enough to allow you to forget about the dubbing.

A second larger problem with this film is the way that the director (Abel Ferry) elected to cut together footage that was designed to raise tension.

Here's an example: A character is running. Another character is loading a crossbow. A character is running. Another character is still loading the crossbow. The first character is still running and the music is intense so he must be in danger, but the other character is still loading the crossbow.

Most directors would make three cuts where Ferry elected to make six or seven. The intent to create tension goes on for so long that there is no tension anymore...

Early in this review I noted that there is tension between two male characters over a female character. Though the characters actions are sometimes stupid (like fighting with one another while being hunted by a madman), this little subplot provides a small amount of depth to otherwise flat characters. It also provides a few plot twists that allow for a more interesting story.

The via ferreta sequences are mostly true to the way they would actually be...minus cables randomly breaking. That's a given in this kind of film, and I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. Indeed though, if nothing else, this film gets viewers psyched for cool via ferrata routes

High Lane is an engaging ride that explores some places that other similar mountain thrill-horror movies do not. But that doesn't mean it's a good movie...but if you've got nothing else to do, it might be worth an hour and a half of your time...

--Jason D. Martin

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Fixed Lines for Cragging

There are many types of fixed lines. Some climbers use fixed lines in aid climbing to get back to their high point. Some climbers use them in expeditionary climbing to protect exhaustingly long slopes. And others use them more simply just to move up and down from the top of a smaller crag.

Each style of fixed rope has its uses, but surprisingly, the style used the most is the third style. Short sections of fixed rope are common at cragging areas throughout the country. Most of these ropes are used to facilitate classes for beginners.

Fixed lines are designed to protect an individual who is moving over exposed second, third or even fourth class terrain. In this application (with beginners) they shouldn't be used for more difficult terrain. Instead, such terrain should probably be belayed.

Fixed lines are relatively simple to install. Build a 12-point SERENE anchor at the top and then work your way down the exposed area, placing gear along the way. At each piece of gear, the fixed line should be clipped in with an overhand eight knot. It should not run through the carabiners freely as this would defeat the purpose of the pieces. Each stretch of rope should be isolated.

There are three ways that an individual might use a fixed line. First, they might simply use it as a handline. This is the simplest way as there is little for climbers to do but hold the line. Such a use indicates that the likelyhood of a fall is low and that an individual or a group simply needs a little bit of additional security.

Climbers moving down a hand-line.

Second, they might use the lobster claw technique. This is where an individual girth-hitches two slings to their tie-in point. A locking carabiner is then clipped to the end of each sling. A climber can then clip both slings to the fixed line as he or she moves up the line. As the climber gets to set pieces, he or she can clip past the piece without coming completely off the rope.

A static line protecting a brushy ledge. Note the pieces along the rope.

Another view of a static line protecting an exposed area along a trail.

The third technique is to place a prussik on the fixed line. A prussik offers the most security as it won't allow a person to fall anywhere if they slip. If you have one section that requires such tactics, it's not a bad idea to pre-rig the prussiks so that the beginner doesn't have to rig it in an exposed area.

No matter which style of line you employ, a good rule of thumb is that only one person should be attached to a given part of the line. You should never have two people in the same part of the system.

Fixed lines are great, but they should not take the place of a real belay. Before exposing your beginner friends to a fixed line, be sure that it makes sense. Be sure that it is the best solution to your problem. And be sure that everybody knows what they're supposed to do when they move up or down the line...

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, September 6, 2021

Film Review: Meru

Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin have been major names in the climbing world for a long time. Both of the athletes have built themselves into climbing superstars.  Conrad is world famous for his ascents and even made waves in the non-climbing world by finding the body of George Mallory on Mt. Everest. Jimmy is well known for his climbing photography and cinematography.

In 2004, I was living in Las Vegas and guiding in Red Rock Canyon every day. Many of my friends at the time were living the "dirt bag" lifestyle, living out of their cars and getting after it whenever they could. It was then that I met a young climber who had just linked up three huge classic lines in Red Rock. Renan Ozturk linked Epinephrine (5.9, IV), Cloud Tower (5.12a, IV) and Levitation 29 (5.11c, IV) in a single day. I was absolutely amazed. Each of those lines are not only big, but are nowhere near each other...

It didn't surprise me when I started to hear stories about Renan climbing with Conrad and Jimmy. There's no doubt that he had the chops to play in the same world class arena as the other two.

There have been several articles and films that featured each one of these climbers over the last several years. But none of them come close to the aesthetic quality and the human tension that exists in the film, Meru.

Meru tells the story of the three climbers and one mountain: Meru. Or to be more specific, the Shark's Fin of Meru, which is a massive granite peak that combines mountaineering, ice climbing, mixed climbing and A4 big wall climbing skills to ascend. Dozens of parties have tried the route, but no one had succeeded.

Conrad attempted the route in 2003 with Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller, but failed. They simply didn't expect it to be as challenging as it was. The film chronicles his return to the mountain with Renan and Jimmy in 2008 and 2011.

In the course of the film, we discover that all three of the men have dealt with close calls and loss. Conrad's mentor died first, and then his best friend. Renan becomes seriously injured in an avalanche. And Jimmy barely escapes from another avalanche with his life.

The three men all have different reasons for climbing Meru. It was a dream passed down to Conrad from Mugs Stump, his alpine mentor. It was a passion for Jimmy as he slowly brought himself back into the climbing and skiing world from his brush with death. And it was an absolute necessity for Renan to prove to himself that he still is who he was before his accident.

Meru is a beautiful film. The scenery mixed with the expert cinematography is breathtaking. But the real story is the story of the three men, mountain partners who work together to achieve a goal while sealing the bonds of friendship...

There is no doubt that it was a tremendously difficult task to make such a film in such conditions. There were times when I was amazed by the fact that the camera elevates as if by a boom (where did they get a boom in the mountains?) to provide a better shot. There were other times that I was shocked that they kept the camera rolling when someone was clearly in pain or at the edge. And there were times that I was amazed by the fact that they probably had to climb something twice or even three times in order to get a shot. And indeed, I was amazed by the fact that it all came together so seamlessly. Meru is a testament to documentary filmmaking. It is a testament to what can be done...

I had an unusual experience in this film. It was the first documentary-style climbing film that I had ever seen with a non-climber audience. Most of the films that I see like this are at Reel Rock Film Festival, at Banff Film Festival or at 5 Point Film Festival. The people watching films at these types of festivals tend to be like-minded individuals, who don't hyperventilate at the heights depicted or question the motives of the climbers.

It was valuable to have this experience watching the film with non-climbers, in part because hearing the reactions and the gasps of the audience reminded me what a beautiful place the mountains are, and how the images of what we do inspire others. But we need inspiration too. And that's where the value of a movie like this comes into play. Those of us who are not world class climbers need people like Conrad, Jimmy and Renan to inspire us. And a film like Meru does exactly that. It reminds us what is possible...

Jason D. Martin

Friday, September 3, 2021

Why You Need to Wash Your GORE-TEX Jacket! | Miranda in the Wild

Miranda in the Wild was approached by the folks at Gore-Tex to talk about how to keep these jackets alive...!

Check it out:

Here are a couple of important take-aways:

1) Wash your Gore-Tex item often.
2) Use any liquid detergent.
3) Drying with heat is essential.

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 9/2/21


--This is a very cool report of a first ascent on the Mt. Challenger Massif, wayyyyy back there. 

--Gripped is reporting that, "a new five-pitch 5.10b traverse called Forgive My Trespass has been added to the Papoose in Squamish. Established this year by John Howe and Penny Cooper, the line adds a cool adventure to one of Howe Sound’s lesser-visited granite walls." To read more, click here.

Mt. Baker at Sunrise on September 1st.


--Beta and many others are reporting that, "a confluence of factors lead to the decision on Monday to temporarily close all National Forests in Region 5, effectively the entire state of California. The state’s firefighting resources are overwhelmingly occupied with several fires already burning, and adding more fires to their list could be devastating." To read more, click here.

--Ski is reporting that, "the fast-moving Caldor wildfire that has burned over 150,000 acres in California’s El Dorado County over the last two weeks made its way into the Lake Tahoe Basin over the weekend. Images from Sunday show the blaze nipping at structures and chairlifts at Sierra at Tahoe ski resort, 12 miles from the town of South Lake Tahoe, where evacuations were ordered overnight as the wind-fueled wildfire advanced." To read more, click here.

Colorado and Utah:

--Climbing is reporting on a catastrophic anchor failure: "One climber is dead and another seriously injured following an accident on Thursday, August 26 in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. The two climbers fell over 100 feet—still roped together—while climbing the Wind Tower formation. According to a press release from Boulder County, the surviving climber was in his 20s, while the deceased was in his 30s." To read more, click here.

--The Adventure Journal is reporting that, "Gate Ninety-Nine 90, a popular access point for sidecountry skiing at Utah’s Park City Resort, has been permanently closed. Last winter, two skiers were killed there in two separate incidents, and, after much deliberation, the resort decided that was quite enough, and closed the easy and obvious entry point, right off the Ninety-Nine 90 lift." To read more, click here.

--Ski is reporting that, "Telluride Ski Resort is the first U.S. ski area to bundle accident insurance with its lift tickets, but according to Spot CEO Matt Randall, it won’t be the last. Spot partnered with Powder Mountain last season to provide complimentary insurance on its season passes (you can add it onto lift tickets for $5/day), and Randall says that the Austin-based healthcare startup hopes to be available to more skiers through lift tickets and season passes in the coming seasons." To read more, click here.

--Maury Birdwell just made the fastest known ascent car-to-car on the Diamond on Longs Peak. The free-soloist clocked the round-trip at 3:26, so fast...the ranger in the parking lot didn't believe him. Read about it, here.

Notes from All Over:

--Rochester First is reporting that, "A woman was killed in a climbing accident at a North Carolina state park on Monday afternoon, authorities have confirmed. The woman, a 30-year-old resident of Durham, was climbing at Pilot Mountain State Park when she fell 90 feet to the ground, said Kevin Key, of Surry County Emergency Services." To read more, click here.

--A mountain lion attacked a kid near Malibu last week. From Huffpost: "A California mom saved her 5-year-old son’s life when she repeatedly 'punched' a mountain lion mauling the boy in the front yard of their home in Los Angeles County. The 65-pound juvenile big cat was killed later Thursday by wildlife wardens on the family’s property between Calabasas and Malibu. The boy was dragged by the mountain lion about 45 yards and suffered significant trauma to his head and upper body, but was in stable condition at a Los Angeles hospital on Saturday." To read more, click here.

--Axios is reporting that "President Biden will nominate Charles F. Sams III to be the next director of the National Park Service, where, if confirmed by the Senate, he'll face the growing toll of global warming on the U.S. iconic park system, the White House stated Wednesday. Why it matters: Sams is of Native American heritage, and the Park Service has never been led by an enrolled tribal member before. In addition, the Park Service has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since the Obama administration, with four people serving in that role in an acting capacity during the Trump administration." To read more, click here.

--TV Insider is reporting that, "Alex Honnold is climbing again, this time for a Disney+ docuseries from National Geographic. The streaming service has greenlighted the three-part On the Edge with Alex Honnold with the subject of the Oscar-winning Free Solo. It sees him embark on a lifelong dream: an epic climbing quest across the remotest and toughest walls and peaks of Greenland." To read more, click here.

--Vail Resorts has announced the opening dates for all of its resorts.