It’s not about adrenaline

Matthes Crest
Matthes Crest

I started by climbing trees. Then I got into climbing rocks. There were buildings and towers too. At some point falling out of planes came into the mix, but it was kind of expensive and dug into my climbing time, so I stopped.

Between all of the climbing I managed to do a bit of work. There was Bolivia, where I lived with awesome people, dodged the occasional tear gas canister, and tried to avoid the miners with dynamite and the Germans with coke. Then there was the embassy in Europe which got anthraxed, albeit fake anthrax, but we didn’t know that in the moment. Then there was the café where I had mint tea. It got blown up a few months later, which was senseless.

Then I started climbing trees again, but I got paid to wear a harness and strap a chainsaw to it.

I surfed Class III whitewater with my body, before learning in a kayak. Later, I wandered through hundreds of pit vipers.

I paddled on the big rivers of America, in the winter and alone, which is not as fun as the summer with friends.

Most people have a similar response to all of this. “These things are dangerous,” they say. “Don’t do these things,” they say. Then they ask, “Why do you do these things?”

Mostly I respond with a boilerplate answer: “It’s fun, I like it, and don’t worry.” An awkward silence often follows and a grave look of concern overcomes the face of the other person. I don’t like this answer because I know that the real answer is better. But when I try to give the real answer it rarely comes out right, and even when it does the other person doesn’t understand. I probably used words like “risk” and “death” too many times during a long rant, and apparently that freaks out most people (sorry to all of my conversation victims, I did not realize this fact until recently).

Others have tried to answer the same question in similarly curt ways. “Because it’s there,” said Mallory. This was probably a profound statement on Mallory’s part, but I doubt his audience caught on, instead believing it to be as superficial as it sounds.

And then there is the antagonizing “If you have to ask, then you will never understand. If you understand, you won’t have to ask.” This answer provides no satisfaction to the poor soul asking the question.

Some do it for the rush. Not me. Though, admittedly, the rush can be fun. Still, I am not an “adrenaline junkie,” I don’t even like the phrase. I don’t drink energy drinks. Generally, I am a calm person.

Some do it for the exercise. Yes, some of these activities are good workouts, but that’s not why I do it. The excellent physique is just another fringe benefit, like the rush.

So, why do I do it?

I do it to lose myself in something bigger. To do this, there is a process I must follow. Integration through movement.

I see these beautiful features of the world and I want to be a part of them; to see the world from their perspective; to feel the world that they feel. I want to transcend into their space.

I do this by moving over and through them under the power of my body, mind, and spirit. The further I move into them, the more I lose my sense of self; my body, mind, and spirit are no longer mine. The concerns of the mountain, the tree, the river, or the group of people are all that matter. There emerges only one, unified perspective.

But doing this requires risk. I do not seek danger for the sake of danger. Nevertheless, my wanderings take me to places where I am not “supposed” to be, either as a human or as a white, middle class American. I am but one tiny, delicate human. A rock can squash me or a snake pierce my skin. To handle all of this risk, I must further let go of myself. I must admit that I am not in control. I must accept uncertainty, and even embrace fear.

Does a mountain fear a storm? Does the river fear a big drop? Does the Bolivian miner fear the police? No. The mountain welcomes the storm and invites it to settle in for a few days. The river and the miner do not pause for anything nor anyone.

By moving through these extreme spaces and spaces where I do not belong, I lose my personal identity and my identity becomes that of the space through which I move. Fluid and steady like the river. Big and sturdy like the mountain. Light as a cloud. When I am in these spaces, I do not have to think about identity, just as the river does not think about being a river nor wish that it could be a mountain.

In our noisy and connected modern society, losing our identity to something bigger than ourselves for even a moment can be a great reprieve. How many identities are we expected to maintain? How many have we taken on in belief that they will give us an advantage? There are the identities of work, family, and friends. And there are the myriad identities that we can adopt here, on the Internet. But none of them allow us to forget about ourselves, about the individual. And, at the end of the day, none of these provide a truly new or unique perspective on the world we inhabit.

To a tree, the world looks much different than how we see it.

Third Man on the Mountain: Best Hollywood Climbing Movie Ever

Janet Munro as Lizbeth Hempel in Third Man on the Mountain
Janet Munro as Lizbeth Hempel in Third Man on the Mountain

The trend in Hollywood is to portray climbers as moronic adrenaline junkies in hot pursuit of death while accomplishing feats that break the rules of Newtonian physics. And the pillar of this fallacious portrayal is well-known among climbers and non-climbers alike. For non-climbers, it is probably the only climbing film they have ever seen. Even my 90 year old neighbor has seen it. For climbers, it induces a severe nausea only comparable to the screaming barfies — that tearful (if it’s happening to you) or funny (if it’s happening to your climbing partner) process of warm blood returning to frozen appendages. That movie is Vertical Limit. So painfully absurd that it makes you laugh and vomit at the same time. (Of course, we can substitute Cliffhanger for Vertical Limit depending on the generation of the audience.)

Third Man on the Mountain Cover

But this phenomenon was not always so. A long time ago (1959), Walt Disney produced one of the best (if not the best) Hollywood climbing films, Third Man on the Mountain. It’s “the best Disney live-action feature that you’ve never seen,” according to Karl Holzheimer, the film writer.

Switzerland had enchanted Disney during his vacations there and he wanted to create a film that embodied that charm. A James Ramsey novel, Banner in the Sky, which was loosely based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn (a.k.a. The Citadel in the film), provided the perfect story.

While the plot is classic family fun, what makes this movie truly stand out are the climbing scenes. Disney and his producers had the good sense to hire the amazing French climber and filmmaker Gaston Rébuffat. Among Rébuffat’s accomplishments are:

  • The first person to climb all of the six great north faces of the Alps
  • One of the primary members of the French expedition to Annapurna
  • Producing excellent climbing films like Étoiles et Tempêtes (You can watch it on YouTube)
  • He was also an exceptional mountain guide

Rébuffat also authored several classic climbing books, like Starlight and Storm, which is a wonderful narrative of his ascents of the great north faces.

Beyond the excellent cinematography, Third Man on the Mountain also stands out for embodying the ethos of the Golden Age of Alpinism—that blip in time when so many great peaks were first climbed, and thus opened to humanity. It makes sense that the Golden Age arrived on the heels of Romanticism. Climbing “impossible” mountains like the Matterhorn in the mid-18th Century required the Romantic attitude of spontaneous transcendental vision, of the irrational imaginative individual. Indeed, these qualities are carried on and honored in climbing today.

Third Man on the Mountain

Edward Whymper, the real first ascentionist of the Matterhorn, once said:

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Third Man on the Mountain follows through on Whymper’s words and gives us an elegant adaptation of the early days of our sport and the ideals that made those ascents possible.



New Heights: Walt and “Third Man on the Mountain”

IMDB entry for Third Man on the Mountain

Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Romanticism

Chasing Ice: A Movie Review

Chasing Ice
Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice follows nature photographer Jim Balog and his efforts in founding and executing the mission of the Extreme Ice Survey, a project to document melting glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and Montana through time-lapse photography.

Like any good nature adventure, the scenes and photography gradually become more spectacular as the viewer moves deeper into the film. This is a reminder that we often must leave the comfort of well-traveled paths to find the best vista and to gain perspective on what is really happening. Perhaps the film’s best attempt at achieving this is not the excellent time-lapse photography, but the stunning capture of the largest recorded glacier calving event—chunks of ice larger than lower Manhattan tumbling into the sea from the Ilulissat Glacier. If entire mountains were subject to spontaneous tumbling, this is what it would look like.

I like that the film keeps politics and talking heads to a minimum, with the exception of the montage at the beginning. Instead, the film presents us with simultaneously beautiful and alarming scenes of what is really happening. Additionally, the hundreds of thousands of photos taken by the Extreme Ice Survey remove the dialogue surrounding climate change from distant satellite photos and climate models. They bring the conversation down to the level of the human eye. The film regularly juxtaposes two images, separated by a year, taken from the same location, and each with a human subject. But in the latter photo the glacier that once loomed over the human has melted out of frame. Chasing Ice follows through on the old saying, seeing is believing.

I recommend watching Chasing Ice. Right now it can be streamed via Netflix.


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