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There is much for mountaineers to hate in the movie "Vertical Mile."
"Vertical Limits," A Great Mountaineering Thriller--Warts & All.
© 2001 Reviewed by Tom Holzel

There is much for mountaineers to hate in the movie "Vertical Mile." Given their penchant for viewing the world in a very polarized way, in their rush to list the many major flaws of the movie, mountaineers may be forgiven if they never get to appreciating, on the other side of the coin, its many virtues. Its many dreadful fantasies aside, it's a hell of a well-made film in every cinematic regard.

Let's get the gaffes out of the way so we can examine this film's virtues.

I counted three horrendous errors: The first was that a rescue operation on K-2 would not use oxygen to speed up their climb. Apparently, climbing purely, i.e. without oxygen, has become one of the elite alpine conceits this trendy film could not give up. Second, the idea that explosives would be used to find climbers buried in a roomy crevasse boggles the imagination--especially in view of the supernatural powers attributed to a liter of so of aging nitroglycerin. (Perhaps this plot device was sparked by Capt. John Noel, a member of the 1924 Everest expedition on which Mallory & Irvine were lost. He had the secret idea that hand grenades be used to search crevasses for the two climbers' bodies.) Explosives have always played a magical role in Hollywood. Witness the archtypical hand grenade (containing a few ounces of explosive) that routinely cripples tanks and blows up whole houses with a yellowish blast that requires gallons of fuel oil to simulate. (In real life, hand grenades simply disappear when they go off. They might scratch the paint of a tank.) This explosive search was especially egregious in that a entrance hole to the buried climbers' crevasse had already been established.

And thirdly, completely omitted from the film was the brutal reality that would be presented by the ensuing descent. Lowering an unconscious climber down a fiercely technical route by climbers themselves in the last stages of exhaustion, with no oxygen and little gear remaining, is probably technically impossible. (We will not even discuss the hero's gravity defying fifty-foot broad-jump to crash onto an opposing rock face (which fortuitously turns into a ice pitch) into which his two-fisted ice axes affix themselves perfectly. Other viewers will find dozens of other annoying glitches to complain about. So that's that.

Why is the film nevertheless so appealing? Once its flaws are forgiven, this film shows the Himalayas from a climber's point of view as gloriously as can be seen on the silver screen. The climbing scenes are often real, over genuine, difficult terrain (although many were well-shot in the studio). The majestic view of base camp, with K-2 towering in the background is unbelievably breathtaking (if doctored). Indeed, the entire ambience of base camp will be an eye-opener to aspiring climbers who may still harbor romantic images of themselves cowering in lonely isolation at the base of Mt. Everest, readying themselves spiritually for a commerce-free test of their deepest selves. They will be disabused of this notion to learn that the golden era of climbing major peaks faded after mid-century, replaced by the golden rule of climbing--he with the gold, rules.

This climbing ambience extends to the nitty-gritty of base camp itself. All that gear, all those supplies, so many people milling about. Portrayed prominently is the worst curse of mountaineering commerce--all those electronics (in what has now become a parody of the inside of a nuclear submarine,)and all for what? How in God's name do computer animated views of a mountain shown on a 10,000-dollar, 40-inch flat panel screen aid an assault? Does "knowing" the probability of an approaching storm to be 48% make a hill's worth of beans-difference to simply knowing it might storm--or not? This technolust is a common human failing--the hope that machines can somehow give us more information about the unknowable, and thereby reduce risk. Yet when examined closely, all the "new" computerized information is merely the old imperfect data massaged in 200 ways. It still comes down to luck and the unpredictable outcome of a highly personal contest between each individual and the mountain.

Touched upon are the human failings of overweening ambition where filthy lucre outweighs good judgement. Yet the character of the rich businessman setting out to climb the peak in 36 hours (without oxygen) is nuanced. He is an excellent climber, and he does answer his moralistic critics just as cleverly and apparently frankly as these archtypes are so able to do. And he is enormously persuasive. He did not get to the top of the business world by being stupid. (Getting to the top of the mountain is another thing.) Whether he would murder again seems like scripting weakness. (Why someone with a smashed rib cage and acute pulmonary edema would last as long as fit climbers is never explained), and the survival time at 26,000-ft is highly variable--not (like the bends), an exact countdown.

Yet the expeditionary ambience, the glorious Himalayan (all right, shot mostly in new Zealand) vistas, and the manly mountaineering ethos which is such a powerful draw of mountain climbing--for men and for women--provides an aptly maintained subtext throughout the film. Ed Viesturs makes two brief cameo appearances, and his unforced modesty stands momentarily in sharp contrast to the effusive emoting of the Hollywood actors, and in those two brief moments, you realize they are there to take you for a ride. But these moments pass in an instant, and the ride quickly becomes more exciting than the F-14 Tomcat at the Six Flags amusement park.

When you count the number of falls these expert climbers take, their length and body-bashing brutality, you begin to realize that this is not the experience of one expedition, but that of all the accidents of every Himalayan expedition ever undertaken! And the miraculous saves! A woman climber dangling by one arm and her ice pick, and holding another climber and his pack with the other--and then swinging him back and forth to reach a foothold--well, it sure says a lot about the high quality of the ice axe, at least. (One does yearn to know just what exercises she does to build up those shoulder muscles.)

But these falls are terrifying and realistically shot. As a climber who religiously avoided falls, these express train slides down snow pitches and godawful free falls gave me sweaty palms and lurched my stomach. Why would anyone want to climb? was the most frequent comment heard after the show. Why indeed? That question is addressed if not perfectly answered. Climbing for the memory of a dead father, climbing to find a dead wife. At least

climbing for the money makes some sense. But where are the normals who just climb for the sheer joy of it? Or are they all casualties of the Golden Rule?

One of Hollywood's greatest ideological blind spot has been a realistic view of triage--technically the sorting by quality, but generally meant in the sense of how many people do you assuredly risk in the possible saving of another. The Hollywood view is illustrated by Star Trek Commanders routinely risking their entire battle cruiser and 5000 souls in hopes of rescuing a single lost dog. Mountaineers are a bit more cold-blooded in this regard, an outlook that Hollywood cannot fathom. One wonderful exception was the other K-2 movie
("K-2: the Ultimate High"), in which the hero (Michael Biehn) did the only thing possible in the real world--he left his companion behind because he had a compound leg fracture and they had no rope. (Of course Hollywood will not be denied. The hero found the rope of a dead climber and returned to rescue his buddy. But at least the issue was raised and answered realistically--surely a Hollywood first!)

A second important subtext (and one depicted more ably in "K-2") and to me one of the most important ones is the experienced mountaineer's ability not to lose his cool when the situation has suddenly gone very bad, and most importantly, to act quickly to save himself and his buddies when it has. This is the hallmark of manliness (and there is no gender distinction meant here). This is the nobility to which we all aspire--from a pilot fighting a crippled aircraft, to a climber who is dangling from a rope inside a crevasse, to a housewife whose car is submerging in a flash flood. Can we battle back the terror and the confusion; can we get a hold of ourselves and act sensibly--and quickly--to get back to safety?

The supporting woman (Izabella Scorupco) who is dangling by one arm from her ice axe--as unlikely as that situation might be--is naturally frightened, yet enforces a determined calm on herself. She assesses her situation coolly and immediately takes the steps--no matter how slim her chances--to get herself out of danger.
"Vertical Limit" got second-rate reviews, of course, just as did "The Red Planet" (with Val Kilmer), another graphically outstanding adventure (sci-fi) thriller. Since the sixties, the New York Times has maintained the vile habit of assigning to adventure flicks, critics with burning social consciences. These are folks who ardently believe that if a movie does not examine sympathetically the AIDs epidemic in Africa, it cannot be worthy of a good review. The fact that it might just be a darn good thriller--warts and all--doesn't seem to count with these folks to whom an inch of new snow on the streets is a catastrophe

For those able to see beyond the blighted horizons of the Old Gray Lady, take heart. Vertical Limits is a pulse-pounding thriller with a mostly unobtrusive love angle, shot in such a magnificent locale that even having no plot would make it worth seeing. But the plot's OK. The heroine is an adorable young lady (Robin Tunney), the hero (Chris O'Donnel) sympathetic if a bit corn-fed, and the supporting cast all believable and apt. A must see for every armchair mountaineer just for the visual excitement, and for every experienced climber just for something new to grouse about.


(A spot to be rather than on K-2.)