Beyond Skiing Everest


Mike Marolt ponders the cost of his obsession.

(2018) Sports Documentary (1091Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, Jim Gile, Jewel Kilcher (narrator), John Callahan. Directed by Mike Marolt and Steve Bellamy

 

High altitude skiing is not for the faint of heart. It combines two disciplines – mountain climbing and skiing – and requires stamina (because the moment you finish your scaling of a peak, you are skiing down it) and courage as mistakes at these heights can be costly. As Gile ruefully puts it, “I don’t want my last word to be ‘Oops’.”

Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt and their boyhood buddy Jim Gile grew up in Aspen, Colorado, where you learn how to ski almost before you learn how to walk. They previously appeared in the documentary Skiing Everest (2009) which documented their attempt to climb up the world’s tallest and arguably most famous mountain and then ski back down it – without oxygen or Sherpa guides. That attempt proved frustrating as the commercialization of Everest has led to logjams of dilettantes going up the paths which have been set for them by Sherpas who have also thoughtfully provided pre-set ropes. For those attempting to scale the mountain without oxygen, stopping can be deadly.

The trio, all enshrined in the Skiing Hall of Fame, decided that going up mountains that were more remote, more off the beaten path, would suit their purposes better. Therefore their de facto leader Mike began researching peaks above 8,000 meters (a smidge under 26,250 feet) that had good snow and few climbers. They would travel the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas, documenting their attempts. They have skied down more peaks above 8,000 meters than any humans have ever done, and they do it by so-called pure climbing – without the aid of oxygen or guides.

=The documentary combines the footage taken on their many trips which is often impressive indeed, along with interviews with the three men, who are now in their 50s and still finding mountains to climb and ski back down. There is little to no input from anyone else other than the three; the disadvantage to that is that it robs the film of context. We hear the men talk about the various trips like this is a vacation movie they’re showing on super-8 film for friends. While their expertise is undeniable we get little understanding about why they do what they do, why they chose these particular mountains other than the criteria I mentioned above, and what others think of their accomplishments.

Also, in a nearly criminal move, we never hear from their families and loved ones that are left behind for months at a time; only in the last ten minutes do we even realize that they have families and get the sense that their absences are difficult on them. We only hear through the mouths of the three men themselves; their wives and children do not appear to speak for themselves. One suspects that the subjects of the documentary might not like what they hear.

One can’t help but admire the accomplishments of these three men and they seem to be pretty eloquent speakers, but I would have appreciated some other points of view other than theirs. That would make for far more interesting viewing and a less homogeneous documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really extraordinary vistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: High Altitude skiers, in addition to the mountain climbing gear they must take, add an average of sixty pounds to their packs for their ski equipment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Himalayan Ice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

Himalayan Ice


Hanging in there.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Karn Kowshik, Prena Dangi, Bharat Bhushan, Ari Novak, Karsten Delap, Ishani Sawant, Anne Matthias. Directed by Ari Novak and Austin Schmitz

 

Ice climbing differs from mountain climbing in that rather than climbing up rocks in spring, summer and fall weather, you are climbing up sheets of ice generally in harsh winter conditions. The skill sets are similar, but the tools are different and ice climbing requires more brute force than mountain climbing. Also, because of the nature of water and ice you can come back to the same mountain the next year and find a completely different type of ice there.

When ice climber Karsten Delap met Karn Kowshik in a bar it was brothers at first sight. They immediately realized that there was much common ground between them and Karn invited Karsten to do some ice climbing in Karn’s native India. Karn had in mind the Spiti Valley one of the most remote places on Earth. The Himalayan village of Kaza is so ridiculously hard to get to it requires a 65-hour drive through terrifying mountain roads just to reach the town.

But Karsten was about more than just a visit. He wanted to set up an Ice Festival, a convocation of ice climbers worldwide to come and visit. He was hoping that once word got out about the ice conditions in the valley, climbers would flock there from around the world and help the local economy.

There is a cultural difference between Indian climbers and American climbers. Whereas Americans tend to look at ice climbing as a personal challenge, Indian climbers tend to view it instead as a spiritual quest to get closer to the Hindu and Buddhist gods who live in the mountains. Success or failure is less important to them; the act of climbing the ice is what’s important.

With climber/filmmaker Ari Novak in tow, the two American climbers link with Indian climbers to create an incredible experience. Receiving both Buddhist and Hindu blessings before the actual climbing begins, trails are made safer by the organizers who get rid of debris that could possibly fall and hurt or even kill someone; holes in bridges are repaired and handrails also repaired. The sport is dangerous enough as it is, so safety is a major priority here.

I gotta say this though; these guys are dudes. They may be the bro-est bros to ever bro out together. Everything isn’t cool, it’s really cool. Yeah, I admit that the way these guys talk is irritating if you’ve grown to a certain place in your life, or if you’re not part of the fraternity, but all in all that’s not something to get totally bummed about. It’s really irritating, though.

The cinematography is world-class here. Yes, the mountains are mostly barren of even snow with shimmering crystalline ice flows standing out on brown rocky terrain, but there is still a sense of majesty of being in one of the world’s most sacred places. At 47 minutes long the film barely qualifies as a feature presentation, but the short investment of time is well worth the outlay.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent cinematography as we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too much dude-ness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  On the way home from the Ice Festival, Karsten Delop ate some chicken at a roadside stand and had to be rushed to the hospital where he spent three days in the Intensive Care Unit. He did, however, make a full recovery.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10 dude!
NEXT: Mary Poppins Returns

Meru


On the shark's fin.

On the shark’s fin.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.

Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.

Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.

Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.

That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.

The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.

This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.

The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.

The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.

This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.

This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima