In these days when we have no choice but to stay cooped up at home out of responsibility and solidarity towards each other, those of us who love the mountains and outdoor activities look out the window with nostalgia (if it is possible to feel nostalgia for something we have stopped doing) and try to quench our anxiety by devouring any movie, book or magazine related to the activity we are passionate about.
But aren’t we mountaineers experts in endurance? This may be a different and much more boring struggle, but it is a struggle in its own way and now the peak we should be most concerned about reaching is that of the blissful contagion curve. The mountains are going to be there when this is all over and we will see them again sooner rather than later.
On the other hand, just because we can’t enjoy them in situ doesn’t mean we can’t travel to them through the experiences of others. Today we propose three documentaries and three books to get your fill of mountains without leaving home. In this age of internet and ebooks it will not be difficult to find them.
Mount Meru, in the Garhwal Himalaya, has three main peaks. The two side ones are higher ( 6,660 and 6,450 meters), but it is the central one that gets all the attention. Known as Shark’s fin (the shark’s fin) for its peculiar shape, this summit is, with its 6,310 meters high, unspeakably more complicated than its sisters. So much so that it was not climbed until 2001.
Well, Meru, the documentary, tells the story of three climbers, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, determined to open the direct route to Shark’s Fin. That the objective is something that is immediately clear, whether or not you know about the mountains. And the sensations that dominate the documentary are vertigo, cold and discomfort. One (even one who likes these things) comes to wonder what those guys are doing hanging there.
But also, as in any great story, in Meru the climbing itself suddenly becomes almost secondary. The characters, locked in a tiny hammock hanging out of nowhere, begin to reflect on their lives, guided precisely by that thought of “what are we doing here”, and things get really interesting. Because, of course, their lives are not entirely conventional. But then, fate comes to cross them in the middle of the film, which gives them the perfect excuse to turn Meru into a great story of friendship. As you can see, there is no shortage of ingredients to make watching Meru 87 minutes well spent.
Valley Uprising (2014)
Yosemite Valley is the mecca of rock climbing, probably the one destination that, higher or lower (but probably top of the top), is on every climber’s dream list. Its endless walls of ultra-sticky granite, its cracks that seem to be drawn with a drawing pen, its terrifying overhangs, its horrible offwidth… everything comes together in Yosemite to form an ideal climbing destination. But beyond the strictly physical, there is something that makes “The Valley” a magnet for all lovers of the vertical: its history. Each line that furrows its gigantic walls, each piton, each slab, has a story (and a name) or is somehow related to this or that climbing legend.
Well, we could say that Valley Uprising is the definitive documentary about the history of the valley. A film that tries to summarize six decades of climbing that saw everything from irreconcilable rivalries between two titans like Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, to feats like climbing the Nose in a day (Long, Bridwell and Westbay), freeing that same route (Lynn Hill) or traversing Half Dome in an integral solo (Honnold). But Valley Uprising is about much more. It is also about intergenerational clashes, stoned hippies, marijuana-laden airplanes, base jumping done at night and with malice aforethought, and pseudo-police chases.
In short, a documentary that will make you enjoy until the last minute even if you are not a rock climber; but it will also make you suffer if you are, because most likely your desire to go climbing will be multiplied by a thousand before reaching the credits.
Pura Vida (2012)
In 2012 the documentary Pura Vida achieved the rare honor, for a film of this genre, of filling movie theaters week after week. The story is told through its protagonists, who are many, and manages to keep the viewer’s interest thanks to a very successful script and editing. But, without wishing to detract from its technical achievements, it is clear that this alone would not have been enough to achieve such success.
What is truly valuable in Pura Vida is the story that is told, that of the rescue attempt of Iñaki Ochoa de Olza, a Navarre mountaineer who in 2008 suffered severe pulmonary edema while climbing the east ridge of Annapurna. 2008 was by no means a good year for mountaineering (in two days in August alone 11 climbers died on K2), so Ochoa de Olza’s death could have been one more on the list, even if it was especially felt in Spain. But it was not one more, far from it. What was really unusual in the case of Ochoa de Olza was that the mere news that his life was in danger served to mobilize a huge number of mountaineers, the best in the world at the time, to try to rescue him. And the improvised way in which they tried to reach him, jumping out of helicopters at low altitude, running along a very technical route with summer boots, ascending despite everything the mountain threw at them… serves to reflect on what kind of person Ochoa de Olza must have been for so many people, and from such diverse origins, to risk everything for him. In the end, the feeling that remains is that the Navarrese had to be, by force, pure life.
The White Spider. (By Heinrich Harrer. Ed. Desnivel.)
In the mid-thirties the north face of the Eiger was the last great problem of the Alps of the three with which the decade had begun. All the European climbers set their sights on the Eigerwand, that last virgin north face composed of bad rock and rotten ice, and subjected to a constant rain of stones most of the day. The race to conquer it resulted in the most infamous succession of fatal accidents in the history of mountaineering. There were so many that the north of the Eiger soon earned the nickname “The Killer Wall”.
Heinrich Harrer, one of the protagonists of the combined team that finally succeeded on the Eigerwand in 1938 (and also author and real-life protagonist of Seven Years in Tibet), tells the story of this terrible wall in The White Spider. The feeling left by the book, even if one is not in favor of grandiloquent rhetorical figures, is that the mountain earned the label of murderer, and that it continued to earn it long after it was finally overcome by a team (for example, the two best Spanish climbers of the time, Alberto Rabadá and Ernesto Navarro, died there).
Between so much catastrophe and also some successes, La araña blanca became one of the great classics of mountaineering; although unlike other books of its category, this one does not particularly invite you to grab your ice axes and go out to climb something. Of course, that’s perfect in this day and age, isn’t it?
Drop Me a Star (By Miriam García Pascual. Ed. Desnivel)
Bájame una estrella by Miriam García Pascual, is a little gem of the mountain literature of our country. It is a very short book, which can be read in one sitting, but that leaves a lasting aftertaste, a feeling that takes time to leave and that everyone suggests something different (youth? freedom? mountains?). It is so evocative that it has become a classic gift that many mountaineers give to uninitiated friends; because, without intending to, Bájame una estrella is capable of making anyone understand why we go out to the mountains. It would be something like Mallory’s “Because it’s there” in a national version and with much more style.
And yet, that’s not what Bájame una estrella is about. It is the diary of a trip that the Navarrese climber Miriam García Pascual made through the American continent at the end of the 80s. However, instead of focusing on the spectacular number of top routes Miriam climbed during her journey, the book talks about sensations and reflections, secret dialogues with the walls and friendship. And it does so with an unclassifiable, though not unique, style. In fact, Bájame una estrella is reminiscent of Eh Petrel!by Julio Villar (another highly recommended book for these days).
This was the first book published by Ediciones Desnivel and the only one by its author, who as soon as she delivered the manuscript left on a trip to India to try to climb the Meru Peak (the one in the documentary we have already talked about) where she lost her life. But although his career was interrupted so prematurely, his thoughts continue to be reread again and again thirty years later. So much so that ten editions of the book have already been thrown away.
Climbers of Freedom (By Bernadette McDonald. Ed. Desnivel.)
In the 80s the world of mountaineering, especially as regards the Himalayas, was taken by storm by Polish climbers. As if out of nowhere (they were climbers from the other side of the Iron Curtain, of which little was known) a generation of incredibly strong climbers began to perform impossible feats in the world’s greatest mountains. They began, for example, to climb eight-thousanders in winter, to beat base/summit/base speed records, to reach every summit by new routes, or to imagine lines that were then a dream and are still leading today. The price they paid for that decade and a half of excellence was extremely high, and there are few of them who can still tell the story of what they did. In Climbers of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald tells that story for them, and she does it in an entertaining and easy-to-follow way, something that is not easy among so many unpronounceable names of characters who, even so, managed to be known to all of us today.