What’s your favorite? So many to choose from, but I like this preposterous climbing scene:
Tom Cruise, after taking at least three seconds to study his predicament several hundred feet up on a Utah sandstone wall, pushes off the rock. Cruise, portraying Mission Impossible agent Ethan Hunt, leaps several feet to his right and about 20 feet down; he momentarily sticks the near-vertical landing but then slides another 15 feet and off an overhang.
You think he’s a goner, but his fingertips lock on, leaving him hanging. Leaving his right hand on the rock, he twists and hooks his left hand, now facing away from the rock and toward the camera, looking stressed but not panicked. (Most of all, looking studly.) He then achieves a couple of believable moves, retrieves his secret-message-bearing sunglasses inside a rocket fired from a helicopter, tosses the sunglasses that self-destruct in 5 seconds. and you know the rest.
Isn’t Hollywood grand?
If your life’s frame of reference was climbing movies, you probably would believe:
If you hear a plane, especially a jet, an avalanche is about to overwhelm you (“K2,” 1991, and many other movies set on snow).
A good athlete can sprint with crampon-laden boots at 20,000-feet elevation, leap across a huge chasm, fall 50 feet and still stick the landing with the aid of two ice tools. (“Vertical Limit,” 2000)
‘There’s a bolt gun available to quickly put climbing hangars (even ice screws!) into rock. (“Cliffhanger,” 1993).
Be wary of assassins in your midst during climbing expeditions (“Vertical Limit,” “Eiger Sanction,” 1975).
As you may have surmised, I recently binged on climbing movies. At first, I focused on documentaries. Then I wondered: Were “Vertical Limit” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” really as bad as I remembered? Was I too harsh a critic 20 years ago? And was Clint Eastwood’s “Eiger Sanction” really as good as I remembered?
Hollywood is Hollywood, Backcountry Experience sales associate Daniel Mehrez reminded me when I took a trip across the street, looking for others’ takes on ridiculous climbing movies.
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” Mehrez said about watching Cruise pulling off his magic in Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park in the opening scene of “Mission Impossible 2” (2000). “It doesn’t bug me, because that’s what I’m expecting from ‘Mission Impossible.’”
So, are you willing to suspend your disbelief? Maybe a little, but Pine Needle Mountaineering owner Jeremy Dakan thinks more along my lines.
“I haven’t pulled that one off yet,” he deadpanned about Cruise’s climbing moves. “I thought it was ridiculous.”
After watching a few of these movies, it’s obvious there are some skills I still need to master:
My overhead bench press. Comes in handy when you’re in a cave fight and need to impale your assailant’s body with a stalactite (Stallone, “Cliffhanger”).
Cruise’s backward iron cross. Unlike the big leap, this one you could actually try without killing yourself.
Crampon sprints (“Vertical Limit”).
Crampon long jumps.
And, of course, chasm leaps with ice-axe arrests. I’m thinking this skill could be honed in Cascade Canyon.
If you haven’t seen these movies yet (really, you should) and need a guide, here’s a quick synopsis of some of the most famous movies with climbing scenes:
I tried (and failed) recently to watch “Eiger Sanction,” in which Clint Eastwood plays a paid assassin who winds up on the Eiger’s North Face. There are some witty lines and fascinating characters, but let’s just say I was an easily impressionable kid the first time I saw it.
The far-from-svelte Captain Kirk free-soloing El Capitan in “Star Trek V” (1989) is laughable, and I’m a Star Trek fan. Fortunately, Spock is there with his jet boots.
“K2” is pretty much believable, climbing-wise, and the opening isn’t the “someone’s going to die on the rock” scene typical of climbing movies. I enjoyed “K2” the other night; but be warned, it’s a tad tedious.
Janine Turner was good as Maggie O’Connell in “Northern Exposure.” But watching her as Sylvester Stallone’s love in “Cliffhanger” – even ignoring the 16-year age difference – was uneasy and painful. (Note: She got a Razzie nomination for worst supporting actress.)
In “Vertical Limit,” one of the climbers sets his nitroglycerin-bearing pack on a steep slope and takes a chug of water as it slides away from him. I mean, really? Bad horror movie stuff.
Monty Python’s 1972 skit, Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road. Just YouTube it. You’ll thank me.
“Touching the Void,” 2003: For this one, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief – it’s a true story. Really. Why can’t Hollywood produce such realistic imagination?
One thing these movies seem to get right is the mountain majesty. Maybe they just can’t miss, but K2 looks awesome both in “K2” (where it’s played by the Canadian Rockies) and “Vertical Limit” (where it’s played by New Zealand’s Southern Alps). Colorado’s Rockies (played by Italy’s Dolomites) are more than spectacular in “Cliffhanger.” And Utah’s redrock spires (played by themselves!) are breathtaking in MI2.
I’m not a true hard-core rock and ice technical climber. But I’ve dabbled. I love the outdoors and the mountains and climbing enough that I hate to see it misrepresented.
As climbers, should we campaign to make sure the general public understands how implausible these flicks are? Or should we instead applaud the motion picture industry for glorifying rock and ice climbing?
Maybe it’s the latter. Maybe there’s merit in these sensationalized climbing movies. Maybe when watching Tom Cruise, climbing becomes a sport of superheroes. Maybe the viewing public sees these ridiculous scenes simply for what they are – entertainment. Maybe we should lay off Hollywood. ...
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.