The best climbing movies: Yes, there actually are some decent ones

Last week, I wrote about some of the atrocities Hollywood had inflicted on the climbing community in their attempts at portraying the dramatic. These movies are so painfully bad, they make you want to throw food at the screen, and the list doesn't even include all the ridiculous uses of climbing as a side activity in a movie, as in Star Trek V or several James Bond movies. It's not like climbing is alone in this; try talking to a Navy fighter pilot about Top Gun and see what happens.

Climbing itself is dramatic enough that Hollywood should be able to portray it with a modicum of accuracy and still keep it visually interesting. Occasionally, they actually accomplish this. The list isn't long, but it is nice to see them get it right every now and then.

1. Touching the Void (2003)
This is one movie that Hollywood probably had to get right, on pain of death. It's technically a documentary, but the climbing sequences are actually reenactments.

The film is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Joe Simpson, and is an account of one of the most gripping survival stories in climbing's long history. Simpson and his partner, Simon Yates, went to Peru to try a new route on Siula Grande, a 6,344-metre (20,813 foot) peak. Simpson and Yates made the first ascent of the technically difficult West Face. On the descent, just below the summit, Simpson fell and broke his leg. The two tied their two ropes together, and Yates proceeded to lower Simpson down the mountain, a challenging feat because there were no belay anchors.

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Just before reaching ground, Simpson went over an ice cliff and dangled at the end of the rope, unable to climb back up. Yates couldn't hear Simpson and, after holding him there for a long period of time, was in danger of being pulled off the snow after Simpson, so he cut the rope. Simpson fell 100 feet into a crevasse and landed on a ledge. Yates crawled down the next day and called after Simpson, but heard nothing and figured Simpson had died, so he continued down alone. Simpson used what was left of the rope to descend further into the crevasse, find a ledge, and walk out horizontally, then continue down five miles of horrible terrain with a broken leg, reaching base camp shortly before Yates was going to leave. Yates decision to cut the rope probably saved both their lives. The climbing sequences were portrayed in the movie by Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron, Richard Hawking, and include interviews with Yates and Simpson.

2. The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Starring Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy, a crazy spy plot unfolds against a climb of the intimidating North Face of the Eiger. Eastwood also directs the movie. The plot involves Eastwood, as an agent, tasked with finding a traitor who an unnamed agency knows will be involved with an attempt on the Eiger's North Face. The movie includes stunning desert climbing sequences in Monument Valley, Utah, with bonus points for Kennedy having Eastwood carry the beer up. The climatic sequences were actually filmed on the Eiger's North Wall, and include impressively filmed fall sequences. The movie succeeds in actually bringing some sense of what climbing the Eiger must actually be like.

3. K2 (1991)

K2 has an impressive cast, including Michael Biehn and Matt Craven. The movie does have some hokey moments, especially the funeral sequence where the caskets are being lowered into the ground by climbing ropes, and helicopters can't fly above 20,000 feet, but K2 does have its good points. The movie is based on a Broadway play about two climbers stranded below the summit of K2, one of whom is injured with a broken leg. The movie is paced differently, and includes some strange climbing sequences early in the movie on a rock peak that are nevertheless fairly accurate. Canada's Mount Waddington serves as a stand-in for K2, and the climbing sequences are impressively filmed, and do convey some of the struggles of high altitude mountaineering.


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