Bad climbing movies: Take a peak (peek)

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Hollywood and climbing generally don't go well together. While there are occasional climbing-themed films that don't suck, more often than not Hollywood movies centering on climbing are written by some desk-bound moron who probably doesn't know the difference between an ice screw and an ice axe. The scripts are concocted out of some strange vision of what the writer thinks climbing is all about, and so you get physics-defying stunts, ludicrous lunges and death-defying feats that even the X-Men couldn't pull off, let alone a regular climber (not that a real climber would attempt such feats in the first place).

If you are an outdoors type, or a climber, and want to get a laugh, go down to your local video store, invite a few friends over, crack open some microbrews and have some fun.  Make a drinking game out of it by doing a shot every time the climbers on-screen do something ludicrous; you probably won't make it past the 45-minute mark of these flicks without passing out.

The Mountain (1956)
How they got Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner to star in this one is one of those Hollywood puzzlers. The two play cardboard-cutouts of an aging, Swiss mountaineer who climbs for virtuous reasons (Tracy), and a money-hungry scam artist (Wagner). The fact that they are supposed to be brothers is the first difficult-to-swallow bit, given that they had a 30-year age difference. When a plane crashes high on a mountain in the Alps, Wagner convinces Tracy to take him up the mountain so they can loot the plane. The ensuing climbing sequences are a hoot, especially when Tracy stops Wagner's fall by grabbing a rope with two hands without any belay device and doesn't even suffer a friction burn. Since this is Hollywood, you can easily guess how things will end for the two. On the plus side, the mountain scenery is pretty spectacular.

Cliffhanger (1993)
A big-budget production starring Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow, this film was shown at a special screening to members of the American Alpine Club before it was released; the hoots of derisive laughter probably didn't make the producers sanguine about what they'd gotten. Filmed in Italy, the Dolomites are supposed to be a stand-in for Rocky Mountain National Park. Stallone plays a park ranger haunted by the death of a friend in a climbing accident, where Stallone couldn't hold the woman by her arm over a 1000 foot chasm. Lithgow plays a bank robber, and when the plane crashes in the mountains (what is it with plane crashes in mountains in these movies?) Stallone and his friends get tricked by a distress call into trying to save the thieves, and the villains make Stallone and his friends help them find the money that fell out of the plane. It's classic, ridiculous, Hollywood action. Everything about the climbing is wrong, from the properly doubled-back harness failing when the buckle warps in the opening sequence to the bolt gun that shoots a fully-threaded bolt into the rock  in seconds (watch this scene in slow motion; it's actually an ice screw!!). "Cliffhanger" is actually loosely-based on a real incident, where a Lockheed Lodestar plane filled with marijuana crashed in Lower Merced Pass Lake in Yosemite National Park during the winter. Several climbers went up and salvaged some of the contraband in what was playfully called the Yosemite Gold Rush. The climbers who lived in Camp Four year round probably salvaged over half a million dollars of pot before the Feds got tipped to it and cordoned off the lake.

Vertical Limit (2000)
Another big budget Hollywood film staring Chris O'Donnell. Who knew you needed nitroglycerin in the rarefied air above 26,000 feet on K2? O'Donnell leads a rescue party to try to save his sister, who is stuck in a snow cave high on K2 with a murderous fellow climber. The climbing sequences in this film make "Cliffhanger" seem spot-on. Whether it's our heroic star running in crampons with his ice axes at the ready, leaping over a ridiculously wide crevasse and slamming his axes into the ice cliff on the far side with perfect timing, all while at high altitude, or the climbers carrying rock climbing gear on the snow, or the repeated use of nitro, this movie goes beyond straining credulity into comic book territory. "Cut the rope; save your sister!" Simply awful.

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