"What the fuck am I doing here?" asks mountain climber Cory Richards, in the opening seconds of Cold, one of six climbing films featured in the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour that kicks off tonight at 6 p.m. at the Boulder Theater. It's a poignant question: Richards is at 21,959' and freezing his ass off at -51 degrees on February 2, 2011 when he asks it, taking a moment to speak to the camera for posterity just in case he doesn't make it through the ascent of Gasherbrum II, a 26,362' peak in the Himalayas that had foiled all previous winter attempts.
We caught up with Anson Fogel, the Carbondale-based filmmaker responsible for shaping Richards' footage from the trip into one of the year's most chilling documentaries, to see if he came away from the project with any answers.
Westword: So... What the fuck was Cory Richards doing out there?
Anson Fogel: It's a great line, and it's the first line in the film. Great films, and I don't know if this film is great or not, but the films that I love don't answer questions, they ask questions. I think that we all can identify with that character who puts himself into situations and then later second guesses them once he realizes what he's gotten himself into. Now, we're not all going to go climb 8,000-meter peaks in winter, or in summer for that matter, but all of us make decisions to do things that are painful sometimes. The question really is, 'Why do we choose to put ourselves in situations that are painful in the first place?' I think the answer is different for everybody, but it's a fundamental and fascinating part of what makes us human: Sometimes instead of running away from pain we run towards pain.
Adventure films, and particularly the films in the Reel Rock tour, tend to be about pushing those extremes.
Yes, but I don't think that this film is about risk or danger so much as it is about suffering and pushing our internal limits. It's not about pushing the external limits. These climbers are not superhuman, and climbing these peaks isn't technically all that difficult. It's a chess game and it requires a great deal of skill, but it's mainly a function of managing and making critical decisions. I didn't want to make a film about how you climb a big mountain, I wanted to make a film about a few intense days in a particular human being's experience.
I've read that there had been 16 failed expeditions to reach the summit of Gasherbrum II in winter prior to Richards' expedition with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko. Where do you think that persistence comes from to keep trying and failing and keep going at it, just in the name of doing something that has never been done before?
I think that a stubborn focus on a goal and being willing to accept failure repeatedly is a big part of high-altitude mountaineering, and it also is a big part of what shapes the kind of personality required to tolerate these challenges. You fail more often than you succeed when you're tying to summit big, unclimbed goals. It's the case for everybody: Even the best climbers in the world fail more often than they succeed on these things. It really comes down to the same question you asked before: Who are we as human beings, what do we derive from these experiences, and what makes us do these things? I don't have any answers. We can talk about the question for a long time, but I'm not even going to try to talk about the answer.
How did this film come about and how did you come to be involved in it, since you weren't on the actual expedition?
When Cory and Dennis and Simone were still in Pakistan they were posting these dispatches on the North Face website. I saw those dispatches a few days after Cory first posted them and I got the sense that there was a lot more potential in the footage beyond just dispatches for the North Face blog. As far as I know there was never any intention to make an actual film out of Cory's footage, but I saw them and I thought, 'Wow, this footage is raw and powerful.' The quality of the footage was pretty high given the conditions -- Cory's an incredibly talented National Geographic photographer -- so I got in touch with him while he was still in Asia and said, 'Hey, let's talk about this, there's a lot going on here and I think I can do something pretty special with this footage.' Eventually I got all the footage on a hard drive and started scrubbing through it. Cory decided to entrust me with the process, and I ended up spending 300 hours making a very experimental 19-minute film out of it.
What do you hope audiences get out of the film and what do you hope comes from all the exposure it's getting through the film festival circuit and now on the Reel Rock Tour?
I hope that people can identify with the character and that they leave with a slightly different perspective on big-mountain, high-altitude mountaineering. I hope that people leave asking some questions for themselves, you know? Asking questions about their own lives. And I hope they leave with an understanding that these climbers are just people, they're not superhuman. If the audience can identify with these climbers, then I think there's something to be learned from them.
Are you surprised by the reaction it's been getting in front of different audiences?
We could have made a film that was safer and a little bit more conventional, but we didn't do that and audiences seem to be responding to it. Making every film is an experiment, but this one I really didn't know if it would work. It's a pretty unusual and risky way to make a film, using raw footage that wasn't shot with a film in mind and where the director wasn't there. I spent a lot of time writing treatments and deciding how it would work, asking myself a lot of questions, and that became the experiment: Asking questions instead of answering questions. Now that it's been in front of some audiences it looks like it's working, but honestly I'm really surprised!
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