MOUNT ST. ELIAS
(2009, Red Bull/VAS, NR, 100 min.)
“If all goes well, you’re a hero. If all goes wrong, you’re dead,” extreme skier/mountain climber Axel Naglich remarks during the early moments of the new documentary “Mount St. Elias.” The true adventure follows a 2007 team of skier/mountaineers determined to make “the planet’s longest skiing descent,” first ascending the Alaska mountain and then skiing from the summit at 18,008 feet down to Icy Bay at 0 feet.
Not yet on DVD, Mammoth locals will have an exclusive opportunity to see the finished film on the big screen. Minaret Cinemas owner Bill Walters has obtained a print of the film for one day only this coming Thursday, March 3.
Based on an idea by Naglich and writer/producer/editor Gerald Salmina, “Mount St. Elias” is a visually stunning, dramatic and all-around jaw-dropping feature documentary following three of the world’s greatest ski mountaineers to Mount St. Elias in Alaska. Situated right on the Yukon and Alaska borders, the mountain, which is also designated “Boundary Peak 186,” is the second highest mountain in both the United States and Canada, reputed to be the highest mountain covered with continuous snow from peak to base.
The film centers on three main climbers: Austrian ski mountaineers Naglich and Peter Ressmann, as well as the American freeski mountaineer Jon Johnston. Surveying their target, the three observe that, “there are so few real climbing challenges left in the world.” Perhaps for us mere mortals, it’s hard to understand why this special breed of human tries something so terrifyingly hard. Naglich recalls four failed attempts at the same thing on New Zealand’s Mt. Cook to help make that point. But the film’s message is straightforward: there’s simply no greater challenge than attempting something massive that’s rarely or never been done. Just two other attempts had been made before, and only one was successful. Mountaineers Lorne Glick, James Bracken and Andy Ward pulled off the first ski descent of Mount St. Elias in 2000. Every now and again, Salmina also revisits a tragic 2002 attempt that claimed the lives of skiers Reid Sanders and Aaron Martin, whose bodies are still somewhere on the mountain.
There’s no way to convey in words how unbelievably physically demanding and life threatening such an effort is … but “Mount St. Elias” comes damn close! The mountain is as dangerous as it is beautiful, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is watching the climbers react to the extreme amount of mental pressure that push them to the absolute limit. The conditions: raw … on both the climb up and the ski down, you’ve got unstable rock faces, avalanches (the climbers watch one go right by them while setting up base camp), ice fields, sub-zero temperature, cornices, and weather that can go from picture perfect to ravaging and raging in a matter of minutes. Rescue: not a chance. When their drop plane flies away, they’re on their own.
As Naglich notes, “The summit alone is dangerous. Every step can be fatal. Every grasp can be the wrong one. And every turn can be your last.”
The film originally finished editing and underwent a limited release in 2009, but at more than two hours was deemed to be too long. This version, a much leaner and meaner one hour and 40 minutes, is a much more satisfying experience. Not lost in the re-edit, though, is the spectacular photography and phenomenal sound. The dramatic music score employs a lot of big, “Survivor”-like percussion, and is mixed with the occasional rock track, but avoids becoming cliché, a la the average trick-centric snowboard or ski movie.
The only shots that aren’t absolutely real are a handful of recreations depicting what might have happened during the Sanders-Martin disaster, though there are several interviews with surviving team members and camera crew.
Of the three, Naglich clearly emerges as the film’s protagonist due to his charismatic personality and, and strong, polarizing demeanor, oth against nature, and at times against himself. Johnston, conversely, is a total team player, but suffers a rude awakening when dealing with the headstrong Naglich. The film reaches its’ adrenaline-fueled climax when Ressmann and Naglich, the two of the trio who made the entire climb, click in and start their descent.
Making “Mount St. Elias” was undeniably a herculean work. Salmina and his camera and sound team brilliantly captured the gritty reality of high altitude mountaineering.
The audience is made a part of the team, whether debating a climb up or a line down, or almost being buried alive in a snow cave by a killer snowstorm that dropped 9 feet of snow in a matter of a few hours. These guys could figure out how to shoot some guys skiing behind the space shuttle. Put it this way, dress warm or bring a blanket … it’s that vivid.
My only caveat: the film is unrated as yet, so parents wishing to avoid any “colorful” language that’s still intact should use appropriate guidance.
“The ones you have to fight for, they stay in your memory forever,” said Ressmann, who lost his life in a May 2010 climbing accident in the Austrian mountains. So will this compelling, powerful film experience.
“Mount St. Elias” will play on March 3 only at 6 and 8:30 p.m. Call the box office at 760.934.3131 or go to www.mammothlakesmovies.com for more info.