Mount St. Elias Documents an Absolutely Crazy Climb, but It's the Humanity That Makes It Worth Watching
Alaska's Mount Saint Elias is the third-tallest mountain in North America, and it is notoriously unfriendly. It was first climbed in 1897, and it was then all but forgotten. Uncommonly close to tidewater for such a large mountain, its weather is extremely volatile. Near the top, it is often hellish. Few climbers want to deal with it. Mount St. Elias, the film, is about a group of batshit-crazy men who not only want to climb the thing but who then plan to ski back down it — all the way to the shores of Icy Bay, about ten miles from the summit.
Mount St. Elias is a surprisingly touchingly quixotic movie. It doesn't take a master cinematographer to make the Alaskan wilderness seem beautiful — or deadly — least of all in Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve, one of the most untamed and severe wildernesses in the Americas. But this mountain exudes beauty and inspires terror in uncommon quantities. Its sheer surfaces and brilliant snows seem to exist in a world apart from humanity — and quite unfit for it. The angles are wrong, the temperatures are wrong, the weather is wrong, and before director Gerald Salmina's sturdy cameras, Mount Saint Elias' vast form is subtly anthropomorphized into that of an intermittently slumbering but sociopathic goddess.
Ignore the movie's ill-advised heavy-metal soundtrack, which can only seem disingenuous. (Beside the mountaineers' death-defying mission, the distorted guitars reek of make-believe machismo.) Ignore too Salmina's reenactments of a doomed 2002 attempt by American skiiers Aaron Martin, Reid Sanders, Greg Von Doersten, and John Griber, to do precisely what our protagonists have set out to do in the film. (The former two died on the mountain, and the latter two have never explained what went wrong.) Concentrate instead on the men making the climb, on their commingled bravery and stupidity, and on the bracing vistas of the mountain itself.
Climbing are noted adventurers Axel Naglich, Peter Ressmann, and Jon Johnston — two Dutchmen and an American. (Unofficially starring are all the ballsy cameramen we never get to see, one of whom sticks with the onscreen adventurers through some extremely hairy situations.) Beside the stoic and surprisingly poetic Dutchmen, the Yank sometimes comes off as a bit of a pantywaist, venting his fears about the impending mission in base camp while his comrades wax philosophical. Soon, the three are trapped somewhere near the mountain's summit in a near-fatal snowstorm, digging at the entrance to their improvised igloo with all their dwindling might to keep from being buried alive. It's then that Johnston begins to seem like the sensible one. Much earlier, he had complained that his comrades would turn back if conditions were inclement. Then it sounded like bellyaching: Suddenly, it appears he may have been fatally correct.
No doubt about it: Naglich, Ressmann, and Johnston had no business climbing Mount Saint Elias, never mind skiing down it. But strong survival instincts are not a prerequisite for serious mountaineering. If these three were smarter or even just more enamored of their mortal coils, there would be no movie. Sometimes idiocy is more than just idiotic. Sometimes, it's beautiful.
Mount St. Elias' best scene comes about halfway through the film, as the skiers decide to try the latter, lower half of their descent, beginning at base camp. It's only a test run, but until they attempt it, the enormity of the task before them seems safely abstract. Only when you see Naglich, Johnston, and Ressmann, dwarfed by the endless white plane upon which they stand, is it viscerally apparent how easily this mountain could kill them. They know this already, of course. They go slowly on their way down, but their deliberation is more thrilling than pure speed could ever hope to be. On an uncharted and unmaintained slope, deadly ice could be anywhere, hidden beneath the snow. One of the skiers could come upon an unsuspected crevasse or a buried rock that would send him hurtling into the sky. So, traveling in an almost vertical downward direction, the adventurers come to frequent halts, digging in their skis and standing straight up, seemingly in defiance of physical law. As they do, it seems you can almost hear the muscles in their overworked thighs screaming through their Northface. In this long scene, the men work a kind of crude, physical magic, pushing past what should be their limits to conquer their sociopathic goddess. She doesn't even stir.
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