Of all our confrontations with nature, mountaineering is one of the very few in which nature still holds the upper hand. Because it hasn’t been totally overwhelmed by technology (the gear may be better, but it’ll never beat gravity), the struggle evinces an exuberant grace that brings greater glory to the climber and the climbed.
Unfortunately, for all its sweaty presumptions, the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger (1993, Columbia TriStar, R, $99.95) uses the sport as just another high—very high—concept. While it meets a key standard of any successful feature film—it takes us somewhere new and shows us something different—that franchise gets played out in the first few minutes, after which Cliffhanger lapses into a banal Die Hard-with-frostbite action clone. The ”somewhere new” is a mountain range meant to be the U.S. Rockies (actually it’s the Italian Dolomites), and the ”something different” is a crack mountain rescue team—Stallone, plus costars Janine Turner, Michael Rooker, and Ralph Waite—attempting to save what they believe to be a group of lost hikers. But the hikers are actually a band of international cutthroats (led by John Lithgow) whose plane has crash-landed and who force their would-be rescuers to help them recover stolen loot scattered in photogenic locations all over the mountains.
The opening sequence, in which Stallone attempts a rescue on a transfer line over a 4,000-foot chasm, is a genuine seat gripper, a technical triumph unlike practically anything you’ve ever seen in a movie. But this and other shots of wide-open spaces are greatly diminished in the picture’s transfer to home video, abetting the movie’s quick deterioration as director Renny Harlin (who also made—surprise!—Die Hard 2) becomes preoccupied with smash-mouth violence and trash-mouth dialogue. Viewers hooked on high-altitude derring-do are advised to consign Cliffhanger to rewind heaven and pop in one of several excellent documentaries that more fairly celebrate the top-o’-the-world joy of mountaineering.
Rock climbing of the sort merely hinted at in Cliffhanger is lavishly depicted in Painted Spider: Rock Climbing in the ’90s (1992, Spire Productions, 916-477-1415, $29.95). Its 85 minutes of foothold-by-foothold coverage make the case that although recent advances in equipment may have given climbers a fighting chance against nature, individual success still depends mostly on the timeless basics of strength, agility, and mental focus. After a loving look back at baggy-pantsed 1930s climbers tackling rocks with slender cotton clotheslines, the video fast-forwards to their nylon-roped ’90s counterparts scampering up vaulting cliffs in luminescent Lycra (hence the title). Best of all: Peter Croft’s superhumanly elegant free-solo climb—no rope!—up a 900-foot Yosemite tower.
The ultimate climbing experience is the full-blown mountaineering expedition, and among the several first-rate peak-bagging documentaries are two of exceptional dramatic and visual interest. Thin Air: The 1991 New England Everest Expedition (1992, International Mountain Equipment, 603-356-7013, $29.95) is the funky, meticulous videotaped record of eight New Englanders’ ambitious attack on Mount Everest in 1991, with bare-bones equipment and a modest expedition budget of $135,000. This is the video that addresses the everyday questions of how mountain climbers live, work, and relax (”Talking,” one climber says, ”about things that we never get a chance to do—divorce, kids, and money”). Most impressive is the video’s offbeat vision of the world’s mightiest mountain as a wasteland littered with the detritus of previous expeditions—including, on this occasion, hundreds of jettisoned oxygen tanks, wind-tattered tent shards, and the body of a dead climber laying frozen where his tent once was.
The Logan Challenge (1991, Mystic Fire, 800-292-9001, $24.95), which originally aired on PBS, is an exceptionally polished documentary of a 1990 expedition up Canada’s highest peak, 19,850-foot Mount Logan. Climbers Jon Waterman and Rick Atkinson recruit Iditarod-winning dog musher Joe Runyan to drive three eight-dog teams all the way to the summit, carrying supplies and climbers with them. The dog stuff alone makes this tape a treasure.
But along with capturing this pioneering climb, The Logan Challenge also creates a narrative parallel—through words and vintage footage—with the first-ever Logan conquest, in 1925. In that pre–Gore-Tex, pre–helicoptered-food-drop era, six veteran climbers in hobnailed boots and bulky wool jackets took two months to scale the peak. ”When they came back, they were frostbitten and haggard,” says Waterman. ”No one recognized them. They were different men. They were different for the rest of their lives.” Unlike a Rocky-on-the-rocks feature film, The Logan Challenge lets us share the awe, savor the drama, and understand why challenging a mountain is truly one of life’s great highs. Cliffhanger: C+ Painted Spider: A Thin Air: A- The Logan Challenge: A