Telluride MountainFilm 2000
Late 2000

I saw the traveling version of the Telluride MountainFilm fest last night. The host was a crunchy granola kind of guy, but spoke passably well. His heart was definitely in the right place, but he was speaking to a generation older than us.

There were a series of shorts, most of them environmentally-themed. Most quite well done (in the sense that they communicated effectively, with style).

There was one piece composed strictly of avalanches outside Telluride. It was impressive until you realized those little green dots were pine trees. Then it was awe-inspiring. It was called "Ode to Avalanche" and was set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

The longest piece was the only climbing feature. It was an examination of an Everest climb called "Fatal Game". The Kiwi guide was part of an expedition. His client (and friend) was an Aussie making his seventh attempt to summit (this time via the North Ridge). They got a late start (3:30am instead of midnight, b/c of high winds) on summit day and were a good 2 hours from the summit about 2 hours from sunset. The guide tried to talk the client into turning around.

The client had failed six previous times due to self-described "conservatism" in judgement. On a mountain that takes 1 life for each 6 summiteers, this is how he lived to make so many attempts.

On this occasion, the client announced that he would just bivy. The guide could tell that the client would go on alone even if the guide bailed and descended (not even assured of reaching high camp before dark). He decided to continue with his friend. They summited just before sunset. The light at the summit was eerie. The sky was dark, but you could see. Like in a movie. The client, described by his friends and fellow mountaineers as a renaissance man, did not strike the classic flag-planting pose of victory. He was on his hands and knees, head hung limply. The camcorder used to document the whole climb records these moments with only the wind whipping the mic. Finally, the client turns around and sits on the summit.

Darkness was imminent and they wanted to get down as far as they could and still find the lee of a rock in which to bivy. Twenty minutes later it was pitch black. They had found a spot and huddled together.

At base camp, the support team had been tracking their progress by telescope. They intuited the bivy strategy before the climbers had. "Bivy. French for mistake." muttered Eric Simonson, the leader.

The guide spoke about the bivy. The odd thing about it is that you know you can't bivy above 8800m and not be damaged by it. Something will be lost. He couldn't feel his feet well before he passed out from exhaustion. He remembered he had a water bottle inside his downsuit. He fished it out. It was frozen solid. Not the most comforting notion right before you slip from consciousness.

The guide awoke early AM with major limbs functional, but no sensation in feet or hands. He got the client up and after an interminable time, they started to descend. It was painfully slow going. Almost 8 hours to descend barely half of what they climbed the previous day. The client was stumbling and moving excruciatingly slowly. Frequently stopping to rest and going into a long trance, from which the guide would have to rouse him. All this was on film.

At the top of one of several vertical "steps" that must be ascended and descended with the safety of a fixed line and mechanical ascenders, the guide sent the client first, so he could monitor his progress.

The rope was being rubbed over a ragged edge. The sheath had given way and not all the core strands were intact. After a long time with no progress, the guide had to get out to see down and find out what was wrong. The client had gone slightly off course and come unstuck. His whole weight was on the few strands. He was far off the rock. He was trying to ascend back to where the guide was. He managed to, but the effort must have been superhuman. They had run out of supplemental oxygen during the previous night.

When the client got up, he collapsed and managed to tell the guide that he couldn't see. He was snowblind. The guide had assumed he was merely fatigued like the guide was, only more so. So, with new short-rope attaching them, he attempted to lead them down, but it was clear that wasn't going to work. After one trip that left them both hanging by a fortuitously placed ice axe placement on some non-crumbly rock, the client couldn't go on.

But it was then that the client, mumbling, offered the guide the radio. The radio! The guide had totally forgotten about the radio. He called, and base camp answered. They were still following the action. They had good news. Someone from high camp was on his way up to meet them. Additionally, they had staged two bottles of oxygen at the top of and just below the last step (first step on the way up). This was just what the guide needed. He made his friend somewhat comfortable and told him he'd be back soon with some oxygen.

The guide made it to the upper cache and was sucking it down and talking with base camp. Sunset was only a couple hours away. Eric was talking to the guide. After the guide had gotten some oxygen in, Eric asked him to go down the step to the other cache and meet the person coming up. The guide was suspicious that base camp was trying to get him to leave his friend. In truth they would have said anything to get him down. There was no time.

The guide was not willing to leave his friend. He argued with them. This was shown on film taken at the base camp. They brought in one of the guide's friends who had just arrived in base camp. There was a brief confab before they put the friend on the radio. He asked the guide to come down. There was some silence. The guide said later that he just seemed to understand the situation better at that point. Going back for his friend would have meant another night out. He didn't think he could survive another bivy. He started going down and at the bottom of the step, the relief climber appeared as if on cue. They stumbled back down to high camp together. After dark.

The film goes on to document the retreat and treatment of his frostbitten feet (all toes lost). His hands were OK, fortunately, but his mental state not so lucky. The guilt was incredible. He was laid up (quite literally on a sofa) for almost a year, watching his toes die (they can't be removed immediately) and then amputated. Learning to walk w/o toes and drinking way too much then quitting were trying times.

He eventually returns to the Himalaya to lead a group of friends up Cho Oyu (6th highest) and at the summit can see Everest's North Ridge. And, by extension, where his friend still lies. Even here in the face of the source of his guilt, he has regained a sense of life and its value.

His friend wanted to climb Everest more than anything. His determination was incredible. He finally got what he wanted. It was him living his life to the fullest. It just happened to get him killed. "You develop judgement as a climber. But sometimes your judgement is wrong."

The combination of compelling tale and stunning, on-the-spot camera footage from the actual time (not a dramatic recreation) was spellbinding.