Movie Reviews – “Death Zone” and “Natural Progression”

Post by blogger | February 4, 2006      

Had a good time introducing and viewing movies in Aspen last Thursday previous blog post. The first film, “Death Zone,” was an excellent historical piece that documents a 1974 attempt at climbing the south face of Makalu in the Himalayas. I had not seen this movie in years, and remembered it as somewhat depressing because it covers an expedition that could have achieved a great success, but instead falls apart because the leader, Fritz Stammberger (of Aspen), and his companions eventually form two factions: A couple of high altitude climbers pushing the route (Fritz, and Matija Malezic) and a group that basically stayed lower on the mountain and wore out psychologically. With the summit in reach of the upper climbers, the lower group demanded that the climb stop, and the summit team had to acquiesce or possibly be abandoned.

Through the lens of history “Death Zone” was not at all depressing, but rather a supremely interesting view into the past. More, it was exciting to see that the climbing done by this team was an advanced form of Himalayan alpinism that involved tackling a monster wall, without a larger expedition, and without the supplemental oxygen that many consider a crutch that invalidates a climb. Aspen had a cutting edge culture of alpinism in those days, which Fritz was part of.

I’ve always believed Fritz knew his success would have made him an international climbing star and allowed him to keep doing the climbing he loved, so the failure must hurt him deeply despite the platitudes in the movie about how failing on a climb is just an opportunity to return. Fritz had been to Makalu several times before, once being buried alive under a boulder by an avalanche and digging his way out. The man must have been frustrated, and it showed as he became somewhat of a loner in his mountaineering, eventually being lost while soloing on Tirch Mir, a peak in Pakistan.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, Fritz was a pioneer extreme skier who was known for his devotion to mountain sports. He was also known for extreme training and started Aspen’s tradition of skin climbing up the ski hills for fitness (rather than access as in the old days).

I never climbed with Fritz but we did know each other as acquaintances, as I was a hardcore climber at the time, though more into rock climbing than anything else. Fritz had a body builder physique and I was a skinny runt. Once, I asked Fritz something about how technical his alpine climbs were, implying that unless he was up there doing 5.10 rock moves his ascents were just hikes. “Lou, you are too much the spider,” was his reply in German accented English. At the time I didn’t get what he was saying, but after becoming more of an alpinist myself, I realized he was comparing the joy of moving on big mountains to my obsession with 75 foot cliffs. Indeed, there really is nothing like being strong and fleet on a big mountain face — going up or down.

I don’t know if “Death Zone” will ever be released on DVD for public sales. If so, the flick would make a worthy addition to any alpinist’s video library.

The second film of the evening was a homegrown project by Mike Marolt he calls “Natural Progression.” Mike is an Aspenite from a three generation skiing family who skied (with expedition companions) from the summit ridge of Shispangma in 2000, thus becoming the first North Americans to ski from 8,000 meters. “Natural Progression” is somewhat a work in progress, and documents Mike and his brother Steve, along with friends such as Kevin Dunnit and Jim Gile, skiing local peaks and making fun looking ski expeditions to far flung corners of the planet. Unlike many ski flicks, Mike’s film tells a cohesive story about their trips which I found quite compelling. Mike is an accountant — perhaps he is changing careers to movie maker?


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