(Note: A trailer for this film is not yet available. In lieu of that, above is some of the same footage that first appeared on the North Face website as an expedition dispatch. With editing and crafted narration the film reviewed below is quite different, and I dare say much better. “Cold” will premier at 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale Colorado, Saturday evening, April 30. Get your tickets!)
Your wind shattered tent is a coven’s cauldron, swirling with cold smoky fog and spindrift. Chill soaks your core like evil growing inside you. You are bivouacked at nearly 50 below zero on an 8,000 meter peak, in winter.
When you’ve shoveled down deep inside, past the motivation of climbing as fun, or climbing as athletics, or climbing because it’s there, you get to that one thing: climbing because it is hard. And what could be harder than doing an 8,000 meter peak in winter conditions?
If you’ve never been there, really, don’t bother. Climbing in winter conditions at those kinds of temperatures is an immediate survival struggle, a battle you can easily loose with events as simple as a dropped glove or sprained ankle. Yet, if you’re an alpinist seeking the ultimate challenge, winter climbing is the obvious journey. So, bother if that’s your calling.
This past February 2, 2011, Simone Moro, Cory Richards, and Denis Urubko bothered. They did the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (8,035m/26,362′) in Pakistan, thirteenth highest mountain in the world. Not only was this the first of five 8,000ers in Pakistan to get a winter ascent, but was the first time an American climber made a first winter ascent of an 8,000 meter peak.
Per the drill as a North Face sponsored crew, the group dutifully filed their dispatches from the mountain. But as happens all too frequently with that sort of thing, the experience could be presented much more powerfully. Why? Because effective artistic communication sometimes takes more than a few hours of work in a tent when you’ve got better things to do. Good evocative art, sometimes, takes time.
Thankfully, with the help of producer Julie Kennedy and writer Kelly Cordes, climber Cory Richards and film maker Anson Fogel re-purposed the footage Cory shot on Gasherbrum II. They distilled the story narration to its essence and carefully edited the images. Result, a powerful flick they entitled “Cold.”
After throwing an extra quilt on the bed and snuggling in, Lisa and I popped our screener into the player. I’m glad we were prepared, as Richards doesn’t mess around. First scene is him in that proverbial 46 below zero (Fahrenheit) tent, basically, struggling. Lit by headlamp, with spindrift and condensation swirling like some kind of demonic dust, the shot is terrifying. Cut, next you’ve got Cory’s visage, with fear glazed eyes drilling into the lens as if he’s subject for an emotional portrait photographer. Which I guess he is: himself.
Only in this case, the portrait talks. “”What the f** am I doing here, we have to get down,” are the first words uttered in “Cold.” And it continues on from there. (I’m not a big fan of substituting profanity for articulation, but in this case, it works.)
The climb actually goes pretty well. Descent is where the story is — as often happens on the big peaks. With the summit one day’s climb from their hard-won high camp, Moro, Richards and Urubko make plans on weather they got from satphone. They know a window will open the next morning, then smashes shut that afternoon like a hurricane shutter, only they might be on the wrong side of the glass. Taking a calculated risk, they summit.
Yes, the storm hits.
The descent reminds you of some sort of war torn story of refugees braving all odds to survive. The cold is of course relentless and you wonder if with their coughs, panting, and general last-legs demeanor the crew isn’t going to arrive home short one or two men.
One scene in particular, a short moment of snow post-holing, is so heinous as to drain you emotionally in about ten seconds. Then the avalanche hits.
I don’t know the exact stats, but I do know that avalanches are what take out vast numbers of 8,000 meter peak climbers. Somehow the crew survives after being swept down the mountain and partially buried. Ho hum. Only in this case, you see a representation of Cory getting washing-machined, then a self portrait video as the man emotionally reacts to his near death experience.
Let’s be clear (as the big O likes to say), despite their unqualified success, this is not the story of some over-glorified hero’s journey. What these guys did was incredibly tough — they walked with the reaper. The writing is good, the narration gritty and real. Indeed, perhaps we’re out of the tedious phase in adventure film narrative where video images were expected to tell the story pretty much on their own, accompanied by pop music and a brief sophomoric voice over.
Perhaps most importantly, alpinism is a sport that can bring out the best in humanity, and this flick brings that to the fore in a subtle way. For example, you won’t find any false or overblown heroics in “Cold.” Instead, you’ll hear Cory talking about how he grew up with his climber father Court Richards urging him to “go gently” in his mountain journey.
I love that phrase “go gently.” It sums up all the respect and humility that an alpinist can muster in the face of almost impossible odds. While climbing an 8,000 meter peak in winter storms isn’t a time you can look like you’re dancing in flower beds, this video shows a group of men who appear to respect each other and the mountain they’re on, give it their best, and take what they get in a gentle humility combined with solid motivation. And yeah, it is COLD.
WildSnow, 4 skis up.
(And note to all 8,000 meter postholers. Bring some planks. That’s my con for this movie: no skis!)