I’ve liked the work of the folks at High Plains Films ever since I was a grad student at the University of Montana and saw “This Is Nowhere,” their documentary about the RVers who travel around the country, only “camping” in Wal-Mart parking lots. Their documentaries have covered a range of topics, from the asbestos-caused health problems in Libby, Montana, and profiled MG pal and Canyon Country Zephyr publisher Jim Stiles. Their newest documentary, “Facing The Storm,” covers another Western issue: the wild bison. Or not so wild anymore, depending who you ask. “Facing the Storm,” co-produced with The Independent Television Service and Montana Public Television, is historical, political, environmental and damned interesting. There’s footage of bison being herded back into Yellowstone Park (so Montana cattle ranchers can tout their state as “brucellosis-free”) with snowmobiles, helicopters and police cars; footage of bison being shot at close range; footage of bison being killed in slaughterhouses; interviews with cattle ranchers, native Americans who are building the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, bison ranch owners, wildlife biologists, historians and animal rights activists like John Lilburn, the man who was convicted of “hunter harassment” when he stood between a hunter and a bison in 1990. We’ve had a long relationship with this Western icon, from hunting it to near extinction in the 19th century, brought it back, but artificially try to keep it in the perfect square that is Yellowstone National Park, and now, as one of the interviewees in the film says, “The great Wild West of the migrating bison herds, I think is a thing of the past. There’s just no place for that to happen anymore.”
One of my favorite stories from the nonprofit I work at is about the city kid on his first trip into the wilderness, who kept telling one of our adult volunteers to “listen” for a noise he was hearing. After a few minutes, the adult figured out that the teenager had never heard the sound of silence before that experience. Gordon Hempton has taken it upon himself, over the past three decades, to get to those “quiet” places in nature and capture those sounds. “Soundtracker” is a profile of his quest, taking 20 trips a year in his VW van, capturing “sound portraits” with his business partner, Fritz, who is a human head-shaped microphone that Hempton can place on top of a boom or a tripod as he walks the earth looking for unique sounds that may be disappearing from our landscape, like a breeze blowing through a field of tall grass. In one scene, Hempton parks his van in an empty field, walks out of the van to listen and see if he can find a good sound to record, and is visibly irritated by the low hum coming from a power transformer. He says that sound, coming from computer fans, light sockets and everywhere else, is “the American mantra.” He might have a point.
Most of us who have gone look- ing for enlightenment in the big hills, armed with crampons or ropes or ice axes or other implements — but without paying for professional mountain guides — have a worn copy of one of the first seven editions of
“Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” somewhere on our bookshelves. It’s sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages, and Mountaineers Books, since it began in 1960, now has more than
500 books in print. The 8th edition of “The Freedom of the Hills” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of this tome of self-reliance, and thankfully, Mountaineers Books didn’t choose to make it a Kindle or iPhone edition. No less than 32 climber-authors were involved in this edition, which includes a few updates — how to travel safely in “border country,” more information on fitness and training specifically for mountaineering and lots of stuff us climbing geeks would get excited about (“fisherman’s knot” is now “fisherman’s bend”!). Still, no chapter on how to convince your partner to lead all the hard pitches, or how to sneak the beers into his/her pack before the climb. Here’s to 50 years of staying alive up there. www.mountaineersbooks.org
If you’ve spent any amount of time in our beloved national parks, you’ve probably seen some pretty bizarre stuff. A friend of mine who guides in the Grand Canyon once saw a woman actually pick up and throw a squirrel over a cliff at one of the South Rim viewpoints after it scampered up to her and stole some of her snacks. We all probably have our stories. Park rangers have thousands. Andrea Lankford, a former ranger in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains and Denali, finally took up the job of collecting some of those stories, writing them down and sharing them with us. “Ranger Confidential” has a great pace, each story finishing in 12 pages or less, making Lankford that person sitting around the campfire entertaining you with one tale after another. She warns in the book’s introduction that “ranger reality is rated R,” and then gets right to the action, with a ranger arresting a public masturbator standing over a topless sunbather on one of Cape Cod’s beaches, a gunfight, a driver dragging a loggerhead sea turtle to death behind his pickup and a rescue in Yosemite that ends in the confiscation of several pairs of nunchakus from a backcountry martial arts class. That’s all before page 50. You get the picture. Lankford survived her 12 years as a ranger; some don’t. She tells those stories, too. www.globepequot.com
It pretty much makes my month when an outdoors movie comes across my desk, and after watching it, I get to give it my “not ski/climbing porn” stamp. In the first few minutes of “A Life Ascending,” you see Ruedi Beglinger, owner of Revelstoke, British Columbia, hut-skiing company Selkirk Mountain Experience, anchor a rope to a snowblower on one side of the hut so he can rappel down the other side and shovel feet of snow off the roof. That’s when I realized that this would be a movie more about a life than about relentless pursuit of the gnar. Beglinger, a ski mountaineering guide, was leading a group of 20 skiers in 2003 when an avalanche ripped loose and
killed seven of the skiers. “A Life Ascending” documents Beglinger’s life as a guide, from snow science, to running a business, to raising his two daughters in a helicopter- access-only hut in the backcountry of the Selkirks. And, of course, the ever-present chance that he might die at work, or have a client die on a trip — and how he dealt with the avalanche deaths in 2003, which, coupled with another avalanche less that 20 miles away that killed seven more people 12 days later, drew negative media atten- tion. Director/producer Stephen Grynberg’s first feature-length documentary is a good one, just in time for ski season. www.alife- ascending.com
Michael Pewtherer’s “Wilderness Survival Handbook” is broken into two parts: Part I is “Seven-Day Survival,” covering all the skills you’ll need to stay alive for a week in the woods, and Part II is “Beyond Survival,” covering everything you’ll need to drop off the radar indefinitely. Essentially, if you buy this book, you should rip it in half, and keep the first half in the glove compartment of your car, and the second half in a glass case in your house for when you’ve finally had enough and want to walk the Earth in a breechcloth and hunt or gather everything you eat. Survival expert Pewtherer includes all kinds of great stuff for weekend warriors in the first half: building your own shelter in any season, navigating (with and without a map and compass), finding and purifying water and building a fire — all without anything you can buy at REI. The second half is pure Robinson Crusoe-style survival: building your own arrows and spears, hunting methods, trapping, tanning hides, how to cook in the wild, building long-term shelters, building baskets, spinning fibers into cordage, fishing (by hand, spear and hook and line), etc. A good reminder of how tough we all used to be a few hundred years ago.
In last month’s MG, I reviewed Graham Bowley’s book, “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2,” about the 2008 K2 disaster in which 11 climbers died. I talked about how impressive Bowley’s reporting on the event was, especially because he wasn’t on K2, and wasn’t even a climber. Well, climber and author Freddie Wilkinson has definitely one-upped “No Way Down,” in terms of a quality book about the K2 tragedy. Wilkinson matches the quality reporting of the actual incident, and then takes it upon himself to travel across the globe and do more investigation, resulting in a much richer account. Insight borne from Wilkinson’s experience on expeditions in the Himalayas and some of the world’s other great mountain range aid the explanation of the incident, and fuel his drive to figure out what really happened and also to explain the culture of Nepalese and Tibetan Sherpas and high-altitude crew. Later in the book, Wilkinson goes so far to reflect on and criticize his own coverage of the incident. Wilkinson’s writing has been previously published in climbing publications like Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Climbing and the American Alpine Journal, but with this book, he establishes himself as an author and a true journalist.
Chuck Fryberger has an expensive camera and shot “Core” in 35mm Ultra High-Definition, making it the first climbing movie that made me wish I had a bigger TV. This is a solid film, following some of the world’s strongest climbers as they battle routes that are at their limits. Fryberger, as a filmmaker, knows what he’s doing — when to play high-energy music as his tracking shot follows a car ripping down a dirt road in South Africa on the way to Rocklands, when to turn off the music so we can listen to a climber nervously breathe and scrape his or her way up a boulder problem, and how to find the right angles. Two highlights in this film, for me: A segment on BJ Tilden, who is not a sponsored climber, but a full-time carpenter in Wyoming, who climbs as hard as a sponsored climber; and when Hueco Tanks legend Rick Oliver shares this bit of philosophy: “There’s a leisure class at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. You can have a lot of money and no time, or a little money and a lot of time. And it’s very, very fun to be on either end of it.” Also great: The film can be e-mailed to you, for $19.95, if you don’t want to spend the $29.95 for the DVD or $39.95 for the Blu-Ray.