Last night, I sat down in the theater behind a middle-aged couple who spent the whole movie with their heads together, pointing at the screen, poking each other at the gripping moments and laughing at the jokes. They were worse than high school kids — and they were gaping at Meru, the recent documentary about climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk’s quest to notch a first descent on one of the most challenging peaks in the Himalaya.
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It’s hard to imagine less-sexy sports than hiking and mountaineering — you smell bad, you’re often wearing a lot of clothes and there’s not a ton of action — but, for some reason, it’s recently gripped hold of Hollywood, and there is a passel of movies out now about moving slowly through high peaks.
Right now, in theaters, you can go see real or fictionalized Himalayan mountaineering in Meru or Everest, the new movie about the deadly 1996 Everest season, or watch Robert Redford and Nick Nolte bumble along the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods, the movie version of Bill Bryson’s book of the same name, which is a comedy about hiking. (Which is something no one has ever said, ever.)
<iframe width=”640″ height=”412″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/5ZQVpPiOji0?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe> Maybe it’s the Wild phenomenon of people learning about themselves in wilderness, which is sweeping through books, too, but suddenly mass media is hyped on the outdoors, and not just the hyper-dramatic big-wave surfing or extreme-sports side of it. They’re looking at the grueling, day-by-day challenges of thru-hikes, or mountaineering missions — trips that get you into beautiful places, but that test your mind almost as much as your body.
Maybe it’s because we’re all so tied to our devices and our computers, and so checking out for a while feels novel and appealing, or maybe there’s some innate human craving for wilderness. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.
<iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/cOF2LIAp9bw?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe> A Walk in the Woods has been panned, but Everest has seen decent reviews and Meru has blown the lid off the action-sports-focused work that Chin and Ozturk (who are also successful photographers and filmmakers outside of climbing) and their cohorts are doing.
And while movies can blow things out of proportion, maybe there’s some value there. Even if the big screen misses the subtleties of a night in the wilderness, I bet a lot more people are getting out there, or are at least thinking about it, after they see these films. How many people have planted their feet on the Pacific Crest Trail because of Cheryl Strayed? I’m sure a lot more people understand the suffering that goes into a multi-week mountaineering expedition after watching Meru, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
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