Ever wondered what it feels like to be an ant searching for food, perhaps perched below the door of a refrigerator, looking at the climb above? Try standing below the Eiger North Face. The wall looms in grim northerly shade 1,800 vertical meters (5,900 ft) above, an iconic bastion of snow, rock and ice that’s helped define European alpinism for three quarters of a century. You are the ant.
But ants can move fast when required. In modern alpinism, since classic walls and summits are all taken by multitudes of routes, speed is often the frontier.
Enter the movie “Swiss Machine,” which gives us a compelling glimpse inside speed climbing. Continuing the delightful trend of adventure films with authentic narration that I’ve been viewing for review re 5 Point Film Festival, Swiss protagonist of speed climbing, Ueli Steck, shares a few adventures and a bit of philosophical underpinning.
In particular, Steck ramped up the speed side of alpinism by setting an under 3-hour time for the Eiger north face route. While his record of 2:47 was recently cut by 20 minutes (Dani Arnold, 2:28), this film still rings true and honest — not to mention displaying amazing footage of Steck on the actual Eiger climb. Speaking of which, again keeping with what seems to be a trend for authentic sound and narration in adventure films, the audio track includes the actual stomping thudding, yes, machine like noise of Steck’s foot falls on the Eiger as he runs up the final icefield. I found that aural effect to be somewhat eerie, but to effectively convey the awesome power these trained speedsters are bringing to the game.
It could be argued that speed climbing is somehow dishonest, even irresponsible. At first glance this branch of alpinism seems to strip away the concept of going gently, to be replaced with an arrogance and casual disregard for danger, which in turn almost seems like cheating as basic safety concepts pale in the face of speed — more speed. In a way it’s like a war movie, when a patrol methodically works in on a machine gun bunker, then suddenly one soldier has enough, and runs into the hail of lead, screaming like a madman and wildly firing his weapon. Sometimes that guy miraculously succeeds, sometimes he doesn’t.
As Steck himself says in the flick, to operate in his realm you’ve got to be willing to not succeed — and to even pay the ultimate price. But if you do succeed, you’ve done nothing less than create a work of art. More, you’ve shown a sense pf purpose that can be a lesson to any of us, in any endeavor. At least that’s the theory.
So, let us play intellectual machine. Watch the movie, cut through your unabashed amazement, then you tell me: Is what we see Ueli doing a radical expression of human creativity, with a foundation of pure basic athleticism that inspires us with purpose and commitment? Or did he just dodge some bullets and live to talk about it?
WildSnow three skis up, and give me your opinion over a brew after you watch “Swiss Machine” at 5 Point Film Festival, Friday, April 29, evening. Oh, and I’ll bet Ueli skis fast too. Perhaps you can ask the filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, as at least one of those guys is expected.
Aha! Daniel Patitucci sent over a bonus shot of Steck on rando race gear doing a bit of cardio. Yikes. More Ueli photos from Dan.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.