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Skiing and Snowboarding : Media

'High and Hallowed:' The Quest to Document the 1963 Everest West Ridge Expedition

Fifty years ago, James Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest via the South Col. A second party from the same team led by Tom Hornbein, a 32-year-old anesthesiologist, and Willi Unsoeld, a 36-year-old Kathmandu-based Peace Corps staffer, wasn't interested in repeating that route. They believed there was only one challenge worthy of the force they'd marshaled on the mountain: the previously unclimbed West Ridge. And on May 22, 1963, they accomplished just that.

Forty-nine years later, mountaineers David Morton and Jake Norton returned to Everest hoping to follow in Hornbein and Unsoeld's footsteps—and film it. The team was unable to summit due to icy conditions, but their film High and Hallowed: Everest 1963 premieres at Mountainfilm in Telluride on Friday. Five decades on, the film returns to the mountain to discover if the call of adventure, risk, and uncertainty that drew the first Americans to the summit exists today.

Between the two of you, you've summited Everest nine times. Given the absurdly long lines and commercialization of the mountain, what keeps drawing you back?
Morton:
When you go to work on the mountain as a guide, you start to be identified with it. So I've had some assignments to go back and shoot or guide. Nowadays, I’m unlikely to go back, but like anyone who’s been to Everest, you never say never. I don’t go there for the aspects of climbing I love—the challenge and solitude of being in remote, beautiful places—but I do love the friendships I’ve made there.

Norton: Despite all the chaos and abuse Everest receives, it’s still a stunning mountain with an incredible history and, at the very least, an interesting future.

Outside of certain circles, not many people know about the American ascent of 1963, which was, in many ways, a very modern climbing project—laden with science experiments and focused on style and difficulty more than "conquering" virgin terrain. How significant was their expedition?
Norton: The ascent of the West Ridge in 1963 is one of the most amazing ascents of any mountain ever. Not only did they push the limits in all ways, they totally cut the cord. They were without support. They couldn’t turn back once they were a few hundred meters above their high camp. In an age when people were climbing the easiest routes, they deliberately took a very difficult one. It was an incredible break from the norm.

Morton:
One of my first exposures to climbing was reading the West Ridge, and it has been burned into my mind ever since. It’s a combination of what they did then and the mythology that’s sort of sprung up around it. To a lot of people, and Americans especially, that climb represents the epitome of what going out on big mountains is all about.

Last year, in making the film, you tried to retrace their steps but were unable to summit due to ice and a lack of snow. What was it like to have to turn back?
Morton:
Because we wanted to go in the same style and follow the same route as Tom and Willi, we had to bring supplies up to Camp IV and V. But with the ice, we needed a way to get down which meant rapelling or putting in fixed lines. It became too time-consuming because of the ice, which easily shattered apart. We didn’t have a chance. The writing was on the wall fairly early on, but we kept at it toward the end.

Norton: We went in optimistic. Sure, we thought the route was going to be tough, that it was going to kick our butts. But we didn’t think that ice would be the problem. Our concern was having too much snow. Instead, the slope was covered with blue bullet-proof ice that shattered apart when you placed a tool into it. We couldn’t move quickly or efficiently. And we were getting barraged by rocks, which added spice to it all.

To finally make that call is never an easy one. The mountain had subtly and less than subtly been telling us that for a long time. On that final day when were a 100 meters below the West Shoulder, it was painfully obvious it wasn’t going to happen. It was painful to have to turn around, but also very easy because there was no question we were going to summit.

Where did your obsession with the West Ridge begin?
Morton:
About 20 years ago, I’d go rock climbing at a gym in Seattle and Hornbein would be there. I knew who he was, but a lot of the younger climbers had no idea. He was off with guys his own age doing climbs that weren’t the hardest in the gym. 

Fifty years after their ascent, there’s a lot of 20- and 30-something climbers who aren’t aware of the 1963 expedition. They’ve only heard about the modern Everest. I’ve always wondered how Hornbein could write a new edition of his book or how a film could appeal to younger people, to place it within the climbing cannon of the Americans.

Norton: I’ve been interested in the West Ridge for years. Hornbein and Unsoeld have always been heroes of mine. But their story, partly because of personality and also from the way we tell our histories, had been largely forgotten. I wanted to share that story with a greater audience. And becoming good friends with Tom over the last six or seven years has led me to want to tell it even more.

What was it like filming on Everest?
Morton:
We tried to keep it light and simple with one crane—which we didn't use much—and handheld DSLRs. We figured we’d focus on telling the story more than using camera wizardry.

Norton: When we looked back while putting together the final film, we hadn’t shot enough in the worst conditions. You never want to take your camera out then. But it made it hard to tell the story of what turned us back—the conditions—visually.

Was it tough trying balance telling the story of the 1963 summit with your own expedition?
Morton:
That was our big challenge.  We always had a vision for how to tell the 1963 story. It was harder to figure out how to add in our story without people walking away and wondering why it was in there. The 2012 stuff ended up serving as a window into how much different it was probably like when Jim and Tom and Unsoeld summited than it is today.

Norton: We decided the real story was 1963, and 2012 becomes relevant only when it underscores how badass those guys were back in 1963.

Do you think their sense of adventure and uncertainty has been lost on Everest with the $100,000 private expedition as the norm?
Morton:
I hope this reignites the spark within the climbing community: the reward of commitment—even though it’s dangerous—to the route, or putting yourself in a situation where the outcome is uncertain. We also wanted to show that the Everest of today isn’t what it once was. We don’t have a disparaging attitude, but the mountain has become such a different thing. There's no uncertainty anymore on the standard routes. That sense of adventure is missing. And we wanted to show that without name-calling or finger-pointing.

Norton: We hope to educate people about what happened in 1963. Not so much of what they did, but some of the more metaphysical and metaphorical aspects of why they did it. It’s about Tom’s belief that climbing is about uncertainty, which people don’t embrace on the standard routes of Everest these days. The mountain’s still there physically, but it has been brought down to a commercial level. Conversely, on the West Ridge, it’s just like 1963. We have some more tools at our disposal, but it’s a full-on adventure to this day.

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What American Idol Taught Me About Running

I have an embarrassing confession to make: Watching American Idol makes me a better runner. There, I said it.

I came late to Idol mania. By the time I discovered it, last winter, it had long been written off as a cheesy, has-been contest. But I left the TV on after last year's Super Bowl, and there it was in my living room. I was mesmerized by the contestants, who marched out onto the stage and belted out their best songs, unplugged and entirely alone, in front of three judges and the whole world.

Like any marathon or large race, American Idol’s talent pool was decidedly mixed. Some singers were terrible, tone deaf and awkward; some were decent. They wore blue jeans with holes, stilettos, tattoos, dreadlocks. They were 14, straight off the soccer field, and 28, single-mom waitresses who just wanted a shot. And then there were the holy-shit standouts, the ones who you could immediately tell had something. But each and every one was fully going for it, no holding back. How can you not admire that?

Twice a week, I was glued to Idol. I watched the hordes get winnowed down week by week. I bought it all: host Ryan Seacrest's twinkly grin and consoling hugs, the judges' tough talk and tears when someone sang off-key or botched the lyrics. When Philip Phillips sang, the hairs on my arm stood on end.

All that spring, while Philip and the rest of the American Idol contestants laid themselves bare to stay in the game, I was training for my first 50K trail race. Philip became my totem. Each week he stayed on the show, I ran longer and harder. I wanted to run the way he sang: with ease and conviction.

Philip made it into the top three, with three weeks to go. My race was in three weeks. I channeled Philip: If he could do it, so could I. I started doing crazy, embarrassing things. I cheered out loud and wrote signs that said “Philip” for my three-year-old daughter to hold up in front of the TV, as if he could see us. My husband thought I’d lost my mind, but I knew Idol was part of some larger equation, an essential cross-training tool, even if I sounded like a crazed fan when I tried to explain it. A few days after Philip took top honors, I ran my race and won.

I thought it was beginner’s luck, finding Idol when I needed it most. But this spring, I’m training for my first 50-mile race, and who should come along but Angie Miller? Angie is 18, does a wicked cover of “Skinny Love,” and sometimes tears up when she sings. She has raw, fearless talent, and she doesn't hold back.

My race is in two weeks, just after this season ends. So what is Idol teaching me this year about ultrarunning? First of all, that it’s important to be authentic. If you don’t want it, and want it truly, from the inside out, don’t do it. Idol judges can sniff out the fakers; their songs just don’t ring true. Same goes for running. Listen to yourself: If you don’t want to follow a training plan, wear a watch, or do speed work, don’t. If all you want to do is run trails up high in the mountains, OK. Do what feels good.

Pace yourself. With a week to go, we're in the home stretch, and things are getting a little dodgy. Candice’s big, bellowing gospel-lady church voice is getting raspy. Meanwhile, I've been trying to heal a strained calf. It’s tempting to sprint to the finish, but at this point it’s more important to stay healthy than to burn out before you get there. I’m heating and icing my sore muscles and joints, slathering on arnica by the gallon, and doing lots of foam rolling. Hopefully, Candice is resting up her pipes.

Timing is everything, in both musical reality shows and ultrarunning. Angie emerged as the early favorite back in February, when she delivered a shockingly great original song, “You Set Me Free,” which quickly went viral on YouTube. Then she cheesed out on a few songs and found herself on shaky ground. It’s like periodization training: Peak too early, and you’re sunk

Lastly, whether your dream is finishing a 100-mile race or winning a reality TV show, don’t give up. You can make mistakes, like running too fast too far or singing the world’s most boring song, but if you want it badly enough, you just have to keep going. This is what masters call practice: something you do over and over, without focusing on the outcome.

Watch American Idol closely enough, and I bet you'll find some lessons for running and life in there, too. If not, call me crazy. Either way, I’m signing off: It’s Idol time.

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5 Tips For Making Better Videos

KNOW YOUR CAMERA: Familiarize yourself with all your tools in a nice warm place so that when you’re outside in the rain or snow, or under pressure, you won’t press the wrong button. With action cameras, it’s helpful to learn the field of view, because there’s no viewfinder on a lot of them. It’s important to know what will end up in the picture and what won’t.

MIX IT UP: The coolest thing about these cameras is that they’re really tough, and you can put them anywhere—so put them anywhere. We don’t want a soup just made out of peas. We want a soup made out of peas, potatoes, and spices. Get a bunch of angles—top of the ski, chainstay of your mountain bike—so when you’re editing you have a lot of different stuff you can mix together.

HAVE A PLAN: If you want to tell a good story, it’s really -helpful to decide what you’re going to do -before you go out and do it. Try and figure out a -beginning, a middle, and an end. Very few great pieces you see on video or on the Web just happened.

KEEP IT SHORT: Nobody wants to watch a five-minute video of you mountain-biking down a trail. My preferred length for a Web video is 60 seconds. If you watch Super Bowl commercials, you’ll realize that you can do a lot in 60 seconds. But you also don’t have to do a lot in 60 seconds, because it’s a safe time investment for people.

LISTEN: Sound is 51 percent of a film, and action cams are terrible at recording audio. It’s easy to get sound effects—like a bike chain running or birds chirping—at places like Freesound. Also try recording a bit of narration with the microphone on your laptop.

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Singletrack: Coming to a High School Near You

High school sports have long revolved around football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. If it’s up to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), an organization pushing for cycling in high schools, you might soon be as likely to be clanging cowbells at the finish line of your kid’s race as climbing into the football bleachers. Founded in 2009 with just the Norcal High School League, NICA has expanded to eight states with nine leagues and almost 2,000 participants, and they aim to bring their programs nationwide by 2020.

“The program has taken off in the few years we’ve been around. We saw 58 percent growth in participants from 2011 to 2012,” says Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. “We plan to add two to three leagues a year in the years to come.”

This Saturday at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, Singletrack High, a movie about NICA and the high school mountain biking movement will be screening to its biggest and broadest audience yet. The film, which follows six Northern California teenagers through the spring 2012 season, premiered in early February in Mill Valley and has been showing to small (mostly sold-out) high school racing audiences ever since. The Sea Otter presentation is the movie’s general public coming out party. It will be touring the country this spring and summer, and screenings are easy to arrange.

I’ve always intellectually loved the idea of high school mountain biking, but without kids I could never get super excited about it. Singletrack High changes that. By following a few varied and poignant storylines, from three siblings who grew up in a cycling family and now train and race together to an inner city youth who didn’t even know what mountain biking was before he joined the league, the film illustrates the transformative power of cycling. It also speaks to pressing current issues such as Nature Deficit Disorder and childhood obesity. And it’s especially timely, too, with the firestorm in the last weeks over how UCI rules might affect amateur racers.


In advance of the movie’s showing this weekend, we chatted with brothers and co-directors Jacob and Isaac Seigel-Boettner about NICA, bike culture in America, and why high school mountain biking should matter to everyone.

OUTSIDE: This is your second film about bikes. Did you set out to be cycling filmmakers?
Jacob:
We were born in Santa Barbara, and we both literally came home from the hospital in a bike trailer. Our parents lead trips for junior high schoolers under the loose title of Educational Safaris, and we traveled to Ireland, Italy, France, Austria, Canada,  Rwanda, and all across the US to ride. So I guess in some ways we were groomed for this.

Isaac: We grew up mountain biking and we slowly started learning about racing. Eventually we started a bike-racing club at San Marcos High School. We like to think of ourselves as the first high school racing league. [Editor: said in jest.]

Jacob: But we never intended to be filmmakers. When I was in college at Berkeley, I knew I wanted to do a semester abroad. I wanted it to be about service and something related to bikes, and I figured out a way to go over and study Tom Ritchey’s project designing cargo bikes for coffee farmers in Rwanda. To get credit, I had to write a paper about it, but I knew that nobody would read it. So I decided to make a movie, and when I screened it people really liked it.  We realized that there were all these stories about the bike out there that people never hear. So we decided to start making stories about bikes as tools for change around the world.

What drew you to film Singletrack High?
Jacob:
We’ve traveled a lot in the developing world, and though it’s not completely PC to say, people around the world look to us, to America, to know what it means to be “developed.” Sadly, that means driving cars. So we wanted our next movie to be about that on some level. That was the starting point. And we realized that high school mountain biking is interesting partly because it is at this time when kids are putting their bikes away and getting their first cars. 

Several of the kids in the film talk about how uncool it is to ride a bike and how important a car is in their peer circles.
Isaac:
We sort of conceived that the film could be a means to counteract that. We want it to be a tool to get more kids on bikes. When you say high school mountain biking, it doesn’t really connect with how big it can be, but these events are huge. They are big festivals. And in the places that we’ve screened it, kids get really excited.

Jacob: At a screening in New York, where there wasn’t even a league, this kid came up to one of the NICA staff and said that he was going to quit his baseball team and start mountain biking.

The gear seems like it would be a major obstacle for a lot of kids.
Jacob:
It is definitely a barrier to entry. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to show the team from Sacramento in the film. That team is underfunded compared to some of the other schools, but they have found ways to deal with it. In that case, some of the coaches are police officers, and they took bikes out of impound for their fleet.

Isaac: Bike companies have also done a lot to step up and donate gear. Specialized has a good program. And there are grassroots approaches, too. There are lots of old bikes sitting around in people’s garages not getting used, you know when riders get a new bike. So schools are soliciting for those. NICA also has something they call the Booster Fund that allows teams and coaches and athletes to apply for grants.

Some of the gear in the movie is crazy: kids wearing Oakley Jawbones and riding Specialized Epic S-Works. Did you see any jealousy between teams with and without?
Jacob:
Of course there’s always going to be gear lust. But the coaches do a great job of emphasizing that it’s about the experience, not the bike. The kids get so wrapped up in the excitement of being out there and being part of something that it didn’t seem to matter that much. For the Sacramento kids, I felt like they were just happy to be there doing it. They’ll talk about the shiny bikes that other kids are riding, but at the end of the day the performance gains are minimal and everyone is riding on the same course and everyone gets the same thrills and experience.

So much has been written about childhood obesity and our inactive youth, this, and this film seems to show a sort of antidote to that.
Jacob:
We definitely wanted to address that. Cody is a great example. A kid like him, who is a bit heavier, might normally be looked down on by the jocks. He would have no real hope of being accepted by a sports team. But anybody can mountain bike. It’s very open. It’s a cool sport because it gets the kids active and away from those screens. But cycling is also unique because it’s something you can do for the rest of your life. If you play football or baseball, you do it through high school, but for most people after that the most you’ll do is maybe toss the ball around with your kids when you have them. But biking, you can ride for the rest of your life.

Isaac: Another thing that was interesting was how these kids started to learn what eating well means. We interviewed kids who had come to discover that if they were up all night or if they ate a big heavy burrito for breakfast, they wouldn’t perform so well. It brings a real awareness without having to drill it into them.

It was cool to see the Sacramento team in Boggs having what was for many of the kids their first real outdoor experience.
Isaac:
That was really cool. Coming into the movie we learned about Nature Deficit Disorder. I didn’t even know that this was a formalized thing, but so many kids these days just don’t get outside. There was a scene that didn’t make it into the movie when the Sacramento team was out doing trail work and we were interviewing them. A hawk flew over and made a really shrill hawk call overhead, and the kid who was talking looked up and was like, “What was that? What was that?” He had never heard any bird sound other than maybe a pigeon or a crow. And those Sacramento kids live like 40 minutes from good trails.

Jacob: Some of the Sacramento kids went to the beach for the first time in their lives and it just blew them away. They live like two hours from the beach, but it might as well be another country.

Empowerment is a strong theme in the movie, too.
Jacob:
Cody is a great example. He’s not a typical high school athlete. He’s bigger. When we first met him, he was sort of the outsider. There’s a shot of him coming across the parking lot with his bike to hang out with the other kids. But by the end, at the pool party, he’s definitely part of the team. For a lot of kids, like Cody, there’s no other sport as inclusive as mountain biking.

It’s surprising how positive all the kids are, slapping each other on the back and encouraging one another. Was that manufactured in the editing?
Isaac:
That’s just the sport and the culture around the events. They are more festivals than races. I was happy to hear that all the kids realized that, too. They’re just there to have fun, not necessarily to compete. And NICA has set up the scoring so that even the slowest kids contribute points to their team, so there’s a real sense of participation and solidarity.

There’s also some real gender equality in the film.
Jacob:
If you watch the freshman and sophomore boys, they are definitely looking up to the varsity guys. But they are also looking up to the varsity girls. Those girls can kick their asses, and you don’t see that in many other high school sports.

Isaac: The way the varsity fields have shaped up in the NorCal league is interesting. The guys have faster times, of course. But the top three girls were all selected to go to Europe for a camp, and one of the girls just went down to the Pan-American games. You are seeing some of next Olympians in the making.

There’s this perception that, “It’s just high school racing.” But some of these kids are fast, right? Did you ever ride with them?
Jacob: They kicked our butts. We weren’t strong enough to be the professional GoPro riders who were following the races. We had to hire pros for that. I was watching the helmet-cam footage from the Boggs race, and Eliel, one of the kids in the movie, was totally dropping our camera guy, who is a pro racer.

What is your take on the current debate about UCI rules and how it affects participation in unsanctioned racing. That has to be an issue for some of these kids.
Jacob:
NICA got a lot of questions from the top women’s athletes because some of them were racing in the PanAmerican Games and they wanted to know if this was going to disqualify them from racing in their high school leagues, which it could. I think it’s a shame if any rule that got handed down prevented any kid from riding their bikes. It’s great to have a body that organizes and helps get athletes to the Olympics. But the question is, as a sport, is the goal to get the elite to the highest ranks, or is the goal to get more people riding? If we encourage participation, you’ll inevitably get more talented racers because the pool is bigger,

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Jacob:
I will be super stoked at the end of the movie if I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “ I want to go ride my bike.” If they want to go start a high school mountain bike league, even better. But really we just want to get people on bikes—kids, adults, anyone. NICA and everything else, it just starts with that initial spark.

Isaac: I want to help make biking to be cool. I want everyone to think that riding is something they should do. Something they want to do. Don’t keep your Spandex in the closet.

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Sebastian Junger Shoots For the Truth

THE SCENE FADES IN from black. A hand-held camera pans the inside of a car weaving through the streets of Misrata, on Libya’s coast. It’s April 20, 2011, and the city, a stronghold for antigovernment rebels, is under siege by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. We see the driver, a rakish rebel, and his passengers, several photojournalists looking out the windows at the smoldering remnants of buildings. The cameraman asks, “Which way is the front line from here?”

At that point, you realize what you’re watching: Tim Hetherington on his way to die. Hetherington, the man holding the camera, was one of the most respected conflict photographers in the world. Within a few hours of the car ride, the 40-year-old Briton was killed in a mortar attack, along with renowned American photographer Chris Hondros. Hetherington’s femoral artery was ruptured by shrapnel, and he bled to death in the back of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital.

Hetherington’s question, which arrives just minutes into the film, is also its title. Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? premiered at Sundance in January and airs on HBO in April. It was directed by writer Sebastian Junger, who became a close friend of Hetherington’s when the two worked together in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The 80-minute documentary takes the measure of the photographer’s extraordinary life and work, weaving Hetherington’s own footage, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Libya, together with Junger’s interviews with heart-broken friends, colleagues, and family. As with the new Hetherington biography Here I Am, by American author Alan Huffman, it presents a powerful case that, in the age of citizen journalism, when anyone with a camera phone can be a contributing reporter, dedicated and talented professionals still deliver the most revealing stories.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? suggests that Hetherington’s success had as much to do with his personality as his ability to capture the essence of war. Lanky and affable, Hetherington charmed everyone he met. A born searcher, he came to photography in his mid-twenties to, as he later put it, “try to explain the world to the world.”

Hetherington’s most penetrating imagery stands out for what it isn’t: gory, brutal, or shocking. His vision of warfare had him seeking out the pauses between the action that transfixed so many of his colleagues. Beginning in the late 1990s, he spent years in West Africa photographing the fallout of conflicts—victims of land mines, children blinded by war criminals, an abandoned hospital. Hetherington’s 2007 shot of an exhausted American soldier in Afghanistan won the Photo of the Year award from the World Press Association. And in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, Junger describes a poignant episode during the filming of Restrepo, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary the two made about an American platoon in Afghanistan, in which Hetherington snapped portraits of soldiers as they slept.

Hetherington also distinguished himself by his level of commitment. During the Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003, he and fellow Briton James Brabazon were the only foreign journalists to live behind rebel lines, which prompted president Charles Taylor to call for their capture and execution. He worked with Human Rights Watch on a number of projects. In Afghanistan, he and Junger financed much of Restrepo themselves while on assignment for Vanity Fair.

Ultimately, Hetherington allowed his sensitivity and empathy to direct his camera, an approach that may have been his greatest strength. As Brabazon says in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, “Tim didn’t see a division between being a photographer or a videographer or a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim.”

View some of Tim Hetherington's photos here.

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