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Adventure : Media

'The Summit' Falls Flat

This month, IFC Films releases The Summit, a documentary about the 2008 K2 disaster that killed 11 mountaineers. Opening in more than 100 U.S. theaters, The Summit is the biggest climbing release since 2003’s Touching the Void. Which makes it all the more surprising that the film, the first feature-length effort by Irish director Nick Ryan, mostly falls flat. Ryan apparently couldn’t decide whether to make a documentary, a docudrama, or a historical biopic, so he crammed all three into 95 minutes.

A quick refresher: In August 2008, after summiting the mountain, 16 climbers were trapped above K2’s infamous Bottleneck—a narrow couloir overhung with seracs at 26,900 feet—when falling ice tore out their fixed ropes. For two days, the world waited to see who found a way down and who didn’t.

This is challenging material, to be sure, with multiple storylines. The Summit’s problem is that it fails to pick one. The film starts by declaring, “What happened that summer remains a mystery even to those who lived to tell the story.” Unfortunately, the plot diverges wildly before even identifying that mystery: whether Irishman Gerard McDonnell, 37, went back uphill to help a team of foundering Koreans before they were all killed by icefall. Instead, we flip back and forth between a number of subplots (including an oxygen-canister scandal during the 1954 first ascent) before we finally get to McDonnell at the film’s end.

The cinematography is also jarring, owing to the odd marriage of documentary footage—some of it from deceased climbers—and re-created scenes, which look great but feel fake next to the real stuff. (Imagine if Werner Herzog had dramatized the bear attack in Grizzly Man.) It’s unfortunate, because in those documentary clips the emotion is raw, including a scene of McDonnell near tears after making it to camp four on his way to the top.

Ultimately, unraveling McDonnell’s last noble acts is probably more comforting to his family than it will be to viewers. As his girlfriend, Annie Starkey, says, “Had they made it to camp four safely”—back down out of the Death Zone—“it would be one of the most amazing stories in mountaineering history.” That’s true, but it’s not enough to save The Summit.

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Looking for Clarity In and Around Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is the clearest lake of its size in the United States and one of the deepest, but development around the lake has greatly diminished its clarity. In 1968, one could see an astounding 97 feet down from the lake's surface. Now, it's 75 feet—on a good day.

Clarity is important not just because the blue waters of Lake Tahoe help stoke a bustling year-round tourism industry. Clarity is in fact a key to a healthy ecosystem in the lake, says Geoffrey Schladow, who directs the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and is a professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis.

"Under clear conditions, we get a lot of penetration of UV radiation" deep into the lake, he says. "It probably has some of the highest UV penetration of any lake in world." Losing that UV penetration has opened the door for invasive species, such as large mouth bass, bluegills and carp. "When these invasives reproduce, their young can't stand that UV radiation and they die. But native fish are adapted to it," he explains.

The loss of clarity in recent decades is due to sediment runoff, which is a byproduct of building and development around the lakeshore, as well as car and truck emissions. This runoff, combined with accidental introductions of invasive species, which can hitchhike a ride into the lake via boats, have significantly altered the lake's ecosystem. The lake temperature is also rising, most likely due to climate change. Schladow and the research center are part of large, coordinated effort to improve Lake Tahoe's clarity and restore its natural habitat.

That is the subject of a short documentary called "Lake Tahoe: Can We Save It?" produced by QUEST, a collaboration between six Public Broadcasting stations around the country. The show premieres October 16, but we've embedded it below so you can watch it now (thanks, QUEST!). 

We've known for decades that sediment runoff is hurting lake clarity and initial steps to combat it date back to 1987, in a plan designed by the Tahoe Regional Development Agency, created in 1969 through a compact between California and Nevada. Property owners around the lake have installed sediment traps, which have lead to better clarity during the wet winter months, but the lake's summertime clarity continues to fall, and Schladow does not know why. "Really, everything is on the table," he says. "We're looking at climate change, the impact of invasive species … There is something there that is causing the lake to change in a negative way."

As reported in January, the Tahoe Regional Development Agency has created a new development plan that will attempt to further mitigate environmental harm to the lake, while also appeasing business interests to grow the infrastructure and services around the lake. The plan nearly fell apart, however, when Nevada threatened to drop out of its long-standing compact with California (1/3 of the lakeshore is in Nevada), but the two States have now settled their differences.

That said, the waters are still far from tranquil. This winter, the Tahoe Regional Sierra Club filed a lawsuit, seeking to stop the new development plan in its tracks. The group claims the new plan does not go far enough to protect the lake, and it cedes too much to developers' interests. 

Not all environmental groups that work to protect the Sierras are on board with the Sierra Club, however. The League to Save Lake Tahoe approves of the new development plan, and recently told the New York Times that although it's not a perfect approach, it will allow developers to rehab and make more ecologically sound many structures that have been languishing since the 1987 development plan.

Schladow says the Sierra Club suit is doing more harm than good. "I think [it is] hampering progress," he says. "If the suit is successful, then suddenly we're back in the possibility that Nevada will withdraw and there will be no compact. Suddenly, two States will be trying to regulate one lake. Would Nevada sue California (over disagreements)? Would California sue Nevada? That would be unworkable."

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The Best New Fall Reads

It’s the spring of 1924, and English playboy Lord Percival Bromley has disappeared in the Himalayas. The climbing world assumes he’s perished in an avalanche. Lady Bromley, his mother, believing otherwise, summons three mountaineers to her estate. “If my Percy is alive,” she says, “I want you to bring him home to me.” So begins prolific sci-fi master Dan Simmons’s brick-thick adventure thriller The Abominable (Little, Brown, $28). Bromley’s an invented character, as are the three sent after him: decorated World War I veteran Richard Deacon, crafty Chamonix guide Jean-Claude Clairoux, and young Harvard grad Jake Perry. Soon enough the trio is battling Nazis disguised as yetis, but the surprise here is how well Simmons knows his climbing history. The team’s gear is supplied by George Finch, the inventor of the down jacket and oxygen kit. And Deacon’s Great War scars (body and soul) were all too common. The Abominable keeps the action roaring through the team’s grueling ascent and Nazi showdown while paying out enough crampon-and-ax accuracy to keep skeptical climbing geeks satisfied.

After two bestselling memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a sweeping tale of fortune, adventure, and the quinine trade. The Signature of All Things (Viking, $29) follows 19th-century scientist Alma Whittaker, whose extraordinary life unspools like a Jane Austen novel as she struggles to be taken seriously as a botanist and find a partner worthy of her love. Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir success has overshadowed her mastery of fiction (Stern Men). But here she claims her rightful spot as one of the 21st century’s best American writers.

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What Would Survivorman Do?

In the sprawling genre of survival television, there is one man who has managed to earn both huge ratings and the respect of bearded guys with big knives on their belts: Les Stroud, a.k.a. Survivorman. Stroud, 52, grew up in Toronto watching Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan, then became a rock-and-roll addict with dreams of being the next Neil Young. At 25, disillusioned by the music industry, he took a survival course at a Toronto college and was hooked. He went on to train for years with elite survival instructors and honed his skills on numerous wilderness forays, including a yearlong honeymoon with his wife in the remote woods of northern Ontario, during which they lived off the land and used no metals or plastics. Early on, Stroud had the idea of creating a home-video series to teach survival skills, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he pitched a more ambitious idea to the Discovery Channel: just him, alone in the bush for a week, filming his struggles—building fires, catching game, fending off the cold.

The runaway success of Survivorman spawned a string of copycat programs, from Bear Grylls’s Man vs. Wild to this year’s over-the-top Naked and Afraid, in which a nude man and woman are stranded together in an extreme environment. But only Stroud has pulled off a literal one-man show—producing, writing, filming, directing, and starring. In 2009, he temporarily switched gears and created Beyond Survival, a series for Discovery in which he studied the wilderness skills of indigenous people around the planet, then returned in the summer of 2012 with four Survivorman specials. In December, he’ll be back with a full season, including two episodes featuring his teenage son, Logan. Here and on the following pages, Stroud shares his hard-earned wisdom about wild places, why he considers Grylls a phony, and what it takes to live through almost anything:

The first night I spent in a shelter I’d made myself, with my feet sticking out and the rain coming down and the mosquitoes buzzing, I said, “This is what I want.”

You wouldn’t watch a ski jumper on TV and then the next day, having never skied, strap on a pair and go jump. And you don’t watch Survivorman and then say, “I’m going to go out alone in the wilderness this weekend.” It took me years to learn these skills.

There’s no such thing as passive survival. Survival is proactive. You’re doing every-thing you can to deal with the situation.

You know those lemons that come up on Vegas slot machines? When I was teaching guides, we’d always say, “When you hit that third lemon, stop—get out.” Maybe the first lemon is an injury. Then the second lemon is exhaustion. Third lemon, storm’s coming. Done, go home, you’re finished.

There’s been too much emphasis over the years on “stay put, stay put.” Survival and first-aid courses all say that. Why stay put if you can walk out? People might be looking for you, but they’ll stop as soon as you get to a phone.

You do have to stop and ask some questions: How far is it to get out? Do I know the way? Am I confident I can find it, or is it a crapshoot? Do I have the strength to make it? Is anybody looking for me if I don’t?

I go out and go through the experience of survival and document it. I hate the concept of reality television. I’m a documentary filmmaker.

Initially, I think people watch out of morbid fascination. But when you see me really struggling, when you see the sweat on my face and know that I’m really going through it, then it strikes a deeper chord: If I had to, could I survive?

All these other shows are created by TV producers. Anything they can do to get higher ratings, be under budget, get it done fast—that’s what they do. It detracts from what it really takes to survive in the wilderness. Many of the things Bear Grylls and other guys do is completely bogus. Wrong skills. Dangerous skills.

Have I ever been pressured to do it differently? To fake it? Once, very heavily by one producer, and I said no.

My son, Logan, started asking to do a Survivorman episode with me when he was 12—way too young. When he was 15, I said, “OK, let’s do this.” Honestly, I’ve been doing Survivorman for over 11 years. I’m tired of being alone out there. Realllllly tired of being alone out there.

You should trust your guide but never rely on them. Before you start the trip, go to them and say, “Can I see a map with the route?” You look at it and maybe you see there’s a road three miles to the west the whole journey. If anything happens, now you know that. A good guide will be happy you asked. They like it when someone takes an interest in his own safety.

In survival situations, go with what you know. If you can turn around and go back the way you came and reach safety, even if it’s 50 miles back, why are you pushing on into the unknown?

We always want to follow the path of least resistance. That’s what we do as humans. It looks good to go downhill. It feels easier. You have to fight this and use your head. The easiest way can be the most dangerous.

Nature is nature. Christopher McCandless was an extremely charming individual, and he charmed his way through a lot of situations. But Alaska didn’t give a shit how charming he was. It’s Alaska.

Everyone who does wilderness adventure of any kind should take a survival course and a wilderness first-aid course. They enhance your experience, and you’ll have greater confidence.

I can see getting to that place where you say, “I’m done. I’m not going to make it.” Hey, I’ve had my moments.

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First Look: 'The Armstrong Lie'

“I DIDN'T LIVE a lot of lies,” Lance Armstrong says at the beginning of Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “but I lived one big one.”

The film’s title, The Armstrong Lie, suggests an exposé, but that heavy lifting has, of course, already been done. Rather, Gibney looks at the Lie as a thing that took on a life of its own, regarding it from every angle. And that includes Lance’s. Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, had unprecedented access to Armstrong’s tightly guarded camp from 2008 until his teary-eyed Oprah confession. So while there are other retellings in the works—Hollywood is reportedly working on two biopics, and New York Times reporter Juliet Macur’s forthcoming book Cycle of Lies is also slated to go to film—The Armstrong Lie is the first and last Lance pic you’ll ever need to see.

In 2008, Gibney set out to chronicle Armstrong’s return to cycling as a friendly embedded in the Lance camp. He was on the Astana bus as Armstrong spied on teammate/rival Alberto Contador’s press conference. He was in the team car as director Johan Bruyneel hatched race strategy. He was at Armstrong’s Aspen house, camera rolling, when the drug testers showed up. The following day, when two more sets of testers came calling, Armstrong snapped: “This is fucking ridiculous!” Watching the film, even this nonfan had to agree.

But then, well, stuff happened, and Gibney was forced to drop the celebratory doc he—and, no doubt, his subject—had planned to make. He phased through stages of disillusionment, anger, and finally confrontation. After Armstrong’s downfall, Gibney goes back, camera in hand, to ask his subject some tough questions.

Gibney performs a masterful balancing act, being tough on Armstrong while remaining fair, although he largely skips over Livestrong’s role in buttressing the Lance myth, as well as the final remaining chapter in this whole saga—the $100 million lawsuit being pursued by the Department of Justice. Regardless, The Armstrong Lie will appeal to curious rubberneckers and cycling fans alike. We hear from two key players who have been largely silent, teammate George Hincapie and Dr. Michele Ferrari, who oversaw Armstrong’s training regimen until doping suspicions forced him to the sidelines. In one scene, a shunned Ferrari, stopwatch in hand, watches on TV as Armstrong tackles Mont Ventoux during the 2009 Tour, still intently tracking his protégé from afar. And we’re offered a few mini scoops, including a suspiciously timed $100,000 donation to cycling’s governing body, the UCI, in 2007, around the time it cleared Armstrong of positive urine-sample tests from 1999.

There are at least four Lances on display here: the teenage Texas punk who drawls, in a priceless archived clip, “Ah just love beatin’ people!”; the shameless liar who won the Tour seven times; the cocksure 2009 Lance, certain that he can win it once more; and the chastened, post-Oprah Lance, who is far more reflective and sympathetic than the jerk we saw squirming in his chair.

To hear him tell it, Armstrong’s decision to dope made perfect sense: he set out to beat the Europeans at their own game, nothing more—and nothing less. Not surprisingly, Armstrong still shows no remorse. “I know what it took to win those Tours,” he says. “Well, it was a little different from what you guys were told, but I know what it took.”

Check out a trailer for The Armstrong Lie below:

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