Can we have sane conversation about survivalist documentaries? I just coined that phrase. Internet, you are welcome. Survivalist Documentaries are survival documentaries in that the entire process masticates extreme athletes, chews on them, until it then desiccates them. Okay, so the analogy is crass. But think about it… mountain climbers, desperate to make a living mountain climbing, go big. In so doing, they get magazine deals, and interviews. The more interviews they give, the more TV news shows they get, the more endorsement deals they get… and thereby, the harder and more extreme they are expected to go. You see where this is going right? The desiccation bit. Right… before we get there, the latest Survivalist Documentary from Netflix is called, appropriately, “Race to the Summit.”
Race to the Summit Overview
The quick overview is simple enough to sum up. Ueli Steck began not only climbing some of the most technically challenging mountains in the world, but he began climbing them without ropes or assistance. Free climbing them. “Better yet,” he began racing up them in order to see how quickly he could summit these horrifyingly daunting peaks.
OK? This guy, we now know, Ueli… he was insane. This much is clear. But it was all part of a vicious marketing flywheel that he got himself caught up in. As I mentioned at the outset, he began pushing the limits, to get interviews, and marketing deals. He pushed further, for sponsorships and funding. And, in order to keep that marketing cash coming in, he continued going harder, and higher, and faster. All so he could get the next promotional deal, and ultimately, his own Netflix documentary. Which is where you and I come in. But I’ll get to us in a minute.
Then came Dani Arnold. A quieter upstart of a climber who also had aspirations of speed free climbing to the extreme. And suddenly, the duo began chasing each other’s records. Out pacing and out climbing each other at every turn. And the world watched as the two men just lit the afterburners and the controversies, in order to out better the other.
(The controversies are complicated in that Ueli began leaving his phone behind. Or his GPS enabled watch. Or any sort of method for documenting his times, his locations, or his feats. The movie delves – lightly – into the controversy… but they could have learned well from The King of Kong – wait. What am I talking about… The King of Kong? Billy Mitchell totally cheated and The King of Kong totally let him off the hook. Never mind. ANYWAY.)
Regardless… as you continue to watch the film, you begin to discover why the documentary was so intentionally light-handed with Ueli. That was because the rivalry continued to push the duo farther and farther. And it resulted in Ueli falling 1,000 meters (for my American friends, that’s 3,280 feet) to his death. He was solo free climbing the Nuptse in the Himalayas when the accident happened in 2017.
Objectively, it’s an Amazing Film
Pausing for a second, I will say this… this is a gloriously good film. Documentaries are my thing. I love learning things. I love meeting new people and personalities. I love experiencing real life in completely new and interesting ways. And say what you will about this formula (which I will do in a moment) but it works. It sucks that it works this well, but it works.
Also, personally, I have to give a shout out to the scenes from Interlaken and the images of the Alps, and specifically the Eiger. I was “dating” a gal, when I first visited her parents over Christmas break. I arrived at night there in Unterseen, and slid open the curtains… looking up at the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungrau… it’s the only time in my life that I thought a view would make me pass out. Zero hyperbole. On the level. I thought I was going to crash on my future father-in-law’s space heater and get horrible 3rd degree burns. So, yeah, the scenery and the places this film visits? So fantastic.
Here’s Where You Come In – Great Job By The Way
This is where we (you and I) come in. I would posit that it is our watching these films that encourage the men who do these ever more stupid feats of largess. All in the hopes of the next deal, next signing bonus, next contract. And it is our voracious appetite for more and more, that pushes these fanatics further and further. Is it really any less amazing that someone is able to clime the North Face of the Eiger… AT ALL, or does it have to be done in a few hours for it to be impressive now? Unfortunately, it’s been climbed before… now it has to be faster. Faster. Faster. And that’s dumber, and dumber, and dumber. Literally.
And there are plenty of these films out there. I recently brought you a movie about a tragic accident during a free diving competition. Same thing only inverted. Diving as far down as you can go with only a single breath. Only glitch? They have to make it all the way back to the top again, and be cognizant and clear, for the record to count. It’s insane. We caused that accident too. All of them. It would make more sense for us to outlaw these free diving records… the speed running mountain climbs, etc. It only seems to have dead bodies at the end of that particular road.
But was an amazingly captivating movie all the same. Because we all know… one of the two is going to die before this short documentary is over. That’s the new formula, as unfortunate as that is.