May 08, 2008

19th-Century Climbing, Disney-Style

Climb until you hear the angelic chorus, then bear left and look for the secret route up the chimney.

Many years ago, probably at a drive-in theatre in Rapid City, S.D., my cinematic introduction to mountaineering came in the form of a Disney movie, Third Man on the Mountain.

It starred James MacArthur, who was Disney's go-to actor for juvenile leads for a few years circa 1960. Here he is Rudi, an 18-year-old dishwasher, son of a famous (but dead) Swiss guide. Does he have the right stuff to be a famous guide like Papa (cue angelic chorus)?

But Captain Winter, the English adventurer (perhaps based on Edward Whymper) believes in him and wants him along on the Englishman's attempt to climb "The Citadel" (i.e., the Matterhorn).

Peculiar recently linked to a video of old-school mountaineering. Hah! If we assume that Third Man is set in the 1860s (Disney?? accurate???), then these guys would give a Patagonia marketing manager heart failure.

Aside from their hobnailed boots, they have no equipment to speak of, not so much as a piton. Just hemp rope (which is always getting dragged over sharp rock edges) and big ol' ice axes that look like pulaskis.

They climb in street clothes--tweed jackets--and Capt. Winter always wears his necktie because he is (a) the client and (b) an English gentleman.

Yet because it's a movie, the whole way up the Citadel/Matterhorn consists of maximum-exposure ledges, cracks, chimneys, and overhangs with a merciful arête at the end. All hail the stunt men in their hobnailed boots.

But as a 9-year-old I was mightily impressed. Of course, I didn't know the movie was based on a novel by James Ramsey Ullman, Banner in the Sky. Later, as a college student in the 1970s, I read another of Ullman's mountaineering novels, probably The White Tower. I was so impressed that I wanted to write to him in care of his publisher -- only to learn before I sent the letter that he had died in 1971.

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