IMAX Cameras Capture Mountaineer John Harlin's Personal Journey to Alps

The Alps is the logical next giant step from the mortal folks who gave you Everest (director Stephen Judson and producer Greg MacGillivray)--a sprawling inspection of Europe's greatest mountain range--but most of it is "an obsession for the mentally deranged," taken to the IMAX. That's the way that Edward Strutt, president of the Alpine Club in the 1930s, characterized any attempt to scale the North Face of the Eiger, and this was the fierce goal that drove John Harlin III for 40 years to the summit of that mountain.

Fortunately, somebody--the aforementioned Judson and MacGillivray--remembered to bring the massive (hard-to-forget) IMAX camera pack and got The Big Picture for truly large theatre screens. In addition to this 45-minute filmed record, Harlin also got out of the experience a memoir which Simon & Schuster is publishing in this spring. Its title tells it all: The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father.

In 1960, John Harlin II became the first American to climb the North Face of the Eiger, but six years later a weather-worn rope broke while he was attempting a daring new "direct" route up the Eiger, sending him plummeting 4,000 feet to his death.

His son was nine at the time but had already logged three years of mountain climbing with his dad, and the mold was pretty much formed by then. "After college, my intention was to go into science," Harlin now confesses. "My mother is a professor, and that's where I saw my future--in Arctic and Alpine research. Then I decided I just had to get climbing out of my system because I was starting to think too much about it and it was interfering with my school work, so I decided to take two years off to climb before going back to grad school." He sheepishly post-scripts: "I never got it out of my system."

But he did swap his pickax for a pen along the way. He is now editor of American Alpine Journal, an annual publication of the American Alpine Club, and is also contributing editor to Backpacker magazine. Still, the Eiger cast a huge shadow over his life, and the compulsion to confront the legacy of his father by climbing the mountain himself gnawed at him. "1979 was when I first planned to climb it. Then my own climbing partner fell to his death in the Canadian Rockies, and I gave up this type of climbing because I saw the effect this would have on my mother if I were to die.

"Basically, I went away from Alpine climbing and gave up my ambitions for the Eiger. After 15 years of this, I just couldn't resist anymore. I was starting to do Alpine climbs, starting to think about the Eiger again. I had been over there in 1999 and was at the base, looking at the North Face, waiting for conditions. I always recognized that safety in climbing is up to the climber. We always know death is a part of it if you don't control the risks properly. I had to make sure the mountain was in shape and I was in shape. Then, I had to be there. The complete combination didn't come together till 2005."

The component that brought everything together was Stephen Venables, a well-known British mountaineer who had successfully climbed the Eiger and was coaching Harlin on the planned ascent. Venables had also been engaged by Judson and MacGillivray to draft some story ideas for a film to show off the grandeur of the Swiss Alps. Naturally, he recommended Harlin as a suitable case for filming (if not, given the resolve, treatment).

"I had to think about it because I was really doing the climb for such personal reasons," Harlin now admits. "Making a film out of it, at first, seemed like a violation of what my personal purpose was--but then, once I started thinking about the film as a way to honor my father and continue his legacy, I realized it was a way to keep Dad alive."

Documenting this actual profile-in-courage brings a human perspective to what could have been "just" an extravagantly scenic travelogue. Not only did Harlin throw in with the project, but he brought along his wife Adele and daughter Siena, who, notably, was nine at the time her 49-year-old dad was attempting the climb that had claimed his father.

"I'd never had them on an expedition before, but this particular climbing trip was like no other for me. Normally, I wouldn't have had them there, but because they were, it was infinitely richer for me. It was so much more powerful being supported by them."

Hollywood's previous brush with the Eiger--The Eiger Sanction, a 1975 thriller in which its finale fistfight was staged on the mountain's summit by the film's director-star, Clint Eastwood--also produced a fatality. Mike Hoover, who in recent times has worked for both Judson and MacGillivray, broke his back during that filming when he was struck by a rock fall, and the other cameraman who was dangling on the rope with him was killed.

"I know some of the climbers who were helping to make The Eiger Sanction," says Harlin, "and they all were tremendously impressed with Clint Eastwood and his willingness to put himself in these situations and how he handled it. There's a scene in that film where he cuts his own rope. Originally, there was supposed to be a guide stunt-double to do that bit and the guide refused, so Eastwood just did it himself."

Director Judson, who edited and co-wrote The Alps, recalls a dark cloud rolling over the production just before shooting began: "The guides went up two days before our team climbed it, and they yanked on this rope they'd put up for themselves to get the camera gear up there, and the rope came flying down at them because it had been broken--and broken by falling rock, as John's father's rope had been broken. That was a kind of gloomy omen right before the climb. The other thing about the Eiger--beside the fact it's so steep and access is so difficult--is the quality of the rock. It's very crumbling rock. In fact, an enormous chunk of the North Face fell off a year ago, right after we did the film."

Yes, there were retakes--and, while Judson was at it, some staged shots. "You couldn't get it just all in one go while they were climbing--you can't hone down on the initial trip--so we had to go back and do a lot of shots that would really tell our story. We initially just got what we could. There was enough time intervening for us to plan what we wanted to do. We completed our first four-and-a-half weeks of filming in September of '05, then in April of '06 we did the other shots. There are lots of other shots in the movie that are not just the Eiger, and we did the majority of those in April and early May."

Judson is hard-pressed to say which was tougher--Everest or the Eiger. "Both were terrifically difficult. The challenges of each were different--and huge. On Everest, you had the issue of lack of oxygen. It's difficult enough to climb up there, much less carry an IMAX camera package and film. The cameras on Everest were carried by the Sherpas, an ethnic group that lives there in the Khumbu. They're especially adapted for high altitude.

"The Eiger is so steep and so unrelenting. There's no flat spot for a mile. It just goes on and on and on. There were only a couple of spots where the helicopters were comfortable long-lining into. Your problem is the rotors of the helicopters, getting too close to that stone wall. But we had this wonderful team of young elite climbers--two of them Swiss, one German and one Austrian--and they were the key to actually getting the loads to where they needed to be. They physically carried the equipment, as did our two cameramen. We had a two-man camera team on the mountain. Michael Brown was director of mountain photography, and Jochen Schmoll helped. Both were good climbers.

"'Who should be on the mountain?' became the big question with the Eiger. Michael and Jochen were there with the cameras. We had our guides, and then we had our cast [Harlin's climbing partners were the husband-and-wife mountaineering team, Robert and Daniela Jaspers]. Already, you're talking six or seven people. That's a lot to have on the face of a mountain which is so prone to rock fall. If you have somebody who's not an expert climber, like me--I could kick a rock, and it could fall down and hit one of the cast below. You have to have expert people there who can move in that environment."

Preserving the personal dimension of the film was important to Judson. "What I'm proudest of is our effort to stay true to the story and to the people," he declares. "People tell us they really get a sense of these characters and their story. That's difficult to do in 45 minutes--to tell a story and make it clear and get people emotionally engaged in the characters. Because of that challenge, I'm proud that people tell us they do get involved."

Did he as a filmmaker feel he was invading privacy and peering too closely at his subjects? "Yes--and they would feel it at times, too. I think the important thing is that we've become friends. I really, really like them, and they like me--and they like a lot of the people on our crew, not just me. We all tried to be sensitive during the filming. They agreed to be in the movie, so they well-understood that, with this decision, there would be a lot of intrusion that was going to be uncomfortable at times. They simply put up with a lot of it, and when they didn't want to put up with it, they would tell me, and I would back away. We had a communication that was fairly simple and fairly direct."

Sometimes the film seems like reality TV--"Survivor" stretched to IMAX extremes. Even though it was "just a movie," the real world was all too much with them. (Just notice the Harlin family hug before he strikes off for parts unknown on the Eiger.)

"Oh, the tension! You cannot imagine the tension before they got to the top," recalls Judson. "It was definitely, by far, the most tension I've experienced on any set since Everest. I have tremendous respect for John Harlin and what he did in facing those demons to make that climb. He had to keep the lid on an enormous amount of emotional turmoil, both in himself and in his family. There were the personal conflicts--and it is a dangerous mountain. The day after they came off it, somebody was killed on the Eiger."

John Harlin III, the son who made it to the summit of the Eiger, has a proper perspective on his ordeal. "Mountaineers don't conquer a mountain," he insists. "What we conquer are the things inside ourselves that keep us from climbing the mountain. The mountain doesn't care one way or the other. It's not defeated. What you have to do is overcome whatever it is you're frightened of, or incapable of, that would keep you from succeeding.

"That's what you conquer, and that's really what I went through on this. My fears--the butterflies in my stomach, all before doing the climb--were as none that I've ever known. I was just really stressed by it, worried about it. For 40 years, I've been afraid of that climb, and then finally I succeeded: I have really conquered those demons inside myself."