Film Review: High Ground

Moving account of 11 disabled veterans on an expedition to climb Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas.

Eleven disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars team up to climb a Himalayan mountain in this sensitive and emotional documentary. Shot by an experienced mountaineering crew, High Ground includes stunning footage of Lobuche, Everest and other Himalayan sights. But the focus of the film is squarely on the vets. The stories they tell give the film its real power.

Director Michael Brown introduces the veterans with short, at times humorous vignettes. Several soldiers are amputees, others have severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Steve Baskis was blinded, and his arm and hand damaged. Katherine "Rizzo" Ragazzino has memory problems following a concussion, and at the start of the film has spent two years battling for her pension.

Ragazzino's best friend Cody Miranda, an eight-year veteran in the Marines, also has memory problems following an underwater explosion. Nicolette "Nico" Maroulis, a K-9 handler in the Navy, spent over three years in a wheelchair. Doctors told her she would never walk again; the Himalayan trek is an opportunity to help regain her belief in herself.

Bonding during training exercises in Colorado, the veterans are self-deprecating but also precise and realistic about flaws in the armed services. One complains that vets are treated like "disposable razors." Two detail appalling treatment in Walter Reed Army Medical Center (since closed), and others describe how service officials have denied them rights and benefits.

Chilling details emerge during group sessions. "Every choice I made in my life led me to that rooftop," Dan Sidles says about a deadly shootout. "I don't want anyone to feel the pain that I feel," Rizzo confesses.

Brown supports this material with battlefield footage, some of it shockingly violent. With soldiers wielding smartphones and GoPros, so much war video is available that High Ground can show some of the actual incidents in which the veterans were wounded.

Once the vets fly to Nepal, the film concentrates on the nuts and bolts of getting to the top of Lobuche. We see how Baskis makes his way along rock-strewn paths, how amputee Matt Nyman has to compensate for a crushed foot, and how Maroulis copes with altitude sickness.

Brown and his crew don't have to spell out the obvious metaphors behind High Ground—how climbing Lobuche may help erase past traumas while building confidence and teamwork, for example. Also obvious is the respect the filmmakers have for their participants. Despite the deeply personal revelations it portrays, the film never feels exploitive.

The final push to the summit of Lobuche builds up considerable suspense. Brown and his other cameramen capture vivid details, like the miniature crampon on an artificial leg, or Baskis struggling to step up over a steep rock. The film ends with a sense of both accomplishment and sorrow, and the hope that other veterans can participate in the "Soldiers to the Summit" program sponsored in part by World T.E.A.M. Sports.