The Asgard Project

Review by Dave Pickford
Tuesday 2nd March 2010

- all images copyright Alastair Lee / -


In early 2009, British big-wall climber Leo Houlding came up with an extraordinary idea. He proposed to launch an expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and attempt a free ascent of the 1000-metre southwest of Mount Asgard, then BASE jump off the top, and create a feature film about the expedition.  One of Britain’s most prolific and innovative climbing filmmakers, Alastair Lee, would direct the project. A team of top British, American, and Spanish climbers was assembled, and in July 2009 they left for Baffin Island, embarking on what is arguably the most ambitious climbing documentary film of all time.

In the realm of the Norse gods: dawn breaks over Mount Asgard

The opening scene sets the tone of a film breaks virtually every convention of adventure filmmaking. The camera skulks low in a meadow of cotton-grass, like a waiting sniper, as a small twin-prop plane takes off from a remote airstrip. There is no music; we hear only the sound of the wind against the microphone amid the loneliness of Pangnirtang. If we didn’t know this was a film about climbing, we’d assume it was a spaghetti western shifted a few thousand miles north, from the Great Plains to the high Arctic. I almost hoped to see the spurs on Clint Eastwood’s cowboy boots flashing into the frame: Lee's reference to the legendary, silent opening scene of Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More is as brilliant as it is unmistakable.

But instead of launching into a dream of spurs and shotguns, the camera cuts to the plane’s cockpit. For a few moments we share the pilot’s view, looking out across a vast wilderness of mountains stretching to the horizon in every direction. Suddenly, without warning, three men jump out of the aircraft. They tear across the Arctic sky like a trio of outlandish bats, flying past a granite wall of stupendous height, to eventually open parachutes and land on an immense glacier. This high drama sets the tone for a film that gains narratorial momentum with an intoxicating, glorious recklessness.

Breaking from the style of traditional documentary films, The Asgard Project scraps scripted narration in favour of short interviews and real-time recording of the climbers’ discussions and private thoughts, many of which feature a liberal smattering of (largely uncut) colourful language. The effect is a dizzyingly fast and strikingly honest representation of the physical and psychological reality of the expedition.

Expedition leader and Executive Producer of The Asgard Project, Leo Houlding, makes the first free ascent of pitch 6 of 'Inukshuk'

An interview with Houlding carried out before the expedition’s departure contains a revealing insight into the motivation of ambitious climbers who choose to take on seemingly impossible objectives. Whilst bouldering at his local crag of Armathwaite in the Eden Valley, Houlding explains how the place offered him a massive dose of adventure as a young climber, and how – after more than a decade at the top of the sport – he must now seek new challenges providing that same quality of experience. By necessity, they are the world’s highest and wildest vertical places, like Mount Asgard. After watching this film, I felt that might be one of the more accurate statements about the human quest for adventure I’ve heard. The desire to recreate a child’s inexpressible thrill at the boundless unknown is suddenly, vividly summed up by Houlding’s journey from a thirty-foot sandstone cliff by a river in northern England to one of the most challenging walls on the planet. 

When Houlding meets Spanish climber and BASE jumper Carlos Suarez in Riglos (a village in northern Aragon, Spain, that nestles under a massif of huge conglomerate towers) to train for the Baffin expedition, we begin to get a sense of what we’re in for. The two climbers race against the clock to climb two of the towers, BASE jumping back down to descend. It becomes apparent, at this point, that the entire film is involved in an extraordinary race against time – the time it takes to free climb a huge Arctic wall, and the short window of Arctic summertime itself.

Houlding casually remarks on the summit of the first tower “ten past - we’ve got fifty minutes” before he and Suarez plunge off into the gloom. The footage of the second descent is particularly nail-biting, after the summit becomes completely enveloped in cloud. The cinematography of this scene is exceptional, with striking reference to the French Nouvelle Vague tradition, and epoch-making films like Jean Luc Goddard’s Le Boucher. We hear the tolling of bells from the village church and the dull echo of voices as the two climbers peer down into the swirling fog; the air behind the screen is filled with darkness and prophecy.  At this point, the divide between adventure and fantasy is completely obscured, and the fascination with what lies on the other side pulls us – like the two men – over the edge, into the miasmic unknown. 

The film then moves to Houlding’s second training trip at Monte Brento in northern Italy, where he meets up with expert wingsuit pilot Robbie Pecnik in order to learn the subtle art of flying oneself faster than terminal velocity with the aid of a bat-like body suit. This is not, Pecnik points out, a pursuit that anyone can master. I detected more than a hint of irony in this statement; wingsuit BASE-jumping is statistically one of the most dangerous recreational activities on the planet. Some stunning footage of the jumps is interspersed with fascinating commentary from the two men about the nature of BASE jumping and wingsuit flying. They both make the point that to fly a wingsuit successfully, and safely, one must be an extremely calculated risk-taker. This paradox seems to permeate the film’s psychic space at several levels, since huge risks were clearly involved in the entire project – physical risks to every member of the team, and the emotional and psychological risks of a long expedition in a hostile and remote environment, on which the outcome remains completely uncertain until the very end.

Sean Leary makes the first free ascent of pitch 3 of Inukshuk

The climbing team are introduced before they set out on the wall with fast, still screengrabs. In this quixotic reference to the Japanese tradition of Manga animation, the film critically references its relentless cinematic ambition; an ambition perfectly mirrored by the nature of the climb that is about to be undertaken. A team of ace Belgian climbers beat Houlding’s expedition to the southwest face of Asgard, and had already completed a free ascent of that route when Houlding’s team arrived. Faced with a huge choice of whether to repeat the Belgians' ascent or to try a possibly much harder line on another face of the mountain, they took the bull by the horns and elected to attempt to free climb the aid route Inukshuk (A3+/5.9) which spears through the heart of the terrifyingly steep north face. The route was first climbed by a Swiss team over two seasons in the late 1990’s. Intringuingly, the name translates from the Inuit into English as “to behave like a human”.

Beginning as you mean to go on is a frequent theme of big-wall climbing, and of mountaineering expeditions in the Greater Ranges. As soon as the climbers begin the approach to the wall, the expedition begins to take on an epic quality. Plagued by sporadic stonefall, the climbers haul the half-tonne of gear they will need for the climb up the massive snow and ice slope at the mountain’s base, not reaching the beginning of the granite wall itself until dawn. In the breaking Arctic light, a precipice of overhanging granite almost a kilometre high looms above them.

The Northern Lights fire the Arctic night over Asgard

Asgard’s guardian spirits begins to throw their icy gauntlets down almost as soon as the climbers begin the route; watching the brilliant footage of Houlding free climbing the first of the harder pitches, I almost began to shiver myself. The north face of Mount Asgard is clearly a very, very cold place indeed. As the ascent progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine an environment more hostile for free climbing. Up there on the wall, the climbers are at the mercy of Odin, the ancient Norse god of war and wisdom, battle and death – and the mythical ruler of Asgard; and of Thor, god of thunder and tempest. When Houlding wakes up one morning after enduring twenty four hours of atrocious, icy weather, he musters a very British hint of irony: “Oh dear. My climbing shoes are completely frozen and full of ice.” Thor’s hammer is falling hard on the entire team, and Odin is angry. The suspension of disbelief is mesmerising at this point: how long can the climbers endure such ridiculous conditions?

The culmination of the film’s climbing footage comes when Stanley Leary sets out on a desperate open dihedral pitch high on the wall. He battles with strenuous laybacking in the intense, bone-chilling cold, some six hundred metres (2000 feet) above the glacier. With numb fingers, he just manages to place a tiny microwire before hanging on the rope, pressing his helmet against the rock, mind and body reaching their absolute limit. It would have been so much easier to go down from this point than to continue on. But for Leary, as for the rest of the team, quitting is simply not an option. Too much effort has gone in to getting here, and far too much is at stake to go down. Leary, clearly never one to sidestep a challenge, pulls off an exceptional rock climbing performance in conditions normally reserved only for mountaineers.

Having injured his fingers in a fall whilst aid climbing, Houlding leads one of the final pitches to summit with his injured hands half-mummified by protective tape. “It’s too cold to feel them” he says. The moment is rich in the texture of classical Greek drama; the embattled hero in the final throws of an epic contest, bloodied and weary, but still fighting to the end.

The strain of big wall free climbing in the Arctic begins to show as Houlding crashes out on a ledge high on the wall.

The moment the team arrive on the summit has the cathartic quality of entering Neverland, the fictional world of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Looking out, the panorama of mountains and glaciers that stretches into the distance seems wilder than the most spectacular inventions of fiction.  There is a universal sense of disbelief and utter relief among the team that they are, finally, on the top of Mount Asgard. The film’s piece de resistance of action photography comes at this point, as Houlding and Leary stand atop the wall, ready for the last, lightning-fast duel with Odin. Watching this scene, I was reminded of Hamlet’s immortal words to his friend: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” You’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens to Houlding and Leary.

If Sergio Leone, Jean-Luc Godard, and Quentin Tarantino met a bunch of big-walling nutcases, and they decided to make a documentary about climbing, they might well have come up with something like The Asgard Project. Alastair Lee, Leo Houlding and the entire climbing and production team deserve the highest praise for this astounding movie. It is a masterpiece of adventure filmmaking.

- Dave Pickford, March 2010


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