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Eiger Obsession

John Harlin's life-long obsession with the mountain that killed his father 40 years ago comes to life in the new IMAX film, The Alps.
By Peter Potterfield - August 28th, 2007

John Harlin is best known these days as editor of the American Alpine Journal, and a frequent contributor to outdoor magazines. But for climbers active in the 1960s, he always will be associated with the tragic death of his father, John Harlin, who became in 1962 the first American to climb the storied North Face of the Eiger. But the elder Harlin died just four years later, while attempting a direct line on the Eiger's North Face, in winter, with American Layton Kor and Scottish climber Dougal Haston.

Harlin was only 9 years old when his mother broke the news that his father had been killed, and he freely admits that since that tragic day, the Eiger has haunted him. Finally, however, Harlin says that he successfully exorcised his "personal demons" in 2005 when he climbed the Eiger himself. And thanks to the new IMAX film, The Alps (watch the video trailer), we can all go along on this remarkably personal and emotional journey, one that is as visually stunning as the Alps themselves.

"I had serious trepidations about doing this climb" Harlin told GreatOutdoors.com. "I first intended to climb the Eiger in 1979, but that changed after my climbing partner fell to his death. That really altered my attitude toward climbing. I stopped doing the really risky alpine routes. Still, I always had the feeling that I couldn't stay away forever. I knew I needed to one day attempt the North Face of the Eiger."

In the intervening decades, Harlin kept his commitment to stay away from the most dangerous climbs, but instead pushed the limits on skis. Eventually, however, he drifted back into climbing. Harlin was actually in the Alps contemplating doing the legendary route on the mountain that had killed his father when he was approached by Stephen Venables about climbing the mountain while IMAX cameras caught the action on the format's oversized film.

"Having the climb filmed increased the pressure," Harlin said, "but I trusted the film makers, MacGillivray Freeman Films, to do a good job. In the end, for me, and I hope for the viewers, the film is a love story. It's about my love for my father, and my love for my family, and my love for the mountains. I needed to do the climb, to confront my fears, but I was committed to doing it in the safest way possible."

Produced by the same company that made the IMAX film Everest , which chronicled the disastrous Everest climbing season of 1996 made famous by John Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Eight climbers, including American phenom Scott Fischer, died in a storm high on the mountain. The film, featuring Ed Viesturs, is often credited with re-invigorating the big-screen IMAX film industry.

For The Alps, the MacGillivray Freeman crew filmed the stupendous landscape of the Swiss Alps in their patented way, featuring sweeping aerial views of famous peaks such as the Matterhorn. (In fact, Swiss mountain guides were recruited to dress in tweed suits and recreate for the film Whymper's 19th century first ascent of the Matterhorn.) But the IMAX crew also came in close, working on technically difficult ground to capture the hard rock moves and the swings of the climbers' ice-axes as John Harlin, along with his partners, Robert Jasper--who lead the climb--and his wife Daniela Jasper, climbed the route in three days.

"I'm really proud of the film," Harlin said. "I got to climb the Eiger in the pure style that I wanted and at the same time, we were able to make a stunning movie that honors my father, the mountains, and life in the Alps themselves. I feel that the film is true to my life and to who I am. I think Dad would have been really pleased and proud."

In addition to the film, Harlin has written a book about his life, his father and the Eiger, entitled The Eiger Obsession.

"I think what all of this has shown me most clearly," Harlin said, "is that no summit is worth dying for, that what's really important to me is my wife and daughter."


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