By Jim Joque
I have been asked, “How did you learn to backpack?” My response went something like this: I read many books and magazines on the topic, viewed numerous websites, referenced copious topographic maps, attended multiple seminars and went through some training. Much of what I learned over the years about backpacking came from actual experiences on the trail and in leading others on the trail. Coincidently, environmentalist John Muir once wrote, “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a carload of books.”
It never dawned on me until recently that certain movies can add to my repertoire of backpacking knowledge. There are some interesting and well-done movies involving backpacking and related pursuits released in the past couple of years. The movies I watched were biographical films based on true high-adventure stories that teach a lesson or two. Here are my recent movie finds and the lessons learned. I recommend viewing them.
-A Walk in the Woods-
Released in 2015 and based on Bill Bryson’s book with the same name, the movie, A Walk in the Woods is a story about Bryson’s attempt with an old high school friend to hike the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Robert Redford, playing Bryson connects with his out-of-shape buddy, Stephen Katz, as portrayed by Nick Nolte. Both men now in their 60s reunite and decide to start their backpacking challenge in Georgia heading north on the Appalachian Trail.
With a lack of knowledge about backpacking and with Katz being overweight and not in the best of health, the two men start out on the trail and are met with many challenges along the way. Comical at times, they moved slowly on the trail, hiked through pouring rain and blowing snow, encountered an annoying hiker, encountered a bear and realized that after three months they were not even to the halfway mark.
Ultimately, the two men slid down a bluff and were trapped overnight on a ledge until help arrived the next day. It was not long after that they decided to call it quits without finishing their trip as planned. However, not all was lost as Katz said, “As far as I’m concerned, I hiked the Appalachian Trail.”
A lesson that can be taken from A Walk in the Woods is that the hikers were not prepared, not experienced and not in shape for the length of trip planned. In other words, they took on a feat beyond their level of preparedness. Consequently, given these concerns and a host of other situations that arose on their trip, Bryson and Katz did not finish the trek as planned. However, it was the experience they benefited from, and they realized so at the conclusion of their adventure.
Made in 2014, Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s book by the same name, where following complications in her life, she decides to hike over a thousand miles of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail by herself. Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, headed out on the trail in 1995 following her mother’s death (played by Laura Dern) and having personal baggage such as drug abuse, promiscuous sex and a divorce. She decided to backpack on a major trail without having any experience, training or knowledge about her backpacking equipment. Strayed began her hike in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, and did a 94-day trek ending in the Columbia River region between Oregon and Washington.
Difficulties Strayed faced was carrying way too much gear in her pack, discovering she had the wrong gas for her cooking stove, had the wrong size boots and a host of other problems. After a series of challenges, such as encountering unexpected snow, running into shady characters on trail and running out of water, Strayed did accomplishes her goal and experienced a cathartic self-discovery and healing that was apparently needed.
A lesson from Wild (similar to A Walk in the Woods) is that unlike Strayed, learning skills and gaining experience is very important before taking on a major trail system. Also, being conscientious of what constitutes a reasonable weight for a backpack (roughly no more than 25% of your body weight according to some experts) is important for a comfortable and safe trek. The skill is being able to decide what is essential and what is not, and leaving behind those latter items in order to manage the load on your back. Fortunately, with help from another trekker, Strayed discarded many unneeded items.
Everest is a 2015 released movie about tragic events on Mount Everest that took place in 1996. This biographic adventure drama provided picturesque mountain scenes and magnificent views of Nepal. The story focused on two expedition groups that set out to summit Mount Everest that May. One group was led by Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke, and the other by Scott Fisher, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Both leaders died on the mountain along with others in their group.
Although the movie is not based on Jon Krakauer’s interpretation of the event as written in his 1997 book Into Thin Air, this story was written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy and presents an accurate portrayal of the disaster that took place in 1996. Due to several factors, many died on the mountain that day. Overcrowded climbers, due to other groups being on the mountain at that time, getting behind schedule and summiting beyond the required timeline (for Hall and a client), extra oxygen tanks not in place as planned resulting in altitude issues for several climbers, and an unexpected storm with horrific snow and whiteouts resulting in getting lost were but some of those factors. It was indeed a sad tragedy.
The movie Everest is about mountain climbing rather than backpacking, although the climbers and Sherpa guides did carry packs. The story still teaches the backpacker important lessons, such as knowing when to come out of a storm or to predict when a storm is critical. The storm in this story seemed to be the icing on the cake that led to the climbers’ high death toll. Another lesson is that potential for injury or death is ever present when taking risks in high adventure locations, such as on Mount Everest.
-One other older movie comes to mind-
In 2010, another movie titled 127 Hours, starring James Franco as canyoneer hiker Aron Ralston, is based on his story in the book titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston becomes trapped within a slot canyon by a boulder in Utah’s Blue John Canyon during a 2003 solo trek.
The movie was difficult to watch as Ralston struggled for five-plus days with his right arm pinned by a rock. He ran out of food and water and eventually was only able to escape by breaking bones and amputating his own arm. The amputation scene was most difficult to watch. Miraculously, he was able to rappel down a steep wall to a pool of water and found his way out of the slot and onto a trail where a family came to his rescue. A helicopter took him away for emergency medical treatment.
A lesson learned in this movie is to let someone know your trip plan – where you are going and when you are expected to return. Ralston failed to do both. I also recommend not going on a risky trek alone. Once again, potential for injury or death is ever present when taking risks in high adventure locations.
If outdoor adventure movies were the thing in John Muir’s day, he could have written, “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a carload of movies.” Taking lessons from movies and other resources can help prepare you to go backpacking. But it is essential to get out on the trail to truly experience backpacking. You do not have to set out and thru-hike a major trail system or summit an enormous mountain to experience the pack. A simple backcountry trail will do.
One lesson learned from the movies is to be prepared. Therefore, read books and magazines, review websites and maps, attend seminars and watch movies. Do your homework. Then put that knowledge to work and get out on a trail that is compatible with your skill level. There you will learn some valuable lessons.