If you’ve never seen Vertical Limit, good for you. If you’ve never even heard of it, even better. It came out in 2000 and somehow made $215 million on a budget of just $75 million, despite being a train wreck of scarcely believable proportions. It is, without a doubt, the worst climbing movie ever made, and I am including Cliffhanger in that list. Cliffhanger is a movie wherein a harness buckle just disintegrates for no reason and Sylvester Stallone has a gun that shoots climbing bolts into rocks, and it’s more watchable than Vertical Limit.
I recently re-watched Vertical Limit and have provided this synopsis for you, complete with visual accompaniment.
First, we open on a beautiful shot of Monument Valley in Utah. This is pretty much the most realistic part of the movie, in that Utah is a real place that people go to. We follow a golden eagle around until we pan to a beautiful man (Peter) on a wall taking a picture of the eagle and then aggressively snapping his camera into a belt holster because it was the year 2000. His sister (Annie) is singing “Take It To The Limit” by The Eagles because “subtlety” was among the laundry list of things not researched by the makers of this movie. Then his sister says “on belay” in a sassy fashion, despite the fact that he’s already 40 fucking feet above her and should have been on belay this whole time.
Sidebar: I know that most of you are not climbers, but suffice it to say that the technical aspects of climbing portrayed in this movie are roughly as accurate as Armageddon was to space travel or science in general. I’ll try not to get too technical.
We cut to their father, who is above Peter and doing incorrect things with carabiners. He tells Peter to “check your sister’s belay,” which is impossible because Peter is now well above his sister, and then also puts Peter on belay because I think the director likes the sounds that carabiners make and wanted to use them as much as possible.
SUDDENLY, some jabroneys above them on the wall accidentally drop an ENTIRE FUCKING BACKPACK, ruining Peter’s idyllic mood by almost hitting him. He yells “AMATEURS AT TWELVE O’CLOCK,” because that is how we conduct ourselves, and then his dad blows a whistle like this is some sort of sports drill. The Avoid Getting Hit By Jabroneys’ Backpacks drill. I have been climbing for over twenty years and have never blown a fucking whistle on the wall, or seen anyone else do it, or heard of anyone ever doing it, before this movie.
Then one of the jabroneys falls, promptly ripping out like four pieces of gear AND HIS BELAYER’S ANCHOR, which is one hundred percent impossible, and they both fall and wrap their rope around the dad, which also rips out his whole entire anchor, so he falls and pulls Peter off the wall, which rips out a few more pieces and pulls Annie off the wall, and a bunch more stuff rips out until there are FIVE of them hanging from one cam (piece of climbing gear) in a crack. At this point, something like 10 pieces of gear or bolts have been plucked from the wall like stray eyebrow hairs, but somehow this one cam is holding the weight of all five of them. I say “somehow” because in real life, a well-placed #2 Camalot (the cam in question) can hold around 30,000 pounds, but this is a universe where a single dude falling ripped out like four of them, so god knows at this point.
Anyway, they’re all dangling there making sounds of acute distress, and when suddenly Annie looks up and the CAM IS SLIPPING DOWN THE CRACK IN THE ROCK.
So Dad valiantly flips the jabroneys’ rope off over his head and sends them plummeting to their deaths, and now it’s just the three of them.
Just to reiterate, cams in parallel cracks do not slip. They are built so that any downward pull is translated into outward force. With enough weight on them, they will either rip a huge chunk of rock out or just implode, but they do not slip. This is like if you were watching a movie that took place in an airplane and suddenly everyone was like “oh no, the wings have turned upside down and are now propelling us downward” like that was the type of adverse situation that sometimes happens and must be worked through, rather than just sheer fucking lunacy.
Dad knows, with his telepathic engineering powers, that the cam will not hold the CRUSHING WEIGHT of three normal adult humans, so he tells Peter (in the middle) to get out his knife and cut the rope, because the cam will be TOTALLY FINE with the weight of two normal adult humans, but not three, despite the fact that it was just holding five, because reasons. Annie starts yelling “DON’T YOU DO IT” and Dad’s yelling “JUST FUCKING DO IT” and Peter’s all emotional and doesn’t know what to do and Annie goes “PETER NO DON’T DO IT” and Dad goes “DO YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR SISTER PETER” and Peter cuts the rope and Dad falls to his death. We know he’s dead because we get a shot of him hitting the ground hard enough that he’s definitely dead, but not hard enough to smash his head open like a melon because that would be undignified and we need him to stay dignified for purposes of creating unresolved sibling issues/personal demons later in the movie.
We are now approximately six minutes into the movie.
The next scene is of some snow leopards playing in the snow, and Peter is there taking pictures of them from a snow blind, and you can tell that it’s several years later because his hair has changed and he has stubble. He’s walking back to camp with another guy, when the other guy trips over some rocks and falls down the hill REALLY HARD and then BREAKS THE EVERLOVING FUCK OUT OF HIS LEG for no reason at all.
Seriously, we never learn this guy’s name and he doesn’t appear at any other time in the movie. He just breaks his leg and then the movie cuts to him getting airlifted out and Peter’s in the front seat of the helicopter and that’s it. Utterly gratuitous.
Then they go to something called “base camp,” which is not a normal mountaineering base camp but some sort of Pakistani castle in the mountains, and the Pakistani general alludes to a war between Pakistan and India, expresses that he’s pissed about this rich American billionaire who’s coming up to climb K2, and by the way your sister is climbing it with him. Then he goes “time to wake up the Indians” and we get SEVEN CLOSE-UP SHOTS of explosions coming out of the front of howitzers, because apparently no one told the creators of this movie that K2 is on the border of Pakistan and China, and India is TWO HUNDRED FUCKING MILES AWAY.
Then we get to the actual base camp of K2, and Peter runs into his sister, and there is much awkwardness.
The billionaire (Elliot) shows up in a helicopter and Peter learns that they’re planning on leaving for the summit the next morning, because apparently if you’re rich enough you can go from sea level to a summit push of the world’s second-highest mountain in twelve hours, red blood cell count be damned. They have a big party, where there is much drinking (stupid idea at 14,000+ feet), clinking of glassware (someone dragged glassware up here) and a big barbecue with whole chickens roasting on spits (what the fuck even is that). In the middle of it, Elliot stops to give a speech about how climbing the mountain is a dream of his and all that stuff, and then a creepy guy shows up and kills everyone’s buzz by asking stuff like “what if the weather closes in” and “who makes the hard decisions up there about who lives or dies?” We know he’s creepy, but the kind of creepy that comes from being a wise and savvy mountain hermit, because he has a very long beard and hair and earlier there was a scene where we see that he has no toes.
The creepy guy (Wick) leaves and everyone goes back to partying, and then we cut to a scene of Wick in his tent shaving his face DRY AND WITH A STRAIGHT RAZOR because he’s just SO MUCH MORE HARDCORE THAN ANYONE ELSE.
Cut to the next day, when the summit crew (including Annie, Elliot, and Tom, the guide) is up on the mountain. It’s a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky. They get a call on the radio from base saying that there’s a big weather system coming in that will fuck them right up if they get hit by it. Tom says they should turn around. Elliot, who is a prick, says that HE’S NOT GIVING UP ON HIS DREAM THAT EASY and they should go on, thus making the hard decisions that he explicitly said would be made by Tom, who has just explicitly made the opposite decision. But Elliot wants to continue, because they’re “500 feet from the bottleneck,” which is meaningless to the audience not only because they’ve never fucking heard of it before but because it is not a real thing. According to Elliot, they’re only 5 hours from the summit. So they soldier on. At base, Peter learns that they’re going on and VERY DRAMATICALLY grabs the radio mike and tells them that the weather is going to get shitty and they NEED TO GET DOWN NOW. Annie suddenly remembers that she’s at 26,000 feet and goes from breathing calmly through her nose to OPENLY GASPING FOR AIR in like three seconds.
A few minutes later, the guy in charge of the snow machine gets back from the bathroom and remembers why they’re paying him $12 an hour, so now it’s a bright sunny day but it’s REALLY WINDY and there’s LOTS OF BLOWING SNOW, which is supposed to indicate to us that the weather is now shitty as promised. There is also thunder because the director is a slobbering idiot who thinks that all storms have thunder in them, and now they’re crawling down the mountain and Annie falls through the snow. She’s tied to Elliot, so he starts sliding toward the crevasse and is completely unable to stop himself with his ice axe despite SUPPOSEDLY BEING AN EXPERIENCED MOUNTAINEER, and then they start dragging Tom toward the crevasse, but he manages to stop them, so her rope comes tight and promptly breaks BECAUSE WHY NOT.
Then there’s a rumbling noise and Elliot yells “AVALANCHE” because now there is an avalanche for no reason, and then some shitty avalanche stock footage plays, and then Elliot and Tom are swept into the crevasse with her and the avalanche seals off the top of the crevasse and they’re trapped on a small snow ledge in the crevasse.
Cut to the base, where everyone is sad because they somehow already know what has happened on the mountain miles and miles above them. They try to reach the summit team on the radio, but can’t reach them. The radio starts clicking and Peter’s all THAT’S MORSE CODE AND I KNOW THAT BECAUSE MY SISTER AND I BOTH KNOW MORSE CODE which is a totally reasonable skill for a 21st-century nature photographer to know, and through a series of impossibly brief clicks back and forth, he establishes that the three members of the summit crew are alive and trapped in a crevasse, as well as where, how much water they have, how much fuel, and that they’re buried. All of this takes place in the course of about five minutes, despite the fact that Morse Code has between three and four clicks per character, thus making a piece of information as short as this paragraph some THREE THOUSAND clicks in length.
Peter decides that they have to go rescue his sister, and there is a very tense silence, because that is a STUPID IDEA given that there’s a huge storm on the mountain and that’s why his sister is trapped in the first place. An Australian guy, whom I haven’t mentioned before because his main job is to say things in Australian, takes Peter outside and tells him some very good reasons that they shouldn’t try to rescue them. Namely, the weather is lethally bad, they’re a really long way away, we don’t even know exactly where they are, we might also die trying to rescue them, they might be dead by the time we get there, and how are we going to get them out when they’re buried under a damn avalanche? But don’t worry, PETER HAS AN IDEA.
Peter goes back to the Pakistani military base with the Australian (Skip) and they go into a shed filled with very fancy bottles of nitroglycerin. Why nitroglyerin? Because the director is a man-child, and an ignorant one at that. No military uses nitroglycerin for reasons that will become obvious soon. While the Pakistani general is extolling the virtues of nitroglycerin (there aren’t any), they notice that the Australian is standing in a puddle of it, because those VERY FANCY-LOOKING CONTAINERS are apparently REALLY POORLY CONSTRUCTED. They very carefully extract him from his boot and throw the boot FAR AWAY, whereupon (to hammer home to the audience that “nitro” is SUPER DANGEROUS) it explodes in a massive fireball. Here’s what it looks like in the movie:
And here’s what 140 mL (about half a cup) of nitroglycerin exploding looks like in real life.
So now that we’ve established that
- nitroglycerine is MASSIVELY UNSTABLE and will BLOW YOU THE FUCK UP IF YOU SO MUCH AS LOOK AT IT FUNNY, and
- The only containers they have to store it in are made of CARDBOARD AND DREAMS and will dump it all over the floor without you even touching them,
they decide that it’s definitely their best option to schlepp up a huge fucking mountain and rescue people with.
Back at base, they assemble a team of a Pakistani guy whose brother died on the mountain in the avalanche, two quirky Australian brothers, Skip, Peter, and a hot chick (Monique) who works for Skip and is otherwise unimportant but is, we are led to believe, a very experienced climber. They also decide to go find Wick, the old creepy guy, because no one can get them up the mountain faster and they’re pressed for time. Oh, I forgot to mention that they’re pressed for time because, according to Skip, the trapped climbers have to drink water or their lungs will fill up with fluid and they’ll die. What he’s referring to is called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and I’ll come back to that. Skip says they’ve got one water bottle each and one gas canister each, so they can drink water until it runs out and then use the gas canister to melt snow and drink that until it runs out, and then they’ll get edema in a few hours, and then they’ll die a few hours after that. Skip’s total estimated time until they’re all dead, which he lays out for Peter immediately after the avalanche, is roughly 22 hours. Here are the problems with that:
- Drinking water doesn’t do a damn thing to prevent HAPE. It’s caused when the lack of oxygen in the lungs causes the body to shut down the smallest blood vessels, which increases blood pressure in the larger ones, which causes them to leak fluid into the lungs. Hydration doesn’t enter the equation.
- Why the fuck would you only bring one water bottle TO CLIMB THE SECOND HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN THE FUCKING WORLD
- One gas canister of the type depicted in the movie will last long enough to melt about two days’ worth of snow. They are at no risk of running out of water, which is irrelevant anyway because see point 1.
- HAPE doesn’t kick in until you’ve been at high altitude for days. According to the timeline in the movie, they’ve been up there for like 12 hours. It’s still light out on the first day, for god’s sake.
- HAPE hits slowly, and can be managed effectively with dexamethasone (dex), which they have TONS of. I haven’t gotten to that yet, but the people up in the cave have lots of drugs in syringes explicitly for the purpose of not dying of HAPE.
The point of all that is that if you’re trapped in a snow cave at high altitude with a functioning stove, warm clothes, a gas can, food, a water bottle, and dex (all true of this party), you could survive for DAYS. In fact, it might be nice to be in a snow cave because it’s warmer and there’s no wind. But if we accept the movie’s timeline that they have 22 hours from avalanche to death, then YOU NEED TO GET YOUR ASS IN GEAR, PETER. It’s going to take half that time just to climb up there, let alone the digging and the rescuing parts. You DO NOT HAVE TIME to fly out to the military base and blow up Skip’s boot and mope around in the tent overnight and assemble a crew and go find Wick.
But whatever. We’re moving on. They go find Wick, Wick tells Skip to go back and coordinate from base, and then the helicopter drops them off on a cliff face in the middle of fucking nowhere. The helicopter landing itself is a shitshow, but rather than describe it, I’ll just show you.
Once they’re finished almost dying by helicopter, they split up the group and head up the mountain via three different routes, which SPOILER: IS A BAD IDEA.
Now we cut back to the cave, where Elliot is explaining to Tom that they have to let him die because he’s already dying, and in case you’re wondering how he could be dying already when Elliot and Annie seem fine, we get to see a shot of his ribs, which are ALL FUCKED UP from getting avalanched into the crevasse, so that seems legit.
Back to the climbing parties. Monique and one of the Australian guys (Cyril) are walking up a steep snowy slope when Cyril stops for a drink of water. Because everyone in this movie is incompetent, he promptly falls over, as does his backpack, and they both start sliding toward an enormous cliff. He’s unable to stop himself with his ice axe because of course he is, until he finally hooks it right on the edge of the cliff and is hanging there by one hand, backpack in the other. Monique comes to save him by looping some rope over his ice axe, but then the cliff gives way and she’s ALSO hanging by one hand, her other hand on the rope which goes to Cyril’s axe, which he’s hanging on to, his other hand on his backpack. At this point you should begin to realize that this director has a weird fetish for seeing people hanging in a line by implausible means of connection. It has happened SERIOUSLY LIKE FOUR TIMES ALREADY.
She tries to swing Cyril over to some rocks that he can climb up, which he catches, but then the nitro falls out of his pack and plummets toward the ground. They both scramble to climb upward, but the nitro hits the ground below and explodes in a gigantic and unreasonable fireball.
After the fireball passes, Monique yells for Cyril, only to find that he’s somehow already above her. He drops a rope to her and she’s about to pull herself up it and be rescued when ANOTHER AVALANCHE COMES OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE LIKE A NINJA and sweeps Cyril off the cliff to his death. Monique manages to get back up the cliff with some ridiculousness of her own and goes on to catch up with Peter and Wick, who are inexplicably nearby.
Back at the Pakistani base, the Pakistani general is having some tea when his WHOLE GODDAMN MUNITIONS BUILDING BLOWS RIGHT THE FUCK UP. It turns out that nitroglycerin boils and explodes when exposed to sunlight, and I guess no one noticed that in the HUNDRED AND FIFTY THREE YEARS since it was invented. Actually, that’s not true at all, and though nitroglycerin is extraordinarily unstable, it doesn’t just magically explode in sunlight. No matter, we’ve decided that the nitro explodes when exposed to the sun, so now everyone on the mountain has to panic about that. They run their backpacks over the nearest shady spot (did I mention that it’s gorgeous weather up on the mountain now?) and start piling snow over it to enhance the shade or something.
The other party with the non-dead brother and the Indian guy do the same and are sitting in the sun laughing about their close call, when the nitro leaks out of their backpack and trickles into the sun because SERIOUSLY HOW BADLY BUILT ARE THESE FUCKING CONTAINERS and explodes, killing them both.
Meanwhile, back in the cave, Elliot has remembered that he’s a scumbag and, when Annie is asleep, he sneaks some dex for himself and injects it into the side of his wrist because the director didn’t research one single portion of this movie, you guys. Like not at all.
Then Elliot decides that Tom is dead weight and kills him by filling the syringe with air and stabbing Tom in the neck with it. Annie wakes up to see Tom dead and she and Elliot have a big fight, culminating in a gap opening up in the crevasse above them for some reason. They decide to extract a bag of blood from Tom, tie it to a signal flare, and shove it out the hole, which then blows up and leaves a big splatter of blood on the snow like a signal. Actually not a bad idea.
Peter and Monique come over the crest right at that moment, but Wick isn’t with them because there was a whole side plot where they find the remains of Wick’s dead wife and it turns out Elliot killed her and I’m not even getting into it. They lower a note into the hole that just says “BANG,” because they are useless.
Like seriously, you had a piece of paper and a marker and you couldn’t spell out “We’re blowing the entrance, take cover”? Or just YELL THROUGH THE FUCKING HOLE BECAUSE IT’S LIKE 30 FEET ABOVE THEM?
They blow up the top of the crevasse with nitro and lower a rope to get Annie out. Peter is pulling her up hand over hand because he’s never heard of mechanical advantage or pulleys or anything, and then his footing gives way and he falls and pulls Monique down after him. He manages to plant his feet, and Monique is still on solid ground, but they’re about to all fall in the crevasse due to the immense weight of a small woman at the other end of the rope. The rope at the top is secured to a single ice axe anchor, which would be like fifth on my list of ways to create an anchor system for pulling someone out of a hole. In reverse order, their alternatives are:
- Using MORE THAN ONE ICE AXE to make an anchor
- Burying the axes sideways to make a deadman anchor
- Using the ice screws that are visible RIGHT THERE ON PETER’S FUCKING HARNESS
- Using the GIGANTIC ROCK that you hid behind during that explosion.
But they don’t, and the ice axe anchor is about to pull out and send them all to their deaths when…
Ta-da! Wick is here to save the day. He stomps the ice axe back in, hauls everyone’s sorry ass out, and lowers Annie back into the crevasse so they can start over and do this right.
With two axes. Seriously, all the people in this movie who are supposed to be Experienced Climbers™ have the intelligence of fucking toddlers when it comes to setting up anchors. Wick goes down into the crevasse and Elliot tries to kill him with an ice axe because of the side plot I’m not going into, but Wick deflects him and clips him into the rescue rope, implying that he’s over it and has decided to be the bigger man. Now they’re all clipped in a line to the same rope, BECAUSE THERE’S NO WAY THAT COULD GO WRONG. So they start hauling Annie up again, but then she gets stuck on something. They try to wiggle her loose, and that sends down a huge chunk of ice, and that takes out the ledge that Elliot is standing on, and he falls and pulls Wick in, and he falls and pulls on Annie, and she pulls Peter in, and some metal fails for no reason, and the ice axe anchors pull out because that’s a stupid and useless form of anchor, and then THEY’RE ALL HANGING THERE IN A FUCKING LINE AGAIN.
Wick looks at Peter and nods in what is probably supposed to be a cathartic and I’m-at-peace-with-the-world kind of way, whips out a knife, and cuts his rope, sending him and Elliot plummeting into the depths of the crevasse.
Cut back to base camp, where everyone’s fine.
Wait, what? When we left off, Peter was hanging on a rope, holding his unconscious sister up by one hand. His rope was going up to Monique, who was barely hanging on, and their anchors were pulling out. They had no gear, no anchor, and no foreseeable means of getting out of the horrible situation they were in. And then they still had to drag his nearly-dead sister all the way down the fucking mountain the way they came, which required quite a lot of technical climbing and at least one overnight camp. And we’re glossing over that entirely, because editing.
Peter has an emotional moment with his sister, wherein they repeat a section of dialogue from the very beginning scene, word-for-word, to illustrate that they’re worked through their issues and everything’s chill again, and then that’s the end of the movie.
I realize now that it might have taken you as long to read this as it would have to just watch the damn thing, but trust me: you’re better off this way.