Such Great Heights

The best novel ever written about the outdoor life.

I’ve sort of lost track of the outdoor life. Living in an apartment in New York with two young children, I experience the mountains through the Patagonia catalog. Though I also have a childhood friend who posts photos of his ice-climbing exploits on Facebook. What has happened to all of those geology majors from college, I can’t say. I never went west, never became a river guide, never skied in shorts in May. Would the mountains have sustained me? Or was that just a dream of my 20s?

These questions swirled up as I watched the new Criterion release of Downhill Racer, a 1969 film starring a young Robert Redford. The movie is distinguished by innovative camerawork that captured the speed of ski racing as well as its solitude. The skiers look lost on chairlifts. They nervously adjust their gloves and goggles in the starting gate. Dropping into the race course is an isolating performance, with just your breaths, your grunts, and the distant shouts of the crowd.

Forty years on, Downhill Racer has also become a visual feast of vintage microphones, ski sweaters, boots, sunglasses, and parkas. J. Crew could get an entire season out of the film’s opening minutes. The historical shots of Europe’s great ski areas are also a delight, showing the sport in a purer stage, when barns still dotted the hillsides and surface lifts dragged you up the mountain. Ski racing had a rough glamour, and the European downhillers were national heroes. Roman Polanski wanted to make a skiing movie. The alpine life was emerging as a lifestyle—the cavelike nightclubs, the sun-kissed peaks.

Redford’s ski racer is a naive jerk who resents his Ivy League teammates, but he has the courage and talent to win. And he does win—much to the chagrin of European audiences who thought the idea of an American ski champion preposterous. Yet the movie has a lingering darkness that can be attributed to its screenwriter, James Salter. At the time, Salter was already a novelist of men and their ambitions, whether those ambitions were to shoot down MIGs over Korea (The Hunters) or to bed a self-composed French woman (A Sport and a Pastime). Redford’s character is a familiar Salter loner—gifted and remote—and Downhill Racer, also in the Salter tradition, is sensitive to the limits of winning. This can be felt in the scene where Redford’s rancher Dad asks him—

“I just hope you don’t end up asking yourself a question some folks ask me: ‘What’s he do it for?’ “
“Well, I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion.”
“The world’s full of ‘em.”

—but more ominously in the movie’s conclusion, where Redford, in first place, must wait at the bottom of the race course to see whether a young German barreling down the hill will beat him and take the gold. A bit of death in victory is a classic Salter note.

Ten years after Downhill Racer, Salter would write a more forceful and disturbing tale of men and mountains, the novel Solo Faces. It tells the story of an American climber, Vernon Rand, who makes a name for himself among the great peaks surrounding Chamonix, France. In a passage near the beginning, when Rand is still in California and getting ready to launch himself toward Europe, Salter captures the gulf between those who have chosen the outdoor life and those who probably never will:

A breed of aimless wanderers can be found in California, working as mason’s helpers, carpenters, parking cars. They somehow keep a certain dignity, they are surprisingly unashamed. It’s one thing to know their faces will become lined, their plain talk stupid, that they will be crushed in the end by those who stayed in school, bought land, practiced law. Still they have an infuriating power, that of condemned men.

Rand is one of these condemned men, and Salter is unsparing in depicting what he gives up for glory in the peaks: a son and lover, any semblance of domestic life, intellectual peers, the comforts of settling for mediocrity. Not to mention the sudden death of friends, and the half-death of living in exile. But Solo Faces never tips its hand. Is Rand’s life worth it? The ambiguity is intact after the last page.

Salter is now in his 80s and still writing. I took the occasion of Downhill Racer to ask for his thoughts about Solo Faces and the present state of the mountain life.

Michael Agger: What was the inspiration for Solo Faces? I’ve read that the character of Rand was partly based on the exploits of climber Gary Hemming.

James Salter: Gary Hemming was a principal figure upon whom Rand was based in Solo Faces, and I know a lot about him, or did, but he was combined with some others, like Layton Kor, who climbed in Glenwood Canyon and the front range, and also Royal Robbins, a legendary. Also various figures living in Colorado in the 1970s, when it was less developed, men who had been skiing there for 10 or 15 years. It was a life. The parkas were dirty, men and women thought they were free, and the spirit of the times supported it.

Climbing was another world, serious climbing. It was that great thing, the epic struggle, waged far from civilization amid godlike peaks and sometimes frightening weather. I first heard the stories from Bob Craig who had been on the famous failed K2 attempt in the 1950s. The steeliness and mystery of the name made up of only a letter and number. He also told about Nanga Parbat and others. Then watching, miles up in the twilight—a climber slips; sweeps across a wide, blank face; and breaks both ankles against a wall of rock on a mountain called the Ogre. If you like strength, both physical and of will, dedication, and destruction, what can equal it? Big-wave surfing, perhaps.

When you meet them you know you are in the company of someone exceptional who may be reluctant to describe things you will never see or know. You get it in certain books or, even better, the chilling bare accounts in mountaineering journals. There’s something in climbers, those I knew, that shies away from self-praise. I climbed for a few years with some of them. I spent the night on a sliver of rock high up on the east face of Long’s Peak, climbing with Tom Frost, and slept at the icy feet of the Dru, listening to the lightning crack above me and the thunder roll down. I only did it to write about it. I would never go up on the Grotto Wall for fun.

What was the aura that surrounded skiing and ski racing when you were writing Downhill Racer? What led a Polanski and a Redford (and you) to want desperately to make a skiing movie?

“Desperately” is not the exact word for wanting to make a skiing movie. Downhill Racer, as it was finally titled, was just one many of ideas that are always floating around, and also, as it happened, there was at the time a half-abandoned property, as these things are called, based on a book about ski racing by a man named Oakley Hall. Romain Gary’s The Ski Bum had already been written and had laid claim to some of the terrain. The thing came to the attention of Gene Gutowski, who was Polanksi’s producer. Polanksi liked the idea of a ski-racing movie. Redford, whose star was just rising, had a ski movie in mind himself. I forget the exact sequence, but in the rough and tumble, it fell into Redford’s hands, and he organized the movie. I had been asked to write it and Redford agreed. He remembers that I said that sport didn’t interest me, but it did. The strengths of the movie are Redford’s and Gene Hackman’s performances, the photography, and Michael Ritchie’s direction. Camilla Sparv is very good.

One of the best things about Solo Faces is the way you evoke the difficulty of stepping away from the climbing life. Can you talk about how someone may find a kind of lasting peace for their ambition in the mountains?

There are various third acts to a serious climbing life. Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and Doug Tompkins became clothing and equipment, style magnates. Tom Frost was an engineer. It may be hard to give up climbing, but a lot of them don’t give it up except gradually, and the icons like Edmund Hillary, Bonatti, and Messner have their titles, so to speak, all their lives. And after, for that matter. Robbins, who for a long time was the very ethic, as well as champion, of American climbing, once said to me at the base of El Capitan, where we were looking at a 5.12, unimaginably difficult route—I had asked him how he would go about climbing it—”I don’t think I could even get off the ground.” I didn’t believe him. He was competitive, a demon in fact, but didn’t talk big.

Have you been back to Chamonix much? Any impressions of how life in a mountain town has changed—specifically, the kinds of young people they attract, the kinds of aspirations the mountains instill?

I went back to Chamonix about five years ago. The same streets, hotels, the wild river rushing through town. The same climber’s cemetery. The same young faces headed out or going up with their gear in the cable cars. And of course the sensational peaks and snow-covered pinnacles all around, Mount Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses—all of that is eternal and will never lose its power. The fact that they have been climbed before doesn’t make the climbs easier, it only makes them possible.

Finally, you’ve talked about looking over your past work and revising it, but I don’t think I’ve read your thoughts on Solo Faces. How do you regard the novel now?

I haven’t read back over Solo Faces. I don’t think I could change it now. If you’ve really climbed, you don’t give it up. You have something you can keep for a long time.