In the age of high-def minicams, no alpine adventure goes unfilmed. And when climbers die, those left behind inevitably wonder: Was the camera partly to blame?
By Emmett Berg
Left: As pre-trip inspiration, climber Micah Dash kept an image of Mt. Edgar's imposing eastern face on his computer desktop for a full year. Right: This photo of Dash (left) and Johnson was found in Copp's camera after the bodies were recovered.
As the Sichuan fog finally lifted, the three American climbers got their first full look at the mountain that was to kill them. The camera, as always, was rolling, and for once the animated stars of the show--Jonny Copp, 35, and Micah Dash, 32--were stunned into brevity as they beheld Mt. Edgar, looming more than 10,000 feet above them.
"That's pretty sick," Dash said.
"Big as they come," said Copp.
Behind the camera, Wade Johnson, the 24-year-old filmmaker documenting the excursion for a National Geographic TV series, asked the climbing partners to compare this western Chinese mountain with other famous peaks. Although Edgar, at 24,790 feet, is a full mile shorter than its Himalayan counterparts, its eastern face had never been topped, despite repeated attempts.
"This is not Mt. Everest climbing," Dash said, dismissing gear-intensive slogs up the world's highest peak. "This is the real deal."
"But, uh, it looks kind of dangerous," Johnson said, training his camera on Copp, who seemed to have forgotten he was being filmed as he scanned the massive array of gullies, ridges, ledges, and seracs.
"The granite looks sealed together," Copp mumbled, almost to himself.
Later, as they drew closer to their imposing target, Dash declined Johnson's request to say something humorous. "I'm drawing a blank on the funnies," he said.
It was a rare display of unease from the two men, who'd become celebrities in the climbing community partly because of their ability to make light of hellish predicaments (e.g., the night in 2007 they'd spent fighting off frostbite bivouacked high on a tiny Kashmir ridge: "I've worn yarmulkes bigger than this bivvy spot," a shivering Dash had said to the camera as he'd rubbed his frozen toes).
Weeks later, after searchers entered the Mt. Edgar kill zone to retrieve the bodies and Johnson's hard drives, Copp's girlfriend, Sara Close, would watch the recovered footage and see a new side of him. "He looked significantly older, worried, a furrow in his brow," she said. "He wasn't faking that for the camera."
For the camera. It's a phrase heard often in climbing circles these days. With video cameras the size of bar soap and an ever-growing number of outlets for clips of high-risk feats, any climber eyeing a first ascent must also consider the adventure's moviemaking potential. And when a climb turns fatal--whether through misfortune, misjudgment, or some combination thereof--those left behind inevitably wonder how much the camera was to blame.
Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen have struggled with that question as much as anyone lately. Their company, Sender Films, financed the fatal trip to Mt. Edgar for a show called First Ascent, a six-episode series they produced last year for National Geographic Channels International. They were the ones who agreed to dispatch Johnson, their colleague and friend, to shoot the expedition. They were also close to Copp and Dash; for 15 years Mortimer had climbed alongside them in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon and elsewhere.
The climbing partners, Dash and Copp, relax after their first 2008 ascent of Shaffat Fortress, India (left). Copp's self-portrait on Mt. Edgar (center). Slogging up the Fountain of Aging (right).
All five men were part of a tight, scruffy circle of climbers centered in Boulder, Colorado. Death, of course, is common in the climbing subculture, but these three deaths hit especially hard, and the pain lingered months after their ashes came home--as did questions of whether the climbers' judgment was tainted by a desire to keep funders happy.
"It's the elephant in the room," Mortimer said as he struggled to edit the First Ascent episode about his friends' final days, titled "Point of No Return." "Everyone in the industry feels this--shoe companies, apparel providers, us. A lot of people were supporting them, and with that comes a pressure to deliver."
In this case the pressure began with the mountain itself--specifically, a haunting alpenglow image of Mt. Edgar's eastern face that Dash had kept on his computer desktop for a full year. "This could be the holy grail of first ascents to be done in the next few decades," he said in a pre-trip interview for the show.
Copp and Dash were well known among alpinists for doing big, cold, remote rock-and-ice climbs in "cowboy" style: set up base camp close to the objective, wait as long as they had to for good weather, then attack with maximum speed and minimal gear.
Those conquests helped them wrangle a pair of climbing grants (a Spitzer Award from the American Alpine Club for Dash and a coveted Mugs Stump Award for the two of them) to partly finance a 2008 attempt on Dojitsenga, an 18,700-foot peak in southeastern Tibet. After the region's political unrest scuttled that plan, they turned their attention to Mt. Edgar. The trip got the green light when Sender Films agreed to finance the lion's share for First Ascent.
Copp's hard-nosed resolve to complete any climb was softened by his quick sense of humor and artistic bent. He was a self-taught filmmaker, photographer, flutist, and drummer, and his climbing journals are awash in poetic flourishes. "Thanks to all those we love," he wrote on a 2006 climb in Patagonia. "To those childhood dreams that are still paying out. . . . To a wild garlic clove that grew in our base camp, and the pig that was in our Thanksgiving dinner today."
Dash didn't have as much big-mountain experience as Copp, but he was regarded as the more capable of the two when it came to shorter, gymnastic sport climbs. His wit also had more bite. Tiny as a teenager (he had to use a booster seat when he learned to drive), Dash compensated by becoming an accomplished trash-talker. For a period in his 20s he explored the darker corners of his wild side, then redirected that energy into more positive pursuits like climbing and public speaking--the latter a skill at which he was surprisingly adept.
In Boulder, preparing for the assault on Mt. Edgar, the partners trained like Olympians--"making sure that we're as hard to kill as we can possibly be," Dash said. When they boarded the plane for China on April 27, they were in superb shape.
Also on that flight were Rosen, cofounder of Sender Films, and his protege Wade Johnson. Rosen and his partner Mortimer had been impressed by Johnson's creativity and work ethic. An accomplished pianist and climber, Johnson had been an honor student at Carleton College, in Minnesota. After spending a year editing others' adventures, Johnson viewed the trip to China as the perfect way to wrap up his time at Sender Films before entering the Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Washington.
The four Americans landed in bustling Chengdu and headed east into the vast system of mountain ranges that separate eastern Tibet from the temperate provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. The peaks here are not as legendary as those of the Himalayas, but they harbor scores of untouched, jungle-footed towers that have recently attracted the attention of mountaineers worldwide. Mt. Edgar, also known as Gongga Shan and Minya Konka, is among the 50 highest peaks in the world and the third highest outside the Himalaya-Karakoram system. Only 24 people have reached its summit (none from the eastern side, where Copp and Dash planned to climb), and at least 20 have died trying.
"It would have been one of the top 10 achievements by American alpinists, for sure," said Jonathan Thesenga, former editor in chief of Climbing magazine and a friend of both climbers. "They were pursuing one of the boldest frontiers of superlight alpinism--two guys, no support, very little gear, going for it in a single push."
But first they had to get there. Outside the village of Moxi, at 6,000 feet, they hired porters and trekked toward Mt. Edgar, about 15 miles west. They'd hoped to set up base camp near the foot of the majestic 3,000-foot uppermost wall--their final objective. Johnson, an expert climber but not a world-class athlete like Copp and Dash, would film everything up to the final ascent, at which point the two alpinists would go it alone, shooting the climax of the climb with a handheld, high-definition camera.
As the team ascended, they found the air to be unusually warm, which made the mountain extraordinarily unstable. Everywhere were signs of freshly fallen rock, ice, and slides. Such "objective hazards" pose a danger on any big-mountain climb, but here the rockfall was constant and extreme.
"It's scary," Copp said on camera at one point.
"I've been on a lot of expeditions with Jonny," Dash said, "and that's the first time I've ever heard him refer to something as 'scary.'"
On May 1, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, they finally found a zone safe enough to establish base camp in. They were much lower than they'd hoped to be--maybe 8,000 feet below the place where they would rope in for their final ascent. They set up their tents, said goodbye to the porters and Rosen, and hunkered down in the fog to wait.
Two weeks later, they were still waiting.
Johnson's video footage from base camp shows the downtime weighing heavily on the team's morale. Rain and fog scuttled scouting missions, forcing them to spend hours in a group tent playing cards, backgammon, checkers, and chess. Copp and Dash conspicuously avoided on-camera arguments, but their exchanges grew testy, their talking-head monologues flat. At one point, Johnson filmed the two stir-crazy climbers dancing in the mist, Copp on flute while Dash spun in circles chanting, "Sun, sun, sun, sun . . . "
"Festering," Dash later grumbled, "is the crux of this expedition."
When the sun finally appeared in mid-May, their elation was short-lived. Trudging over the craggy remains of a recent avalanche, they ascended the gully leading to the main peak. Although the sun improved visibility, it also loosened ice and rock, forcing them to rush from one protected vantage point to another as boulders--some the size of basketballs, others as big as cars--rained down from above. And as they got closer to the main face, they became increasingly concerned that the granite might lack the "features"--cracks and other foot- and handholds--that would allow them to climb it; it simply appeared to be too smooth. They also began to fear the narrow, no-escape gully that was their only access to the mountain's upper reaches. They named it the Fountain of Aging.
Still hopeful of finding a passable route to the top, they established an advanced base camp at 15,000 feet, tucking their climbing gear beside a boulder that provided coverage from tumbling rocks. It was as close as they dared venture to the final prominence, and too exposed for an extended stay, so they left their equipment there and retreated, hoping to return when conditions improved.
Back at the lower base camp, the wait continued--only now they began to consider aiming for a lesser goal, a spire they'd eyed on Edgar's main buttress, or giving up altogether.
Dash: "We trained, we plotted, we flew here, we hiked in. And now is this going to be a total wash?"
Copp: "We're pretty much sealed out."
Dash: " . . . We're not looking for 100 percent safety; we just don't want a 50-50 chance of dying. That's not a manageable number."
Copp: "The hard part is knowing if it really is a shutdown. Doubt filters into every fricken move."
Dash: "It seems the east face of Edgar doesn't want us to climb it right now, at least not without more risk than we're willing to put out."
Copp: "The final straw was cowering as rocks fell off the end of a couloir sealed up in a 3,000-foot rock wall."
On the evening of May 19, after spending nearly three weeks on the mountain, the crew decided to give up and return to Colorado. First, though, they had to decide whether to go back for the $10,000 worth of climbing gear they'd stashed higher up.
In one of his final journal entries, Copp considered the gear-retrieval question in the context of their earlier scary excursions up the gully: "We were blindsided by incredibly high temperatures at 15,000 feet. . . . The heat began to work its eroding magic and the mountain began to fall apart around us. . . . Land-forming forces pry and release, negotiating their positions in our debate."
Although they were facing what Dash called the worst weather he'd ever experienced on an expedition, making the gully "infinitely worse," they decided to get up early the next morning to retrieve the ropes, anchoring gear, and camping equipment still waiting 5,000 feet above them. "The worst thing besides personal injury or death would be the potential to lose gear," Dash said.
Johnson's last few seconds of footage, taken the same night, were of Dash, lit by candlelight, wishing his girlfriend were with him. "Then I'd have a girl in my tent, and I wouldn't want to go climbing." A long beat of silence followed, and then Johnson turned off the camera.
The next morning, May 20, they started out well before first light to fetch their cache. They were in the dreaded gully, about a 40-minute uphill climb from the lower base camp, when a massive avalanche let loose high above, funneled down the chute, and buried them. All three apparently died instantly.
Back in Boulder, it took a while for people to start to worry. A team of Russian climbers who'd attempted Mt. Edgar earlier that month had gone incommunicado for 12 days before emerging unharmed. But when the folks at Sender Films hadn't heard anything by June 4, the day Johnson was supposed to fly home, Rosen contacted the crew's liaisons in China and learned that the climbers' two-way radio, which allowed them to communicate with the lower base camp, had gone dead. A Chinese mountaineering association agreed to send out a search party.
That night, six seasoned climbers from Boulder began making arrangements to travel to China to find--and possibly rescue--their missing friends. But before the first of them made it to Chengdu, word arrived that the local volunteers had found two bodies.
Eric DeCaria was the first member of the Boulder team to reach the scene. He sat down beside Copp, held his fallen friend's hand, and cried. Johnson lay nearby. The bodies were moved from the main pathway as searchers fanned out to look for Dash, their probe poles unable to pierce more than a foot into the jumble of frozen blocks. They found his ski pole, helmet shell, and sleeping pad, but nothing else.
Fresh slide debris made it clear that the rescuers were laboring in a deadly area, so they abandoned the search for Dash's body. (It has yet to be recovered.) The Boulder crew used long, thick bamboo poles to carry Copp and Johnson down the mountain.
In the city of Kangding, the bodies were prepared for cremation, and a "Micah burrito"--Dash's dirty socks and a cigarette, rolled into a pair of his boxers--was placed on Copp's chest as he was committed to flames. An emissary from the U.S. consulate handed over the climbers' remaining possessions, including Copp's camera and the hard drives containing Johnson's video footage. It was time to go back to Boulder, where an anguished climbing community awaited--and where the inevitable questions arose about whether the deaths had been the result of bad luck or bad decisions.
Most of the people familiar with the details quickly concluded that the three men had taken reasonable risks in trips uphill to assess the mountain and then made a prudent and mature call to abort the mission. And no one criticized as foolhardy their attempt to retrieve their belongings from the advance base camp. "Anyone would have gone after that gear," Rosen said.
Copp was constantly challenging himself but capable of backing away, said longtime climbing journalist Pete Takeda, who was among the group that traveled to China to retrieve the bodies. Takeda knew Copp well--they'd climbed together in the Himalayas on a route they'd judged too dangerous to finish--and he described him as a perfect mentor for a spark-plug personality like Dash.
"They did their research in the field and risked a lot to get a fair assessment, then made a difficult decision to abandon the project," Takeda said. "Unfortunately, they lost their lives even as they made that right decision."
For Rosen, the trip home and the weeks following were brutal. He'd been to China twice in six weeks: first to help the climbers get their gear to base camp, then again to bring their ashes home. Now came the task of writing, editing, narrating, and polishing a 23-minute television show about the deaths of three close friends.
In the cramped offices of Sender Films, Rosen and Mortimer pulled a string of all-nighters. "When we started editing, we were grieving intensely," Mortimer said. "I tried not to let myself get deeply emotional with the footage, but there were many nights with me alone at the computer, editing, with tears streaming down."
Johnson's death was an especially heavy weight. "Wade wasn't there to go up into the danger zone," Mortimer said. "It didn't really occur to me that something severe was going to happen to him." On Mt. Edgar, however, the danger extended to much lower elevations than anyone had expected.
Mortimer emphatically dismissed the suggestion that the presence of a full-time cameraman on the expedition might have placed extra pressure on Copp and Dash to produce results, but there appeared to be cracks in his conviction. "The circumstances of their death were not because of the TV crew," he said. But, a few sentences later, he added in a whisper, "on some unconscious level, yeah."
For Rosen and Mortimer, the most nerve-racking debut of their episode came not when they showed it to National Geographic executives, but when it premiered in mid-November at the same Boulder theater where tributes to the late climbers had been held four months earlier. The occasion was the annual Adventure Film Festival, an event conceived and cofounded by Copp in 2005, and carried on now in his absence. For Mortimer, the screening was "the final stage of closure" that had begun in the editing room when they began logging Johnson's footage.
The Boulder Theater was full that night. In introducing the show, Mortimer warned the crowd that the episode would be no elegy. The formulas that govern television production still applied, he said: "It had to be raw, real, and gritty."
Rosen thanked all those who had offered aid during the ordeal, his voice cracking when he noted that "above all, this is Wade's movie." The show opened with clips of the climbers getting goofy, drawing laughter from the audience, which eventually gave way to tears, and then a standing ovation.
"I got really happy," Rosen said of the audience's response. "Then I started to feel guilty about being happy."
After the applause quieted, a musician friend sang a song called "Border Country," which Copp had written in China the night before he died:
Here it comes
To take me down
Takin' me down with a
Here she comes
With arms spread wide
Callin' me back
From Border Country
Emmett Berg last wrote for Sierra about snowkiting ("Second Wind," November/December 2009).
Photos, from top: Roland Zeidler/Western Sichuan Tours; Jonny Copp (4)