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Reviews

Aug 16, 2018

Unbounded: Cotton Hoodie-Wearing Newbs Go Expeditioning Across Patagonia

We love expedition documentaries, but weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry while watching total newbies packraft without knowing how to swim, or put on makeup before hiking the Greater Patagonia Trail… wearing cotton sweatshirts.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

The Greater Patagonia Trail (GPT) is a 3,000km route running north-south through Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. I call it a “route” rather than a “trail” because, the GPT is more of an idea of a trail, rather than an actual trail at this point. Much different from the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian trail, the route does not have one clear trail to follow. The route follows horse trails, foot paths, dirt roads, and rivers from Santiago, Chile all the way to a glacier just south of Fitz Roy, Argentina. Sometimes the “trail” map simply shows a straight line moving in a certain direction, and hikers are expected to use GPS or map and compass to figure out how to bush-crash their way there. Testaments about the GPT have dubbed it the hardest long-distance “trail” in the world. The route brings hikers through jungle-like brush, scree fields, and peat cliffs. It brings hikers up cliffs, across rivers, down rivers, and through mountain passes. The route is dangerous, remote, committing, and not for the inexperienced.

the GPT is more of an idea of a trail, rather than an actual trail at this point

Last year, a group of four backpackers and filmmakers set out for four months on the GPT to document the route and their journey. Their documentary film, Unbounded, highlights the lack of experience the group had coming into the trip (extremely unprepared), and their resulting learning experiences throughout the journey.

The film begins by introducing each group member, describing their purpose on the team, and their level of experience in the backcountry. Only one (if that) out of the four team members had the proper backcountry experience necessary to safely pull off an expedition of this caliber. Seriously, they were packrafting a section of the route, and one team member didn’t even know how to swim! That isn’t exactly what I would call safe decision-making. Nearly half of the film’s narrative is based on the struggles, mishaps, and dangerous situations the group gets into due to their lack of backcountry experience and knowledge.

Seriously, they were packrafting a section of the route, and one team member didn’t even know how to swim!

While reviewing a documentary like this, I can look at it one of two ways. I can either judge the group harshly for going into this expedition without the proper experience, or I can celebrate them for putting themselves out there, getting uncomfortable, and enduring a bit of suffering in order to make the expedition a success. Yes, the group was very unprepared, and yes they probably put themselves at serious risk by coming into this with such little experience. But despite all this, I am surprisingly finding myself inspired by their tenacity to keep moving forward through the suffer-fest. The group didn’t exactly make the best safety decisions in the backcountry, and they struggled quite a bit because of it, but I think these struggles and mishaps actually made the film more interesting. I am therefore going to choose the latter of the two options for this review and congratulate the team on their film.

With the majority of today’s adventure films being about world-famous mountaineers with high-profile sponsors, it was actually a bit of fresh air to see a film about the average joe seeking out an epic adventure and making it happen. I liked watching the group take a risk by deciding to throw themselves full-on into this expedition, just because they wanted to. No sponsors, no professionals, no fancy gear. Simply a group of like-minded individuals seeking out an epic adventure in the backcountry of Patagonia. In an expedition-based film, I would never expect to see the expedition members wearing cotton sweatshirts while backpacking through Patagonia, or applying makeup before a 16-km day (I laughed so hard when I saw that). There were many times in the film where the expedition members would outwardly admit their incompetence. But instead of being stupid about it and continuing to make bad decisions, they would learn from their mistakes, and keep chugging along with their mission. The film turned into a coming-of-age story as the expedition team made poor decisions, suffered a bit, and eventually learned to make better decisions! I found myself laughing at the team members a lot, but also feeling a bit of empathy for them as I was reminded of the poor decisions I have made in the backcountry.

The last ten minutes of the film strayed a bit from the group’s journey, and instead turned into an advertisement for Patagonia, leave no trace backcountry principles, and environmental conservation. I like that the film is promoting environmental conservation and good backcountry ethics, but I would have been happier if the message had been more subtly added into the story throughout the film. Having the promotional message in a seemingly separate segment at the end felt like I was being preached at.

I found myself laughing at (or with) the group members as they made mistakes, then felt proud of them when they overcame the difficulties.

All in all, I enjoyed the film and the message it portrayed. I found myself laughing at (or with) the group members as they made mistakes, then felt proud of them when they overcame the difficulties. I do think the group took a massive risk in taking on such a big expedition with such little experience. While I would definitely not recommend this approach to backcountry expeditions, it ended up being fun watching them learn from their mistakes and eventually accomplish their goals. And, despite my slight negativity about the way the film pushed the environmental message in the last ten minutes, I really shouldn’t complain. It is an important topic that needs to be openly talked about, especially when referring to wild areas like Patagonia that are under threat of development.

Photo: VentureLife Films

You can watch the film for yourself in the following places: iTunesAmazonGooglePlayVimeo

Filmed by VentureLife Films

 

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 13, 2018

Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

What drives Steph, to free solo a mountain with nothing but her hands and feet, before base jumping? “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear."

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Presented byimage

In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.

Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.

Steph Davis, getting ready to jump. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.

Castleton Tower… Look closely. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.

No ropes, no safety net. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.

“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”

Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.

Flying. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”

“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

Touchdown. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.

Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”

Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”

She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.

All photos by Jan Vincent Kleine

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