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Cliff Hangers | The First 10,000 Feet Are Always the Hardest

Cliff Hangers | The First 10,000 Feet Are Always the Hardest

Cliff Hangers | The First 10,000 Feet Are Always the Hardest

If and when I decide to climb a mountain, it will be to laugh in the face of nature and the behemoths it has placed in my path. But that day isn’t near. These days I’m more of an urbanite and my mountaineering status is bungler-level at best. I’m not saying I am incapable of great feats. I’m just saying that at this juncture in time, Cliff Hangers, a 10-minute 1950 doc on mountain climbing, still very much qualifies as a horror film for me. It is serious. Prepare to have your blood run cold.

My bad case of the heebie-jeebies began early on when I saw what the Alpine Club of Canada was actually wearing. Yikes. Setting out on their daring journey, these experienced mountain climbers are equipped with nothing more than gardening clothes, shades, a good pair of boots, some rope and an ice pick. Bare bones to say the least, but that does afford them one definite advantage. Free of useless apparel and gadgets, our climbers are set to ascend to heavens looking fab.

It helps a little that the film is entirely narrated by Lorne “The Voice of Doom” Greene, who gently prods us along while our adventurers carve up the mountain’s beautiful face with their trusty ice picks. Routinely considered “the best invention for climbing up mountains since Noah’s Ark,” it’s also super helpful for opening cans of tomato juice. Am I right?

Then the actor who commanded the Battlestar Galactica calls the women in the party “the gentler sex”. Now that’s rich coming from someone who’s narrating a film from the plush comfort of their armchair. Nevertheless, to his credit, he does acknowledge the fearlessness and all-around panache of these female climbers further on. Images don’t lie, and if there’s one thing to take away from Cliff Hangers, it’s that we’re all equal before treacherous crevasses..

“Make-up is a must for mountaineers.” Preach! It’s lotion and ointment for the delicate ladies and a white paste for the grisly men.


A little-known technical factoid about the film is that it used Ansco stock film and even deemed it necessary to advertise it as a new format called Anscocolor. Distinct from Cinerama or Ultra Panavision, Anscocolor is today an object of great mystery. Indeed, my research into that format didn’t yield any useful information, other than “if it’s from Ansco, you know it’s A+” courtesy of Ansco’s PR department. Good to know considering that the images in Cliff Hangers are quite breathtaking. I’m sure that’s because of the film stock and not the scenery.

Over the years, the NFB has been strangely fascinated with mountain climbing (introduce into evidence exhibit number one: a playlist on mountain climbing). As the decades pass, the hiking gear gets better and the mountaineers start looking like they’re actually going to climb a mountain and not just lounge on chaise-longues at the bottom of the Alps. But, one must give credit where credit is due. The gents and gals of the Alpine Club of Canada sure know how to look fashionable while barely breaking a sweat. Additional proof that everything was better back in the day. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have go back to dreaming about summiting a mountain via elevator.

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