The old adage that “you’re only as old as you feel” is reiterated in Steven Oritt’s affecting little doc Accidental Climber. The filmmaker’s focus drifts from character study to adventure chronicle to political treatise on Nepalese Sherpas, but his sexagenarian protagonist holds it all together with his “guy-next-door” relatability. Oritt captures some stunning shots of Nepal and the majestic peak presiding over it; at barely over an hour, his film resembles a compelling National Geographic special.
In 2014, a massive icefall, the “single deadliest incident on Everest,” killed sixteen Sherpas – climbers who dedicate their lives to transporting rich tourists up and down the treacherous cliffs. A year prior to the tragedy, the 68-year-old Jim, a self-proclaimed “pretty straight, by-the-book guy,” was busy preparing for the most daring climb of his mountaineering life. His goal: to become the oldest American and first great-grandfather to conquer Everest’s summit. “I don’t climb the mountain, the mountain lets me climb it,” he states early on in the film, confident about the upcoming journey.
“…to become the oldest American and first great-grandfather to conquer Everest’s summit.”
Sponsored by a CEO of a large conglomerate, blessed by his church, Jim embarked on the adventure. In the first half of the film, Oritt wisely keeps the focus on his compelling protagonist, taking his time to build the suspense prior to the climb (a ballsy move in a 66-minute doc). The filmmaker then immerses us into Kathmandu, Nepal, where Jim met his wealthy fellow climbers. After landing in Lukla, “the world’s most dangerous airport, the group started their 40-mile, 2-week journey to base camp. Soon after, Jim began to feel lethargic. And then the icefall occurred.
That’s when the meandering begins, Oritt deviating from his focal subject with an engaging albeit off-putting exploration of the Lukla school system, a prolonged tangent about the tragic death of the icefall victims, and an ode to the Sherpas and the reforms they seek. Coupled with the film’s short running time, the sometimes dodgy editing and sound mixing, this gives off a whiff of an unfinished project, one that could have used another polish or two.
Nitpicking aside, if you enjoyed the likes of Sherpa or The Wildest Dream, give this a shot. Succinct but affecting, Accidental Climber serves as a gentle reminder that age really is just a number, and sometimes it’s not about achieving your dreams, it’s about the pursuit of them. “What I experienced there having not climbed Everest is far more impactful had I summoned it,” Jim says. Here’s to the man enjoying his golden years.
"…if you enjoyed the likes of Sherpa or The Wildest Dream, give this a shot."