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NPR Arts & Life

Battered But Not Broken, Vets Seek 'High Ground'

Chad Juke takes in the surroundings of the Himalayas in<em> High Ground.</em>
Chad Juke takes in the surroundings of the Himalayas in<em> High Ground.</em>

Mountain climbing asks a lot of its devotees. One should ideally be in top physical condition, with all senses at peak performance, and possessed of a quality that, if it's not best described as fearlessness, is at least a willingness to ignore the natural instinct not to dangle precariously above a drop of several thousand feet.

But the climbers of High Ground, the latest film from documentarian Michael Brown, are missing many of these things. Some have been robbed of senses or mental faculties. Others have lost entire limbs. A few have been pushed to the point where the anxiety of everyday life is sometimes too much to bear — let alone the anxiety that might attend scaling a mountain. Each of these climbers has a unique wound, but what they all have in common is that they picked up these injuries as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brown is a veteran of mountaineering films that focus on the character of climbers more than just the grandeur of the sport, and High Ground fits that mold. The director's 2003 effort, Farther Than the Eye Can See, was about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to scale Mount Everest. In High Ground, Weihenmayer returns as a guide rather than a subject, part of the team assisting the 11 veterans, plus the mother of a soldier killed in the line of duty, up Everest's neighbor, the 20,000-foot peak of Lobuche East.

The narrative here is less about the climb itself, though it serves as the documentary's obvious climactic sequence; the emphasis more on the varying circumstances that brought each soldier into the group. The result is a film that has less of the hallmarks of a typical climbing picture — shot after shot of gorgeous views, interspersed with the grueling drama of the climb — and more a war documentary, with a great deal of footage brought back from the war by the soldiers themselves. Brown uses this material to supplement interviews with each of the soldiers, conducted during their extensive training for the climb, as well as on the journey to the base of Lobuche.

Those experiences vary widely, which allows for as many different perspectives on the war as there are subjects, and Brown takes advantage of the opportunity to present a broad array of feelings, less on the nature of these conflicts in particular and more on the mindset of the soldier in war — and the difficulties faced when no longer in the midst of the conflict.

Some are extremely gung-ho and mince no words about their desire to get back into the field and kill the enemy, even though only one of them is actually still eligible to re-deploy. Others have sustained injuries so shattering — loss of eyesight, a leg, short-term memory — that all their energies must go into re-learning how to live back in the civilian world.

If, that is, they have a place back here at all, which isn't the case for one of the movie's most heartbreaking subjects, a PTSD-stricken soldier who's caught in administrative hell due to misplaced paperwork and is effectively homeless on top of her other troubles. There's plenty of criticism to go around for the veterans' experience, with another detailing substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center upon his return, and another talking of sexual abuse out in the field.

What emerges as the film goes on is that the things military service provided for many of these individuals — family, friends, camaraderie, a support network of other like-minded individuals willing to lay down their lives for them — is the exact thing that has been taken away by their injuries, leaving them feeling particularly isolated. The climb provides them with that sense of community once again.

This group is its own band of brothers and sisters, a unit focused on getting to the top of Lobuche, relying on one another in much the same way they might in battle. As in war, not all of them are assured of success. But some of them reaching the summit is a victory for all of them, and High Ground's inspiration is in seeing that sense of belonging on the faces of the climbers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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