A few years ago, as I was spending a couple of days in Zermatt -- the Swiss alpine town at the northern base of the Matterhorn -- I got a call from my friend Alexander Biner. Alex (that's him in the picture at right) is a brilliant management consultant in St Gallen, and also one of the kindest persons I know. His family has deep roots in Zermatt, and walking around with him there takes a long time, for he knows everyone and is known by everyone. So Alex called and said that he had arranged for a little surprise for me and my other friend Lars Reichelt, who was also spending the week in Zermatt with his family. He took us to the Air Zermatt headquarters, home of those brave helicopter pilots that fly up and down the Swiss Alps landing on poststamp-size spots and rescuing climbers caught in snowstorms and such. And out of the hangar came the head pilot -- a friend of Alex, did I mention it? -- and there we were, under the blue sky, flying up over the glacier, almost skimming the immense expanse of ice and snow.
And then unexpectedly the ice stopped, and a deep valley opened up under us, and there was the Matterhorn just in front of us bathing in sunlight. The pilot had kept close to the ice so as not to spoil the "wow" effect of this iconic mountain suddenly appearing beyond the glacier's edge. We flew over the valley and then started going up and up -- the helicopter increasingly shaking -- until we got to the top of the Matterhorn and flew over it (That's a picture of the summit taken from above by Lars, at left) (Yes, I know, climbing it would be something to brag about; but climbing's not for everyone, and this is second best).
A few months later Alex and I went for lunch in Zurich and he told me about a dream he had: he wanted to do a large-screen IMAX movie about the Swiss Alps. We discussed ideas. The Matterhorn came up first, of course. We talked production: he didn't know how, didn't have any contact. But he was determined.
So yesterday evening, invited by Alex, both Lars and I traveled to Lucerne, to the only Swiss IMAX theatre, for the premiere of "The Alps", a movie of breathtaking beauty and the result of his determination. Here is a frame from it:
The movie follows an American climber, John Harlin III, as he travels to Switzerland with his family (taking us through the Lake Geneva terraced vineyards, the Glacier Express mountain train, a bungee jump off the Verzasca dam and other great Swiss landscapes) and prepares to climb the North Face of the Eiger, one of the world's most celebrated walls but also a notorious one for its unpredictable weather, which had taken his father's life forty years ago. So "The Alps" is a story about climbing as a sport and about magnificent nature, as well as about the human spirit, about the courage and determination that it takes to get to the top of a mountain like the Eiger while fighting one's personal demons.
The evening was hosted by RightToPlay, a non-profit led by top athletes that uses sports and play as tools for the development of youngsters. John Harlin was there with his family, as were his ascent companions Daniela and Robert Jasper (that's the three of them in the picture above, on the summit ridge), the director Steve Judson (from the world's top IMAX filmmakers McGillivray Freeman), and the executive producer (through his company 4is -- read: "four eyes"), my friend Alex Biner. The three climbers told about the three-days ascent. With broken voice, John recalled the moment he climbed past the spot from where his father had fallen to death: "it was very emotional, but when you're up there you need to remain focused on staying on the wall and going up". Steve explained how some of the most spectacular shots were filmed, with cameramen dangling from ropes and gyrostabilized cameras installed on helicopters "whose rotors sometimes were only meters from the rocks" and a camera put in the path of an avalanche, etc. The movie cost some 6 million USD to make, most of it financed by sponsor Holcim. Alex, with customary modesty, sat in the audience.
I loved "The Alps". If there is an IMAX theater near you, check out their schedule. The movie's website is here, it includes educational materials about the Alps, maps, behind-the-scenes, and more. Thanks Alex!