ABC HAS REACHED NEW HEIGHTS - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Two weeks ago when ABC televised the final portion of George Willig's two-day climb of Angels Landing, a treacherous 1,500-foot Navajo sandstone wall in Utah's Zion National Park, the network extended its live coverage an hour past the allotted 1½ hours so viewers could see Willig and his partner, Steve Matous, reach the summit. Rarely does a network allow a sports show—particularly one of a non-spectator event—to run that much beyond schedule, because the extension disrupts affiliates' programming. The decision to broadcast the climb to its completion was not made lightly, and it demonstrated that ABC believed the show was generating intense interest, which means it is likely that there will be more climbs on TV.

But before other such shows go on the air, broadcasters must work to remedy some problems that arose during the original telecast. Primary among them is timing. From TV's point of view, a perfect ending would have the climbers reach the summit a few minutes before the scheduled end of the program. As Willig and Matous discovered, it is impossible to plan a long climb that precisely. This means that telecasters must be prepared to accept runovers as a matter of course when covering climbing. Compressing other sports to fit TV time slots may upset traditionalists, but in climbing there is much more at stake: men's lives.

To their credit, the ABC producer, Ned Steckel, and the director, Larry Kamm, bent over backward to ensure that Willig would not feel obligated to reach the summit by the time the program was to end. But Willig, who became a celebrity when he scaled a 110-story tower of New York's World Trade Center last year, is fast learning the value of showmanship. He realizes that the closer the timing, the better the show, and thus the greater the likelihood of an encore. That sort of attitude could lead to climbers' taking potentially fatal shortcuts.

ABC cameraman Mike Hoover, an experienced climber who won an Academy Award nomination for the climbing short Solo, which inspired Willig to take up the sport, says, "We stayed an arm's length away from controlling the climb, but there is no doubt that it should have been a three-day effort and that George was hurrying to get to the top. TV was a big part of why he was rushing."

Willig and Matous, who were equipped with microphones, climbed five hours in darkness Saturday night, using a full moon and miners' helmets for illumination. They took the risk partly in hopes of being able to finish by 6 p.m. EST Sunday.

The pressure to hurry was tacit and perhaps unintended. At one point, after the program had already been extended about 20 minutes and Willig had reached a small plateau, a short scramble from the top, he said, "As far as I'm concerned, this is the end of the climb." But Willig sitting on a ledge was anticlimactic; ABC wanted the visual impact of the two men at the peak, silhouetted against the sky. "We really want to see you get to the summit," said announcer Bob Beattie to Willig. "You're going to have to wait a while," replied Willig. "How long do you think it's going to take?" asked Beattie.

Because the popularity of rock climbing on TV was questionable, the decision to cover the Angels Landing ascent indicated a praiseworthy willingness by ABC to try something new. And the network did it even though the show involved a considerable logistical effort, including the use of pack mules to haul television equipment to the site and six microwave links to transmit the picture out of Zion Canyon. The show was a success because ABC gave it uncommonly progressive executive direction.

The announcers, Beattie and Bill Flemming, were breaking new ground as well. They were in the delicate position of trying to keep the audience informed and entertained, while disrupting the climbers as little as possible. Because the sport requires complete concentration, a rock climber has little time to conduct a running interview. Nonetheless, Willig and Matous more or less maintained a dialogue with Flemming and Beattie. The commentators were sensitive to the climbers' dilemma—"I don't want to distract you; if you can't talk, just say so," Flemming told Willig—but there were instances in which the climbers, who also used the mikes to discuss tactics with each other, were forced to communicate over Flemming's and Beattie's commentating. Occasionally Matous even had to interrupt Willig, who took to chatting about such things as the mice and scorpions he encountered along the way. The highlight of Willig's narration was his description of a 30-foot fall he had taken when a piece of rock broke away under his foot. Hoover took breathtaking pictures of the plunge, which were replayed in slow motion three times.

Because of the success of the Angels Landing show, there is already talk of another televised climb. High on the list of possible locations is Wyoming's Devils Tower, the rock Richard Dreyfuss immortalized by building a mud replica of it on his living-room floor in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie has made Devils Tower a tourist attraction, a veritable cult cliff. This would be the primary reason for using Devils Tower for a TV climb, which smacks of show biz. Climbing is too dangerous an endeavor for commercial concerns to prevail over the realities of the sport. It must never be undertaken in an atmosphere in which an announcer might say to a climber, "You've got to hang by your fingertips on that ledge for 60 seconds while we go to a commercial."