Mountain Literature Classics: Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog

© Shout! Studios

Few have explored the extremes of outdoor life further than Bavarian film-maker Werner Herzog. As Herzog himself has said: "Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life."

Of Walking in Ice  © Ronald Turnbull

The British Film Institute published its 10-yearly poll of the most important movies. The name of Werner Herzog does not appear on it. Not 'Aguirre Wrath of God', not 'Fitzcarraldo', not even 'Even Dwarfs Started Small'. How can this be? Well, the list is compiled by movie-makers and critics, people whose working life is spent indoors under cover – and Herzog is the all-time chronicler of outdoor life, the implacable nature of Nature and the odd, intriguing ways we outdoor types interact with the world.

I was casting about for an excuse to involve 'Grizzly Man' and 'Scream of Stone' in this series supposedly about Classic Mountain Literature. That's how I discovered that Werner is, indeed, a long-distance walker and a writer too. Munich to Paris, in winter conditions and unsuitable shoes, in November and December of 1974. He received word that film critic and mentor Lotte Eisner was seriously ill in Paris. Herzog set out "in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot".

It's a walk which Google reckons (by the Google-suggested best walking route) is 777km with 4500m of ascent; heading through the Black Forest then over the hills of the Vosges. Herzog hikes it without a map, until he buys a road map at a petrol station. As night falls, he breaks into a barn or an empty holiday home. He does carry a little cash, for when he can bring himself, soaked through and stinking, to enter a shop. Otherwise he feeds himself by begging, or scavenging sugar beets from the muddy fields.

Five hundred metres into his walk, he pops into the hospital to visit an actor damaged jumping out of a moving VW van while making a Werner Herzog movie; also to get his Tarot cast.

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer  © Shout! Studios
Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer
© Shout! Studios

Grass is flat with mud

A man chases a woman

In a rain-soaked field

Reading or re-reading an outdoor classic every month or so for this series throws up some interesting links. Having been with Basho on his narrow road to the deep north, I started to notice haiku-like messages in Herzog as well. I don't suppose that Herzog was even aware of his Japanese predecessor: the very slight adjustments towards haiku format are mine. The original is in German: the translators are his first wife Marje Herzog and Alan Greenberg.

The train swirled up paper

dry paper swirled a long time

then the train was gone

As with Matsuo Basho, loneliness is the base note of his outdoor experience. Tricky question, is this Herzog or Basho?

Utter loneliness

a brook is my walk partner

grey heron flies in front

Grizzly Man

Immoral, obsessed, out at the fringes of humanity: Herzog's films match his actual life. And the documentaries are even stranger than his fictions. 'Grizzly Man' is about nature activist Timothy Treadwell, a man who loved the bears so much he came to believe the bears loved him back. Treadwell pitched his tent on a bear trail in Alaska – and managed to record, on video soundtrack, his own death by bear. Another film with the same sort of story is 'Into the Wild' filmed by Sean Penn: Christopher McCandless thinks he can live by foraging in remote Alaska. He can't. Penn's film is a sad story set among some scenery. Grizzly Man is authentic tragedy: man's place in nature – a flawed man, implacable nature – arousing the tragic emotions of terror and pity.

See the trailer here 

Apart from evoking the pity and the terror, one thing us walking writers do is: we supply some commentary on our kit. "My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them." And, just as any more experienced long distance walker will be expecting: "Day 2, preliminary problems with my boots… they pinch." And by Day 3 the blisters are starting to build. "I had no idea walking could hurt so much."

On Day 5 he has to buy a newspaper to find out what day of the week it is.

Why do some of us set ourselves these sorts of extreme challenges? What Werner Herzog understands is the power in all this of the story. The stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and that we then present as ourselves to the outer world. These stories need to be vivid, and vigorous, with carefully crafted plotlines. Thus when choosing to go up a mountain, it tends to be one that other people have already heard of, whether that's Everest, or Ben Nevis, or Cat Bells. And Herzog is a master of lively and exciting life-stories. On one film shoot even more accident prone than usual, he pledged to jump into a cactus patch if the cast and production team didn't further injure themselves while completing it. They didn't – so he did. "No, it was not self destructive to jump into a cactus. I was just giving them a little fun." To encourage a friend who constantly talked film-making to actually make a film, Herzog promised to eat his own shoe: the result is recorded in the documentary "Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe".

Cerro Torre sunset 2  © MikeR
Cerro Torre sunset 2
© MikeR, Feb 2016


Fitzcarraldo (1982) is about an early 20th century adventurer who drags his opera house, which is a paddle-steamer, through the Amazon jungle and across a watershed into an inaccessible river system. To make the movie Herzog built a paddle-steamer and dragged it across a watershed through the Amazon jungle. When his leading actor, Klaus Kinski, made a fuss, Herzog took out a revolver and threatened to shoot him. (Note, though, some doubt over this story. There are those who assert it actually happened on the set of 'Aguirre, Wrath of God'.) More literary links: Herzog's account of the shoot – of the film, rather than of Klaus Kinski – is titled 'Conquistador of the Useless', the title pinched from Lionel Terray's mountain classic of 1963.

See the trailer here

The high point of Herzog's own walk isn't especially high. The 710m Huehnersedel, in the Black Forest, is noted for its mountain bike trails and view over the Rhine. Herzog crosses it under hail, sleet, snow and 100mph winds.

That was the only hill climb in his trip: even Matsuo Basho took in more mountains. Because, disappointingly, Herzog was not the leader of the 1951 expedition to Annapurna – that was Maurice Herzog, who was French not German. Werner Herzog's mountaineering took place in the movies.

Scream of Stone

Herzog has made over 70 films, and appeared in one or two as well ­ he drops into Tom Cruise's 'Jack Reacher' as a supremely evil Russian prisoner, with a marked Bavarian accent, who has chewed off his own fingers to avoid being sent to the sulphur mines. "I'm just the obvious choice," Herzog said: "I did my job, because I'm really scary."

Scream of Stone doesn't feature in the top ten of Herzog movies. It probably doesn't even make it into the top 50. Herzog himself didn't consider it as really his own, as it was based on an idea by Reinhold Messner. A bearded and grizzly trad climber teams up with a young, cleanshaven sport climber to attempt Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Accordingly, scenes of frostbite, avalanches and slow death by exposure are intercut with discussions of mountaineering ethics and motivation. Ivan the TV impresario, played by Donald Sutherland: "What makes humans so crazy they want to climb mountains? As if life in the flatlands isn't hellish enough."

Final scene, with spoiler

Of Reading Under Ice...  © Ronald Turnbull
Of Reading Under Ice...
© Ronald Turnbull

Dark Glow of the Mountains

'Scream of Stone' is a drama, with a sort of story running through it. It even involves a love interest called Katrina, like the hurricane. Certainly shorter, and a bit more plausible –  'The Dark Glow of the Mountains', from 1984 is Herzog's documentary about Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander attempting an Alpine style traverse of Gasherbrum I and II. The whole thing's on Youtube – around 45mins, with voiceover rather than subtitles, sorry.

Herzog: "Aren't these mountains and peaks like something deep down inside us all? (Speak for yourself, Werner!)

Messner: "I'm very excited. The chances aren't all that good. If we're very lucky, then we could make it. I still have four – four whole toes. The others are gone."

But being filmed by Werner Herzog: this could be as harrowing as the 7-day epic over the two 8000-ers. After getting Messner to describe the death of his brother on Nanga Parbat, Herzog hits him with: "How did you break the news to your mother?" And holds the camera on him, mercilessly, through 40 seconds of silent weeping.

As for the companion, Hans Kammerlander: he doesn't seem all that thrilled by completing the climb, just happy to still have all his toes. Hans, it turns out, is a closet hiker. "I occasionally have the desire to stop mountain climbing, and imagine that I just keep walking… from one Himalayan valley to the next, across desert, through forests… just keep on walking  until the world stops. As my life ends, so will the world."

That's strange, says Werner Herzog. Because I have exactly the same fantasy.

Of Walking In Ice is only 66 pages. But if you reckon every 17 syllables as one haiku – that still makes for a big read.

A glove in the field

wet, and cold water lying

In the tractor tracks

Yes, the 'loneliness' haiku was Herzog's one, though Basho's on the same subject is a close match. And when, after 21 days on the road, he arrives in Paris, Lotte Eisner is indeed still alive.

All the top walking writers crowd onto the back cover to praise this book. Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) calls it a weird, slender classic. For Iain Sinclair (London Orbital) it's a fugue and an absurdist comedy. Helen Macdonald (H is for Hawk) says it has the eerie power of the best fairy tales.

The new documentary Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is out now:

15 Feb

Great article, thanks for this - loads of really interesting new information for me in there.

Amazing guy, and probably the only one on the planet who could handle Klaus Kinski. This is Kinski complaining about the food to the production mananger during the shooting of "Fitzcarraldo"; Herzog (voiceover) states that this was a comparatively mild outburst compared to the ones he himself was often subjected to:

15 Feb

I listened to the 'This Cultural Life' podcast with him and he says he's not a filmmaker. He's absolutely adamant that he's a writer, not a director, spent the whole episode correcting the presenter.

15 Feb

If the note regarding the BFI list is in reference to the Sight & Sound poll, then Herzog does make the list. The latest edition has Aguirre, Wrath of God at 118.

15 Feb

Any excuse to shoe-horn this in:

That’s an intense performance from Kinski, absolutely brilliant. And Cobra Verde, Fitzcaraldo….

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