Reality television, as most Americans know, is often less than real, but it appears still good enough to fool folk in the Big Apple.
In a belated review of the TLC cable network television show "Sarah Palin's Alaska," the New York Review of Books somehow buys into the trumped-up idea that Palin risked life and limb filming in Denali National Park and Preserve last summer.
"Palin, who is both narrator and star of the series, performs arduous and sometimes even dangerous feats of outdoorsmanship to demonstrate the conservative virtue of self reliance. In the episode in which she struggles for a foothold on a vertiginously steep glacier at the foot of Mt. McKinley in eerily beautiful and vast Denali National Park ... " writes Janet Malcolm.
"Eerily beautiful and vast Denali National Park"? Yes.
"Dangerous feats of outdoorsmanship"? Not hardly.
Palin faced greater danger crossing the streets of New York City.
The whole time she was crossing glaciers and climbing rock (not a "vertiginously steep glacier") in Denali, she was under the watchful care of guides from the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna. AMS owner Colby Coombs can't talk about the film because he signed a confidentiality agreement, as did almost everyone involved with the production of the Palin show in Alaska.
Everyone, that is, except government employees who are prohibited from signing confidentiality agreements. National Park Service rangers and other personnel who monitored the activities of Palin and her producers in the park say no one involved with "Sarah Palin's Alaska" was ever in any danger.
It is probably worth noting here that "Sarah Palin's Alaska" did try to get employees of the Park Service, which had to issue a permit for filming in Denali, to sign the confidentiallity agreements. But they said "no," noting that federal regulations generally prohibit them from engaging in secret operations.
A federal solicitor eventually wrote show producers a letter explaining the laws that would be violated, including "The Endangered Species Act," if federal employee were to sign such agreements. It is hard to tell from the Park Service documents, which Alaska Dispatch obtained under the Freedom of Information Act last year, whether the reference to the "endangered species" act was supposed to be a joke or not.
Park service employees who monitored Palin's adventure in the Ruth Amphitheatre told Alaska Dispatch that she was roped for safety, both when climbing and when glacier hiking. It is possible to fall into a crevasse when hiking on an Alaska glacier, but it rarely happens when traveling with experts in glacial route-finding. Still, everyone is always roped. The rope is like a seatbelt. It protects glacier hikers in the event of an accident, though most of the accidents amount to less than a fender-bender. Someone sticks a leg through the snowbridge over a crevasse, pulls it out and keeps on hiking.
Alaska Mountaineering, which teaches glacier travel safety and crevasse rescue has never lost a client in a crevasse fall. So much for that part of "dangerous."
As for the rest, an AMS guide had Palin safely top-roped so she couldn't fall anywhere when she climbed some rock above the Ruth Glacier. She might, however, have faced some teensy-tiny danger there. She could have gotten bopped on the head by a rock. Sources have told Alaska Dispatch that since "Sarah Palin's Alaska" was filmed, Coombs has admitted to a few friends that he regrets giving in to demands from film producers that Palin climb the rock sans helmet.
Helmets are standard safety gear when climbing rock because of the danger of falling objects, but a helmet would have mussed Palin's hair and obscured her pretty and apparently terrified face, a part of the story Malcom did get right in her reviewing for what Palin likes to call "the Lamestream Media."
As Malcolm observes,
Forty-five minutes later (as a subtitle tells us), [Palin] is still clinging to the rock, helpless to take the next step up. "Thats so much worse than I ever thought it would be," she groans. Finally, through a great effort of will, she manages to heave herself up to the pinnacle. "I dont think that I have been that scared or that challenged in a long time," she says, and we believe her. The episode has a realism not often seen in reality TV , and absent from most of the other episodes ...
"...Manages to heave herself to the pinnacle...." Hmm. There again, unfortunately, not exactly.
Malcolm doesn't seem to recognize fully that "realism" is to "reality TV" as "bear expert" is to "Timothy Treadwell." Alaskans will remember Treadwell, the man whom, after his death, the Lamestream Media labeled "an amateur bear expert" -- whatever an "amateur expert" is.
Treadwell, the amateur expert and no relation to the Alaska lieutenant governor with the same last name, was really just a guy who liked to hang with bears because that's how he got his jollies. It eventually got him and girlfriend Amie Huguenard killed and eaten by a bear in Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Treadwell, sadly, didn't have anyone to watch over his safety the way Palin did. Nor did Treadwell have anyone to phony up reality the way Palin did.
"The pinnacle," Malcom writes of Palin reaching? It didn't happen, according to National Park Service rangers. She climbed a rock face, much like those along Turnagain Arm adjacent to the Seward Highway south of Anchorage where people can be seen climbing on any summer day. She made it to a ledge. Filmmakers then edited the video to give "Sarah Palin's Alaska" viewers the impression the heroine of the show had conquered a pinnacle.
A quick Internet search might have revealed to Malcom the skepticism in the climbing community about what Palin originally Tweeted her plans were: "Todd, Willow & I head to Denali to climb Sweettooth=tiny sliver of Mt. McKinley, No. America's highest peak; cool air & elevation=good for the soul." Malcom also may have found the inital revelations that Palin's professed ascent of "Sweettooth" was so much hooey.
Palin was, however, either scared or a damn fine actress in those climbing scenes. And her attempt at climbing (give her credit for trying) did cause quite a stir in the climbing community of Talkeetna. And by all indications, she did shoot a caribou later in "Sarah Palin's Alaska" although the reality behind the rock climbing segment could make one wonder.
Is it possible that in the end, after all the missed rifle shots in "Sarah Palin's Alaska," someone shot the caribou for Palin and the video was edited to make it look as if she had finally succeeded?
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.