Among all strange and unnecessary human avocations, of the hobbies and silly superfluous obsessions of the men and women on this planet, mountaineering stands amid the most misunderstood. Granted, climbers do selfishly put their necks on the line in the name of a diversion. And high mountain peaks—scarred and wind-beaten, roaring year-round with rockfall and avalanche—are sporting venues of the gravest possibility.
But most climbers will tell you their sport is about something more than adrenaline or ego. Beyond the risks, mountaineering, for many participants, is an exercise in personal examination, or a reboot from the daily grind. For others, it’s an existential look at life via the raw medium of a mountain peak, where mind games often overshadow the physicality of the pursuit.
Thus follows the premise of K2, a play by Patrick Meyers that opened earlier this month at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Directed by Bain Boehlke, and presented on a stage strewn with ropes and rock and faux-snow, the play tells the story of two men stranded in the Himalaya Range at 27,000 feet, just below the summit of K2, which is the world’s second-highest peak.
“This play has the potential to attract people who are not regular theatergoers,” Boehlke said.
Indeed, the ambitious production includes live-action climbing with actor Tim McGee belaying his co-lead Kevin West on a simulated ice wall. Wind howls on the set, and snow and ice crash down. Scenes meld from sunrise to sunset, the clock ticking as the climbers slowly freeze.
Dressed in anachronistic orange high-altitude suits, and jingling with vintage ice screws, hammers, carabiners and axes, McGee and West play the parts of Taylor and Harold, two 1970’s mountaineers. Written nearly three decades ago, K2 has seen runs around the world, including Broadway. A 1992 motion picture of the same name is loosely based on Meyers’ play.
For its Minneapolis debut, Boehlke hired local freelance designer Joel Sass to build the 30-foot-tall mountain set, which includes sheer faces, a climbing route, and a ledge where most of the action takes place. Sass, who is not a climber, studied photographs of K2 and other peaks for inspiration. Construction took two weeks, with chicken wire, papier-mâché, wire lathe, and concrete putty pasted and slathered over a giant steel structure that takes up every available inch of the Jungle Theater’s main stage.
“Creating the convincing illusion of rock, snow and ice was the main challenge with this set,” said Sass, who has worked in local theater, directing plays and designing sets, for 16 years.
To further ensure a realistic production, a climbing instructor, Carolyn Hansen of Midwest Mountaineering, served as a consultant and trainer for the K2 crew, working for weeks with West and McGee to literally show them the ropes. They started out with a rock-climbing trip to Interstate State Park on the St. Croix River, where Hansen rigged lines to lower and belay the actors off the edge of sheer 60-foot cliffs.
“They were both beginners, neither one had ever climbed before, so that first day was pretty entertaining,” Hansen said.
During the play McGee’s character is immobile, having broken his leg in an accident during the descent from K2’s face. But West scurries up and down the set several times, swinging ice axes, kicking crampons into foam, and dangling free off the face on a climbing rope.
At one point West’s character falls while attempting to retrieve a rope, a climax of screaming and cursing outmatched only by an avalanche that thunders in to bury the climbers as stage lights fade to black at the intermission.
Despite the high Himalayan drama, most of the action in this play is interpersonal, introspective and philosophical. McGee and West’s characters are at their physical and emotional limits, slipping in and out of delirium and exhaustion, fighting for their lives while the hypoxic air of 27,000 feet slowly snuffs out their minds.
McGee is the play’s primary muse, meandering into far flung monologues on consumerism and love and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. He talks solo while belaying West high above, unseen and offstage. McGee’s words are believable and at times profound, contemplating God and seemingly hallucinating the presence of his wife and child while drifting in and out of reality.
“Is life method or madness?” McGee’s character asks, only halfheartedly, the snow twinkling in stage lights by his boots.
On the top of the world, stranded at 27,000 feet, the only questions to ask, the only ones that come to mind, are the big ones.