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180° South: The Tale of Two Great Adventures

Buzz Poole
06/05/2012 - 06:27
180 South film poster

I just saw the adventure travel documentary 180° South, which follows Jeff Johnson on a 2008 journey that is, in large part, an ode to the fortieth anniversary of a similar journey made by Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins in 1968. The two men traveled 5,000 miles overland from California to Patagonia; if you're not familiar with their names, you at least have some knowledge of their work. Chouinard is the founder of the Patagonia line of clothing and gear; his best friend Tompkins helped start North Face. But before these men created two of the most reputable outdoor gear companies in the world, they were just two friends hunting perfect waves and peaks to summit.

Unlike his inspirations, Johnson chose not to drive the distance and the first, very long, leg of his journey takes place on a modest sailboat. Somewhere out in the middle of the South Pacific, the boat's mast snaps and they have to motor to Rapa Nui, a.k.a Easter Island. Repairing the mast is a time consuming process but as Johnson learns quickly, it is the unexpected aspects of an epic journey that are often the most important. Johnson and the crew finally depart from Rapa Nui and arrive in Chile, where Johnson and a new traveling partner keep close to the coast, meeting friends along the way and getting a first-hand education in how land development and industrialization of pristine landscapes threaten not only natural beauty but the livelihoods of those whose families have been living off this land for generations.

Johnson's end goal is to summit a remote mountain that neither Chouinard nor Tompkins had been able to climb. And, it so happens, the two are down in this region of Patagonia, where Chouinard lives. While the two reminisce a great deal about their heydays, the real thrust of their onscreen time is about the amazing conservation work they are spearheading today, buying up thousands upon thousands of acres of land in order to protect them from development. Over the course of the film Johnson does explore some true wilderness, going places where it is likely very few humans had been before. But the film's real focus is how important it is to save these spaces.

For two guys in their seventies, Chouinard and Tompkins are still incredibly active. They've both achieved so many firsts in their lives and while the film makes clear how keen they are to keep scaling mountains and bushwhack trails, their primary goal these days is to honor the uninhabited spaces that have informed their worldviews. If you love tales of adventure travel and appreciate why it is important to keep unspoiled land free of people and factories, than this movie is for you (and if you dig indie rock, you'll really be smitten).

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