Who’s On Top follows a small group of LGBTQ Oregonians whose stories of personal struggles are interspersed with their journey towards Mt. Hood’s summit. The documentary triumphantly challenges the stereotypes and archetypes of mountaineers and adventurers, seeking to carve out a safe space for people of all genders and sexualities.
In the opening minutes, the comparison between the struggles LGBTQIA+ folx face and the challenge of summiting a mountain is drawn. “Coming out and climbing Mt. Hood are incredibly similar in the fact that they’re both pretty hard climbs,” says summit hopeful Ryan Stee. At this point, Miley Cyrus’ classic power ballad “The Climb” pops into my head; it would definitely be my soundtrack of choice were I ever to muster up the physical and mental fortitude needed to complete this Herculean task. The metaphor is referred to multiple times throughout the film, as members of the team recount their lived experiences.
Crisply shot, the film is a love letter to Oregonians and alpine enthusiasts. I always love learning new things about my home state, and the documentary throws in a couple fun facts that I’ve somehow never heard—like that Mt. Hood is the second most climbed mountain in the world after Mt. Fuji, and that Les Schwab lived in Prineville (the company’s HQ was even located there for a time).
LGBTQ icon George Takei serves as the film’s narrator, providing a sturdy guiding voice to the foursome’s journey. Aside: If Morgan Freeman ever relinquishes his gig as the voice of the Almighty, I can picture Takei filling the role seamlessly. In the spirit of inclusivity, Takei mentions Mt. Hood’s indigenous name Wy’East and takes care to do a land acknowledgement of sorts.
I loved that this documentary wasn’t wholly footage of the team trekking up the mountain. You’d essentially be watching people walk for an hour and a half... can you say snooze fest?! Instead, the film smartly includes scenes of the team’s mountain climbing training. This includes rock climbing at downtown’s Planet Granite, a test run hike up Dog Mountain, training with snow equipment at Mt. St. Helens, and even a workout in an altitude simulator.
The film delves into all the components that go into a successful summit—an alpine start (leaving between midnight and 4 a.m. in order to descend safely before sunlight melts too much of the ice pack), maintaining a steady pace, temperature regulation—but it takes care to emphasize that climbing a mountain is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Throughout these strenuous tasks, the team adopts a rallying cry: “Who’s on top??”
“I think ‘who’s on top?’ isn’t about the summit. ‘Who’s on top’ is about your personal summit,” said mountain guide and summit vet Taylor Feldman. Who’s On Top is a feel-good watch for anyone needing a little inspiration to get into gear in order to reach their own summit, whatever it may be.
Here’s how you can stream Who's On Top as part of the Portland International Film Festival.