‘Adventure Not War’ Goes Deeper Than Conquering Iraq’s Mountains

"I came home from war. War never really left me.”

Photos by Mack Fisher and Max Lowe

Army veteran Stacy Bare never considered himself an addict or suicidal when he returned home from Iraq. Instead, he, “saw other people as having a problem with not being able to live life to the fullest…That’s when eight-ball and a wall became a thing, I would snort an eight-ball of cocaine and then try and run through a wall. That was a fun party trick for me.”

He had spiralled downwards to the point of contemplating suicide when he “made the decision to put off killing himself” for a few weeks and go climbing with a friend from the army. It was this decision that would lead him, years later, to director Max Lowe, and the creation of incredible documentary short Adventure Not War.

Robin Brown, Matthew Griffin and Stacy Bare on Mount Halgurd

Stacy realised he needed to return to Iraq, to the people and the mountains that had been the scene of so much devastation. He persuaded fellow army vets Robin Brown and Matthew Griffin to join him so that they could face the collective and personal demons that had plagued them over the years; so that they might have a chance to “re-write their own endings”. The mental and physical challenge of returning to Iraq to climb and ski down Mount Halgurd (the tallest peak in the country) was captured by the insanely talented Max Lowe, who chatted to me about filming around landmines and the challenges of multi-tasking on the mountain. 

How did you originally link up with this project?

I was brought into this project originally with a simple conversation. Stacy Bare, the main character of the film, approached me after a Sierra Club event we were both attending last summer and casually asked if I would want to go to Iraq with him and several other veterans to make a ski film. I said of course, but at the time I didn’t quite know what I had committed to.

Had you had any personal experience with this part of the world before?

No, before this trip I had never travelled to the Middle East before. It’s been a place I’ve wanted to travel to for a long time, but I’ve never had a reason until this project came to the table. I’m incredibly happy that I got the chance though, and I would love to go back to Iraq and travel elsewhere in the region in the future.

Robin, Matthew and Stacy ascend the mountain

The journey up the mountain looked difficult enough just as a climber, how did you go about filming in these conditions?

Filming is challenging enough as it is with all the moving pieces, so taking that to a more challenging physical space such as remote mountains in Iraq is a whole different ball game. You have to make sure you are completely dialled with your kit first. If something breaks or goes missing you’re pretty much hooped. Proper foresight is a huge part of it.

The actual mountaineering aspect of the job comes down to pure willpower. You have to be able to physically move around your characters so you’re moving faster than the rest of the team, and then you’re also having to put part of your focus on the camera work, which in extreme settings—where a fall in the wrong place could mean your life—requires the ability to remain calm in high-intensity situations.

How much of a threat did the landmines pose and how did you work around this?

The landmines didn’t pose a huge threat to us because we had a guide who was leading us along safe paths through the minefields. But in winter you’re definitely guessing a little bit. Many people have hiked Halgurd over the years, so a safe path has been established through the landmine fields. But it’s always in the back of your mind whether or not one might have been missed, or what could happen if you’re straying too far off the path while trying to find the best route through difficult terrain.

Were there any hairy moments on the trip?

Overall the trip went off without a hitch. There were no major signs of conflict beyond the military checkpoints along the highway despite us being about 50 miles from Mosul at one point while it was still occupied by ISIS. The only real difficulties on the mountain we’re mental ones—I know Robin and Griff really pushed the boundaries of what they were comfortable doing seeing as they had never mountaineered to that extent before.

In the film you capture a number of things that the three subjects take away from the trip, but what effect did it have on you?

The people we encountered along our journey were some of the more welcoming and warm I have experienced in travelling across the globe, and this just reinforced my desire to return the region.

The second huge thing I took away from the project was a much deeper understanding of what our veterans experience in war and when returning from war. Coming away from both the experiences of violent conflict, as well as the life you are served within the military system, is so much more complex and difficult than I first understood. Working with Stacy, Robin and Griff really opened my eyes to this.

What’s the first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Iraq?

The first thing that struck me when we arrived in Erbil was just how modern the city was. I expected something similar to the other third world countries I have visited over the years, and to arrive in Erbil and see massive beautiful skyscrapers on the skyline, and Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Marriotts along the streets was a big shock.

What is the one thing you’d like people to take away from watching Adventure Not War?

I would hope that it might be that no matter how difficult and painful it might be, our dark feelings and thoughts are simply that, and the only way through them is to humbly face them.

Director Max Lowe

For all the camera nerds—what equipment did you use?

On this shoot we were mostly shooting with the RED Scarlet Weapon, a great lightweight variant of RED’s camera system. I also shot a fair amount with the Sony A7s II, and even a little bit with my Sony RX100. For the aerial stuff, we managed to purchase a DJI Phantom 4 in Erbil (because we weren’t allowed to bring one into the country), and that provided the amazing, wide scenics you see in the latter part of the film.

Do you have any projects similar to this in the pipeline?

I am talking with Stacy about a potential sequel to this project in Afghanistan next year, but I am currently working on a feature documentary about my family story that will be taking up a good majority of my time over the next six to nine months.

You can check out more of Max’s work on his website, or adventurenotwar.com to find out more.

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