Photograph by Ben Ditto
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Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll climbing on Baffin Island, Canada

Photograph by Ben Ditto

Climbing's Turning Point Captured in This Year's Reel Rock Film Tour

With movie screenings, competitions, and community events, the film festival celebrates climbing’s evolution in a new five-city tour.

Climbing is a dynamic sport, one that continues to grow out of its free-spirited counter-cultural roots and into something regimented and codified. Indeed, as the International Olympic Committee announced in August, rock climbing will be one of the newest additions to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

But what’s really crazy is that the future gold medalist will likely be a kid who just started climbing in a gym somewhere, whose name you haven’t yet heard.

Climbing is trending. From the 2015 media bonanza surrounding Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, to the addition of climbing in the Olympics, the sport is growing in every way imaginable. In 2015, the Physical Activity Council counted 4.6 million Americans who tried sport climbing, bouldering, or indoor climbing—which is more than the number of folks who participated in gymnastics or track and field. And according to the Climbing Business Journal, the number of commercial climbing gyms in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2005, with more than 480 around the U.S.

And right at the periphery of this exploding growth is the annual REEL ROCK Film Tour, a presentation of some of climbing’s best stories, characters, and personalities, on big screens around the country.

The film lineup for this year includes Young Guns, a film about Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner, two teenage climbers with interesting backstories who are helping to shape and push difficulty standards in the sport. Dodo’s Delight is a raucous new-age adventure classic with four international climbers and one grizzled old sea captain who sail north to Baffin Island in pursuit of big-wall first ascents.

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Ashima Shiraishi climbing in the Flatanger Cave

Boys in the Bugs captures the four-year saga of Will Stanhope and Matt Segal’s proud effort to free a stunning alpine wall in the Bugaboos of Canada. Rad Dad tells the story of Mike Libecki, one of America’s leading explorers and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, struggling to balance his love of exploration with his duties as a father and discovering an unlikely partner for his next trip. And Brette introduces Brette Harrington, an up-and-coming trad climber and free soloist from California.

New this year, REEL ROCK will also be bringing multiday festivals to a few select cities: Boulder, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. In addition to showing films at night, there will be events, slide shows, competitions, and community cleanups.

Now in its 11th year, REEL ROCK has established itself as climbing’s answer to Warren Miller’s ski films. Though the subject matter of the films often dives deep into core ascents, the way the subject is presented can easily be grasped by everyone. And according to filmmaker Pete Mortimer, a partner at Sender Films and REEL ROCK, that’s exactly the way they want it.

We caught up with Mortimer to hear more about this year’s film tour.

Tell us more about combining REEL ROCK with more nonfilm events.

This is an idea we've had for years—to build out the screenings into more community events. With support from The North Face we've finally been able to make it happen. We are partnering with climbing gyms and the Access Fund, bringing in more athletes, and adding events like the speaker series and matinee screenings for kids, in the hopes of giving REEL ROCK audiences a chance to have more fun, learn new skills, connect with others, get outside, and party down.

There seems to be a diverse, interesting mix of films in the lineup this year. What would you say is the overarching theme, if any, of REEL ROCK 11?

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Kai Lightner climbing in the Flatanger Cave, Norway.

We hope that each year the REEL ROCK films are a reflection of the exciting things happening in the climbing world, and I think right now is a time in climbing when the sport is branching out in new directions. More people are getting into climbing, younger kids, more women, and a more urban gym-focused crowd, yet the tradition of good old-fashioned adventure and exploration is alive and kicking. Our films this year tell stories from across the climbing spectrum.

Was there a film that was particularly challenging from a production, edit, or storytelling standpoint?

Pretty much all of them. Even after 11 years, these films don't come easy, and we still spend months in post-production on each film. I think Young Guns was the one we spent the most time on this year because in this film we are documenting the journeys of two climbers, Ashima and Kai, over the course of a year as their paths intertwine.

While we were editing the film, Ashima kept crushing newer and harder routes and boulders, so we kept changing the storyline to keep it up to date. But I really love this film; I think it’s my favorite of the year. Josh Lowell went deep in figuring out the puzzle pieces in post-production to create a flowing narrative.

Last year, REEL ROCK was criticized for not having enough of a strong female presence in the films. Do you think the critics will be satisfied this year?

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Brette Harrington climbing a wide crack in Indian Creek.

I think so. We have a few great women climbers and characters in the films. Brette and Ashima are featured, and also Kai's mom, Connie Lightner, brings so much to his storyline.

I agree that rad women were underrepresented in last year's films, because there are so many women out there crushing, exploring, and contributing to the community. I hope we've captured more of that this year.

Over the years, do you think it’s gotten harder or easier to find the big, compelling stories of groundbreaking climbs and climbers? How has the element of choosing what stories to cover changed over the last 11 years?

I think because there are so many great top climbers now, at such an elite level, that we do get a little bit numbed to the new hardest, greatest ascents. But with our films, we try to use these climbs as backdrops for a more human narrative, and in that sense there are limitless stories to tell.