Film to See: Valley Uprising–Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution

Valley Uprising

Film to See: Valley Uprising–Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution

Valley Uprising

Over the past nine years, the REEL ROCK Film Tour has been gaining speed to reach some 100,000+ moviegoers in 35 countries and a huge online audience. This year’s tour will pick up serious momentum with Sender Films‘ highly anticipated feature film Valley Uprising. The 90-minute documentary examines Yosemite National Park’s 60-year legacy of revolutionary rock climbing and thriving counterculture.

“We have interviewed upwards of 50 living climbing legends,” says Nick Rosen, who, along with co-director Pete Mortimer, has been incubating this film idea over nearly a decade of making climbing films (read a profile of Sender Films). “We have gone into people’s basements and garages and excavated moldy, old boxes of slides that no one has ever seen.” As much as the films features legendary climbers and lore, there’s more to it. “This isn’t just a climbing movie. It’s really about freedom, authority, and all sorts of broader issues,” says Rosen. “When we looked at these incredible silver gelatin prints from way back in the 60s—before the Summer of Love, essentially the Beatnik era—we realized this was the birth of counterculture in our country and inextricably tied to that.”

It’s an ambitious topic—and one only Emmy Award-winning Sender Films’ rock climbing filmmakers could get right with their honed mix of skillful storytelling, journalistic integrity, playful wit, and keen sense of fun. We can’t wait to watch it.

Valley Uprising will premiere in September 2014 and will be featured on the REEL ROCK 9 Tour. Here Rosen answers our questions about making the film.

Adventure: You’ve been working on this film for a long time—how long?
Nick Rosen: In some ways, Pete and I have been working on this film since we started making climbing movies. The first interviews we shot for Valley Uprising probably date back seven years, but it’s a little bit misleading because we have been putting out REEL ROCK for nine years. Between REEL ROCK, our other commercial projects, and our TV series with Nat Geo, Valley Uprising has been bubbling around in the background for a long time. Only in the last couple of years have we really turned our full attention to this film. We brought in Big UP Productions and our whole Reel Rock team to really finish it up.

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Valley Uprising co-director Nick Rosen of Sender Films working in Yosemite; Photograph courtesy Sender Films

We put a lot of effort into it—and a lot of sweat equity. At the same time, it’s just a movie. You can’t exhaustively cover a 60-year history of amazing climbers in a 90-minute movie. We focused on three specific generations where the culture of Yosemite climbing really flourished and dominated the world stage. It starts with the Golden Age generation of the 50s and 60s, followed by the Stone Masters generation from the 70s to the early 80s, and then The Monkeys modern era of climbers.

A: Do you think Valley Uprising appeals to a mainstream audience, in addition to all your fans on the Reel Rock Tour?
NR: In a lot of ways, Yosemite climbing is a reflection of the broader American culture. Not to get too pretentious about it—it’s not like this is a PhD dissertation—but we started to really realize how many of the moods around the country were reflected and amplified in the climbers in the park. When we looked at these incredible silver gelatin prints of Glen Denny from way back in the 60s documenting climbing and the lifestyle at Camp 4— before the Summer of Love, essentially the Beatnik era—we realized this was the birth of counterculture in our country and inextricably tied to that.

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Camp 4 in 1968; Photograph by Glen Denny

So yes, we think this film appeals to more than climbers.

A: Climbing does have mass appeal, especially with your daring, iconoclastic dirtbag climbers.
Over the years we’ve thought a lot about what makes climbing so awesome. Well, of course, it’s the sport itself and what people are doing—which is incredible. But for me from a storyteller’s perspective, what makes it special is that these guys are totally unsung heroes—and to be a part of counterculture is to be unsung, in a lot of ways.

You’ve got guys out there swinging golf clubs on manicured lawns and making five million bucks a year. Then you’ve got these dirty guys—and women—going up 3,000 feet and pushing the limits of human ability. Then they come down, get back in their crappy old car. They make a burrito out of peanut butter and tortillas and live in the dirt. That level of motivation, that really pure, soulful passion can drive people’s abilities to new levels without having a professional, money-oriented sport.

Of course, climbing has become more professional and more money oriented. Now you have guys who are getting paid to be out there. But even with someone like Alex Honnold, that spirit has really carried through to the point where, in climbing at least, it’s not about the money. I really believe that. I see in Alex a motivation that is rooted in 60 years of people trying to take what was done before them and push it further. It’s artistic more than financial.

A: How did you piece together all the stories of this counterculture?
NR: One of the big, exciting things about the film is all the material that we have gathered over the years. We drew on the books that are out there, but then we did a lot of our own research. We have interviewed upwards of 50 living climbing legends. We have gone into people’s basements and garages and excavated moldy, old boxes of slides that no one has ever seen. The plane full of marijuana that crashed in the park in 1977 … that is lore, but we were able to contact a bunch of people who had firsthand knowledge of it, who happen to be characters in the film. We uncovered the first photos to be seen of what happened.

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Werner Braun on Reed’s Pinnacle Direct in the late 70s; Photograph by Bob Gaines

Even for someone like Glen Denny, who has this real body of work, we went in and found all of his un-scanned negatives and came up with amazing stuff that no one has ever seen before. We did this with guys like George Meyers and the dozens of photographers who have contributed.

So in terms of digging up the history, it’s a mixture of stuff that had been written down that needed to be pulled together, oral history interviews, and a colorful reinvention of the past. It’s not like we are saying this is a history lesson. These are just stories. We almost want people to think of them in the same way you would hear John Long’s half-bullshit story around the campfire … and that story turns into legend. We don’t want people to take it all too seriously. It’s all accurate, but it’s also fun.

A: The Yosemite climbing revolution was important in the U.S., but did it matter internationally?
NR: In the beginning of our story, rock climbing is something that mostly happening over in Europe, and was really mountaineering oriented. And then the modern art of rock climbing was invented and the real, state of the art techniques came into their own in the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing in the 50s and 60s. They invented all sorts of new gear. The future companies of The North Face and Patagonia were born out of this process of inventing new gear and new techniques, then refining them.

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Lynn Hill on Half Dome in 1977; Photograph by Charlie Row

Yosemite was still at the very center of the climbing world until what we characterize in the film as the “Fall of the Stone Masters” in the early 80s. Then this sport climbing revolution comes in, which is very different in its values and tactics than Yosemite climbing, which is very adventure-oriented and has lot of crazy epics and rules. Giant conflicts arise out of these crazy climbing rules. Those rules were precluding sport climbing from happening in the Valley, and so the focus shifted to Europe for a while.

People like Lynn Hill and Ron Kauk and some of the best people from the Stone Masters went over to Europe and started climbing and competing and focusing their energies there. Throughout France and Italy, sport climbers were using bolts, pre-rehearsed moves, and competitions to practice this safer approach to climbing that is more focused on pure difficulty.

But then that had a big influence in America. Lynn Hill came back to Yosemite in 1993 and did the first free ascent of the Nose on El Capitan—that really inspired a new wave of climbers coming to the Valley. That represents our third chapter.

A: Is Yosemite still the heart of the climbing scene?
NR: It’s far more diffuse now. People are climbing El Cap-like routes that are actually at the top of a mountain in the Himalaya now. But the skills they developed for climbing on granite would never have happened without Yosemite, because granite is really the rock that is found in the great ranges of the world. And it’s really its own kind of climbing. The strongest climbers in the world who come from doing the hardest routes on the steepest limestone walls in Europe come to the Valley and have to climb a finger crack that’s split on an otherwise flawless wall and they get bouted. That’s the kind of climbing found in the big mountains. As Alex Honnold, who now travels around the world climbing in many different countries, puts it: Yosemite is always where he comes back to—not just because he loves it and has a soulful connection to the place, but because that is where he can really test his limits. It’s like a laboratory to determine, “How good am I? Let’s find out on the walls of Yosemite.” It keeps that position to this day, in my mind.

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Alex Honnold free soloing Sentinel in 2011; Photograph by Pete Mortimer

A: We’ve got Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn Wall and Alex Honnold climbing seven lines in seven days… it’s not getting old in Yosemite.
NR: Precisely. I think El Capitan and those walls will continue to be the stage for the progression of the sport for many years to come.

A: Do today’s young climbers have an awareness of the unsung climbers who made Yosemite what it is?
NR: I think Alex does—he is certainly a student of history. And I think a lot of today’s climbers do. As far as the general climbing population, I think people recognize that climbing is special because of this rich history, the progression of the sport, and the mentorship that happens across the generations. I’m not sure if they know the actual details of these stories. My hope is that this film will really open the door for a lot of people who are getting into climbing to experience the rich culture and history.

A: A lot of effort went into find the right songs that capture the eras. You’ve even got Bob Dylan. How did you approach the music? 

NR: That’s still an open question. We are putting Bob Dylan in, we decided to do that. We got a pretty good deal on it. There’s a lot of music in there that we are actually pulling out because we can’t afford it. This is a small-budget film. They guys at Big UP Productions are linked in with awesome, unsigned indie bands from Brooklyn, so they are a good resource. 

We are also pretty passionate fans of rock ’n’ roll, so this is a great opportunity to get music that is from the era. As we speak we are pondering this fee for “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, and thinking, how can we do this? But the scene is going up on the walls with Jim Bridwell … you’re 18-years-old and way up there on a death route, and he’s dropping acid … well what song could we possibly replace that one with?

A: The previous climbing era seemed to have a fair amount of drug use and dramatic deaths. We don’t hear much of that side now. Is that still there?
NR: I don’t think it’s that hard to find rock climbers doing illicit drugs when they come down from a climb or on their rest day. Smoking weed or whatever. At the same time, these generations reflect the culture at large, and in the early 70s, Jim Bridwell’s exploration into hallucinogenic big-wall climbing has not been matched since then.

A: That sounds like a dangerous mix. Did he survive it?

NR: He survived, he told me he did something on the order of 400 hits of acid in his life. So it is really hard to imagine that that kind of wildness could exist today. Part of our story is about how that kind of wildness cannot exist in Yosemite National Park as it exists today. Given the role climbing culture plays in the development of the sport, what space is there for that culture to exist? And for full-time climbers to exist, period, in Yosemite National Park, with their modern framework of overpopulation and the camping limits and the law enforcement. And so that becomes a part of the story. This isn’t just a climbing movie. It’s really about freedom, authority, and all sorts of broader issues.

A: When did you first go to Yosemite?
I first went in 2006. Pete and I are Colorado climbers. We never did the Yosemite dirtbag climbing thing. While our peers were doing that, we were off doing very establishment things like getting Masters degrees and starting companies. But, of course, we were wildly jealous of our friends who were going out and living it. We were keenly aware of that option—and how much we were missing out. So in some ways we are a little bit of outsiders looking in, but so we’re paying homage to a culture and lifestyle that we really admire.

Update: Valley Uprising won the grand prize at the 2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival.