Return to Sender: Pete Mortimer and the Genius of Sender’s Climbing Films

There’s a moment in Sender Films’s new documentary Honnold 3.0 that is utterly terrifying to watch. At age 27, Alex Honnold has emerged as the world’s premier free-solo rock climber. In the film, he’s in the first leg of his “Yosemite Triple”—an attempt to climb the three biggest faces in the Valley, Mount Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome, in record time. Back-to-back through the night. Solo. And almost the whole way without the aid of a rope or fixed pitons or bolts to clip.

Honnold calls it “daisy-soloing.” On all but the very hardest moves, he’s pure free soloing. If he falls, he dies. But on the really dicey spots—pendulums, roofs seeping with rainwater, 5.12 moves on slopers—he’ll clip in briefly to a fixed piece of protection with his nylon daisy-chain, and even grab that piece to swing upward a few feet, before unclipping and re-entering the free-solo void.

Perhaps a thousand feet up the south face on Mount Watkins, Honnold has the fingers of his right hand clamped to a small hold above his head. With his left hand, he’s reaching gingerly to clip the chain to a bolt to his left. The camera seems to be only six feet away. Only the upper half of Honnold’s body is in the frame. The concentration on his face is elemental.

Honnold stretches his arm as far as he can reach. He’s two inches short of clipping the bolt.

And then his foot slips. Honnold’s body lurches downward six or eight inches, then comes to a sudden stop. The look in his eyes never changes. He reaches again, clips his ‘biner to the bolt, and swings his weight onto it.

When Honnold 3.0 screened at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival this November, at the moment of that foot-slip the audience of 950 adventure junkies in the Eric Harvie Theatre uttered a collective gasp, pierced with a few groans and shrieks. I’d gotten to know Alex pretty well when I hung out with him for a week at Smith Rock in Oregon in 2010, as I profiled him for Outside magazine. I must have asked him five or six times, “What if you slip and fall?”

Alex had his pat answer: “It’ll be the worst five seconds of my life.”

In the Eric Harvie Theatre, after the showing of Honnold 3.0, producer-director Peter Mortimer came on stage to answer questions. From the audience, I asked, “What did Alex say later about that foot slip on Watkins?”

“He didn’t even remember it,” Mortimer answered. Another gasp from the crowd. “We put a clip of it up on You Tube. After Alex saw it, he called me. ‘Hey, dude, I do 7,500 feet of rock climbing in one day, and you choose the one moment where my foot slips!’”

Mortimer adds, “I pressed him about it. ‘It was no big deal,’ Alex answered. ‘I had a solid hold for my right hand.’” Among his Yosemite pals, I knew, the climbing prodigy had acquired a nickname: Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold.

Just four years ago, Honnold was a nobody. He’d pulled off his first two colossal free solos—of Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) in Zion and the northwest face of Half Dome (5.12) in Yosemite—with an audience of zero, having told only a friend or two about his upcoming projects the day before he pulled them off.

Peter Mortimer, the founder of Sender Films, took notice and got in touch with Honnold. Despite insisting on his love of privacy, Alex agreed to recreate the two great solos for a film. Alone on the Wall, which appeared in 2009, quickly won major prizes at festivals, including Mountainfilm in Telluride, the Trento Film Festival in Italy, and the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in England.

Thanks in large part to Sender Films, Honnold quickly became a celebrity, appearing on the cover of National Geographic and in a feature on 60 Minutes, during which a smitten Lara Logan caresses Alex’s fingertips as she tries to divine from them the secret of Honnold’s genius.

At the Banff festival this November, Honnold 3.0 won the prize for Best Climbing Film. Appearing on stage, Mortimer magnanimously claimed, “This award goes to Alex. He’s the one making the magic happen. We were just fortunate to follow him around.”

*   *   *

Despite his “aw-shucks” modesty, Pete Mortimer is in the process of redefining the adventure-film genre. At Banff this November, the documentaries his teams produced won an unprecedented three different prizes. Besides Honnold 3.0 for the Best Climbing Film, Wide Boyz—a whimsical journey with two British lads determined to break the sound barrier of off-width crack climbing—won the Best Short Mountain film award, and La Dura Dura, which covers the grunting, shrieking duel of Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra on what may be the hardest single-pitch rock climb in the world, took home the coveted People’s Choice prize for Radical Reels. Appearing onstage to receive his third glass trophy of the night, Mortimer was scolded by the presenter, “Pete, this is getting a little ridiculous.”

Although Mortimer founded Sender Films only in 2005, his small team of indie filmmakers has indeed already won a ridiculously long list of prizes worldwide, at festivals not only in Banff, Telluride, Kendal, and Trento, but also Taos, Boulder, Sheffield and Edinburgh (U. K.), Squamish and Vancouver and Montreal (Canada), Ushuaia (Argentina), Graz (Austria), Torelló (Spain), and New Zealand and Australia.

The REEL ROCK tour, which Mortimer launched with fellow adventure filmmaker Josh Lowell shortly after founding Sender, is currently the hottest thing of its kind. At a showing of its latest installment, REEL ROCK 7, in a funky old armory building in Somerville, Massachusetts, I was amazed to see gaggles of twelve-year-old girls—the very kids you’d expect to line up for The Hunger Games or The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—hanging on every screen sequence that captured the antics of Honnold, Sharma, or Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker on the Shark’s Fin in the Garhwal Himalaya.

What’s the recipe for Sender, REEL ROCK, and Mortimer’s success? It’s some amalgamation of humor, fast pacing and clever editing, unrehearsed sound bites from athletes caught close-up during bursts of manic performance, all leavened by the authenticity of real risk and genuine adventure. Mortimer is not the Warren Miller of today’s adventure films. His features are compulsively watchable without being slick. No one would ever call “La Dura Dura” climbing porn. Whatever the key to the “magic” is, it belongs to Mortimer as much as to such protagonists as Honnold.

And it seems to be grounded in Mortimer’s character. At Banff and shortly afterward, I caught up with the filmmaker, hoping to probe his technique and his vision—if so artsy a term can be applied to such a down-home guy. What I found was a 38-year-old man, married, with one kid and another on the way, who emanates the enthusiasm of a youngster who’s just discovered what he loves doing most in life, and can’t quite believe that people will pay the price of admission to watch him do it.

From the outset, however, Mortimer insisted on sharing the credit for his achievement. “All our films are deep collaborations,” he told me, “and while I have a big role, what makes the REEL ROCK program so strong is that Josh Lowell and Nick Rosen are going deep with me.  On La Dura Dura, for instance, a team of cameramen spent months filming. Then, after we structured the piece, Josh plunged far into the edit while I gave notes and feedback. I think what has taken our films so far beyond my early stuff is the group dynamic and what we all bring to the table.”

*   *   *

Pete Mortimer started climbing at age 14 in his native Boulder, Colorado, at Fairview High, where climbing legend Roger Briggs was the physics teacher. The school offered a “class” that snagged phys-ed credit for a whole day’s play at Eldorado once a week. At Colorado College (CC), though he majored in geology, Mortimer gravitated to a video class. At CC he also became close buddies with his fellow students and future collaborators, Rosen and Lowell.

After a few years working at the New York Film Academy, where he learned his trade from the ground up (“I spent a lot of time cleaning cameras”), Mortimer headed to USC for grad school in filmmaking. It was here that his two roads diverged in the proverbial yellow wood. “I could have gone the conventional route,” Mortimer reflects, “catching on with a Hollywood studio as an assistant and slowly working my way up. Or I could do my own thing.”

His own thing was making indie films. And his passion was still climbing. Scraping together $10,000, Mortimer made his first real film, called Scary Faces, about a small coterie of pals trying to lead a dangerous run-out route called Jules Verne at Eldorado. He wangled a screening at the Boulder Theater, sponsored by Rock and Ice magazine.  “I was so nervous,” Mortimer remembers. “The theater holds nine hundred seats. I was sure nobody would show up. My parents bought sixty tickets, just to guarantee that somebody would be in the audience. And the night of the screening, it was snowing.

“When I showed up, the line stretched four blocks long. They had to turn people away. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like a whole new concept—an entire community turning out to see a rock climbing film.”

In 2003, Mortimer produced Front Range Freaks, a single DVD showcasing seven short films. Compared to Sender’s films today, Freaks seems raw and a little haphazard, but the Mortimer stamp is there—lots of fast-motion footage, pulsating music, ad-libbed asides as the subject mugs for the camera, and above all, zany humor. The touchstone piece on the DVD is “Urban Ape,” which consists of little more than Timmy O’Neill buildering all over Boulder and Denver as he fires off wisecracks, blowing the minds of pedestrians and policemen in the process. You can’t turn it off.

Characteristically, Mortimer salutes O’Neill’s gift for comedy as making the film soar, rather than his own talent as a cinematographer and screenwriter.

In his first years of filming climbers around Boulder, Mortimer often got stood up by the local rock stars, some of whom he had looked up to as heroes. But after the suprising success of “Front Range Freaks,” which won prizes at Banff, Vancouver, Telluride, Taos, and Kendal, Mortimer and his colleagues had no trouble garnering the collaboration of far more famous climbers, including Dean Potter, Ueli Steck, Chris Sharma, and Steph Davis. “All these folks want to share their feats with a larger public,” Mortimer insists.

In 2006 Mortimer lured his college pal Nick Rosen back from grad school at Columbia University to help him write and produce. Rosen agreed to a salary of fifteen grand for a six months’ trial, during which he lived in a room in Mortimer’s house. With the pair’s founding of Sender Films, Mortimer and Co. hit the fast track. Meanwhile, “We started to see the potential of screening tours.” REEL ROCK arrived in 2006, as Mortimer and Rosen teamed up with Josh Lowell, who had started his own film company, Big Up Productions. From forty shows around the country in its initial year, the tour has burgeoned to 400 venues in 2012-13. And, as I saw at the Somerville armory, most of those screenings sell out, and a substantial portion of the audience is young. Very young: from six to sixteen. “Those kids get it,” says Mortimer. “They get the connection between Conrad Anker and Adam Ondra.”

*   *   *

With its zany, wisecracking, sheer funhoggery, the Sender Films “message” could easily have become a shtick. Yet Mortimer, like every other devotee who laces up his rock shoes and ties in to a rope, had to confront the reality that climbing is dangerous, that far too many of its practitioners die on the crags and in the mountains. Amidst the levity of Front Range Freaks, Dirty Bird, a moving tribute to Derek Hersey, the pioneering free soloist who fell to his death in Yosemite in 1993, stands out for its somber avoidance of the clichés of sorrow and bereavement.

In 2010, Sender Films put out a boxed set of six DVDs under the title “First Ascent: The Series.” The compilation is Mortimer’s magnum opus to date. By far the hardest of the films to produce was Point of No Return. In 2009, Jonny Copp and Micah Dash, two of Boulder’s most ambitious climbers, set off to climb Mount Dojitsenga in Tibet. When their permit fell through, they shifted their objective to the little-known, unclimbed east face of Mount Edgar in western China.

Copp and Dash were close friends and climbing buddies of Mortimer and his colleagues. The plan was for the two to shoot videos of their voyage in to base camp and up on the wall, to be edited by Sender once they returned. To enhance the footage, Mortimer and Rosen asked Wade Johnson—a young cameraman with little climbing experience—to tag along. Johnson had no intentions of going up on the face itself.

Mount Edgar turned out to be hideously dangerous, with barrages of falling rock coming down during all the hours of day and night. After weeks of waiting out storms, Copp and Dash reluctantly agreed to abandon the climb. On the verge of heading home, all three men hiked up toward the base of the wall to retrieve gear they had cached. And sometime during that short foray, a gigantic avalanche swept the face, killing all three men. The bodies of Copp and Johnson were later found, but Dash’s was not.

The search teams, including Nick Rosen, found extensive video footage in the trio’s base camp. Back in Boulder, Mortimer and Rosen agonized over whether to call off the whole project, or turn it into a film. And they suffered enormous guilt over having sent Wade Johnson to China—even though Johnson was eager to go.

“We finally decided to go ahead with it,” says Mortimer, “when Wade’s mother told us, ‘If you can make the film, do it.’ She’d always wanted to go to the Himalaya herself.”

Point of No Return is excruciating to watch, because we know how the story ends. In Boulder, Copp and Dash goof around for the camera even as they work out training for Mount Edgar. Every pronouncement from their lips seems fraught with impending doom. Copp says that thanks to all his experience in the mountains, “I feel that I can get myself out of anything I get myself into.” Both men talk about how hard it is to leave their girlfriends, and there’s an extended scene at the airport as Copp and his sweetheart hold a passionate embrace.

At base camp, the men wait through weeks of storm, growing more and more discouraged. The rocks falling around them are pregnant with warning. Yet even in the rain, the men dance and sing as Copp plays a wooden flute. Then the weather changes. “Holy shit!” one of them yells. “It’s clearing! Let’s go!”

Yet caution prevails. Copp: “I’ve been in two avalanches in my life. I don’t want to get caught in another avalanche . . . . We don’t want a fifty-fifty chance of dying. That’s not a manageable number.”

In the end, they make the right decision—to give up. There’s only that one last hike to perform, to retrieve their cache . . . .

Watching the film for the first time, I screamed internally, Leave the fucking gear! Just go home!

Had Sender Films produced a dramatic recreation of the Mount Edgar tragedy, all those lines the men deliver would have been pilloried as heavy-handed foreshadowing. But we’re constantly aware that none of the men’s talk was rehearsed. It’s what they really said to each other as they waited out the storms. It’s what the film canisters contained when the rescue team retrieved them. It captures the ambivalence at the heart of every daring adventure.

Point of No Return achieves an ending that earns its affirmation, as back in Boulder, the friends of the three victims gather to celebrate their short lives. They cheer and yell, even as they weep.

I’ve never seen a film quite like it.

*   *   *

By early 2010, I was vaguely aware of Sender Films and Alex Honnold, but when I served on the film jury at Telluride that May, both the climber and the film company leapt onto my radar. Alone on the Wall so easily outdistanced the other entries for the Charlie Fowler Adventure Award that my fellow jurors and I didn’t hesitate in unanimously giving it the prize.

Alone on the Wall is also Sender’s most successful film to date. In getting the private purist that Alex was back in 2009 to agree to recreate for the camera his astonishing free solos of Moonlight Buttress and the northwest face of Half Dome, Mortimer scored a coup. But it was a triumph that took brilliant climbing choreography to pull off, as the cameramen had to rappel into position to document Alex’s daring moves from only a few feet away. The film succeeds not simply because it captures Alex’s “magic,” but because, like Point of No Return, it raises fundamental questions about life and death.

I’ve showed my copy of Alone on the Wall to several dozen non-climbing friends. At least half of them have said something like, “This is sick. Doesn’t he realize he’s going to kill himself?” Several have declared, 15 minutes in, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t watch this.” On my tenth viewing, even I find my palms sweating.

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At Banff, five months after Telluride, I met Mortimer for the first time, as I researched my Honnold profile for Outside. With Alex sitting nearby, I asked Mortimer about the responsibility involved in pressuring the soloist to perform for the camera.

“I worry for sure about what we’re asking him to do,” Mortimer answered. “If we pose him on a wall, and he slips and falls and dies, I’d feel one-hundred percent responsible.”

To which Alex quipped, “Yeah, but if I fell 70 feet and broke my ankle, you’d say, ‘Great! Can you do it again?’”

We all three laughed. But when the Outside fact-checkers ran the exchange by Mortimer, he balked. Did he come across as insincere, even pious? To his credit, he never denied that the conversation had taken place, and Outside ran with it.

Honnold 3.0, the new REEL ROCK film that climaxes with Alex’s Yosemite Triple, represents an even more remarkable cinematic coup. Alone on the Wall was a recreation of two climbs. To capture Alex on his race up the faces of Mount Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome, the filmmakers had to be there when it happened. There would be no recreations, no second takes.

Mortimer explained to me how he pulled it off. “This was a feat that could not be covered by only two or three cameramen, no matter how skillful they were,” he said. “We needed to pinpoint the key spots on the three climbs, and get in position to be ready when Alex came by. So we hired ten different cameramen, and we chose Alex’s climbing buddies, even if they weren’t that experienced at shooting, just so Alex would feel more comfortable with their presence. We had to be on El Cap in the dark.

“For example, Cheyne Lempe rope-soloed up to the Boot Flake on the Nose, then just waited. He could see Alex’s headlamp as he approached, and he got those hundred feet of critical footage. As Alex climbed by, he said, ‘Hey, Cheyne, how’s it going?’

“Sean Leary, who’s climbed a lot with Alex, rapped down six hundred feet from the top to the Great Roof. He’s such a good climber that he jugged those six hundred feet, shooting Alex all the way to the top.

“Even so, there was some great stuff we missed. When he started up the Nose in the dark, Alex forgot his chalk bag. Rather than waste time rapping down to get it, he climbed on. Ran into some guys bivouacking on the Sickle Ledge. They took one look and said, ‘God, it’s Alex Honnold.’ He said sheepishly, ‘Hey guys, I forgot my chalk bag. Do you think I could borrow—‘

“’Yeah, yeah, take it, of course,’ they answered. ‘It’s an honor.’ The minute Alex was gone, they called their wives on their cell phones to tell them what happened.

“I would have given anything to have caught that moment on film, but we just weren’t there.”

*   *   *

Right now, Sender Films, the REEL ROCK Tour, and Peter Mortimer’s team are at the top of their game. So what comes next?

The big project on the drawing table—seven years in the making, with a scheduled release date of spring 2014—will be called Valley Uprising. It’s a comprehensive history of climbing in Yosemite, melding together vintage stills and clips with the best new footage Sender can craft.

Recently Mortimer and Rosen gave me a sneak peek at a two-minute clip from Valley Uprising. It’s pretty damn exciting. To make a slightly far-fetched analogy, if the clip is representative of the whole, it’ll be as if Ken Burns had played second base for the Red Sox before retiring to produce Baseball.

And a year and a half from now, I’m pretty sure, those twelve-year-old girls in the audience, who have never before heard of Yvon Chouinard or Royal Robbins, will be biting their knuckles as they watch how the Gods of Camp Four danced up vertical rock, decades before they were born.

See the Sender Films team on CBS This Morning:

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