Yosemite Climbing Pioneers in "The Big Walls"
Half a century of climbing comes to life in the new film Valley Uprising.
“It’s not just a film about climbing, but about living life in this very free, present way where the focus of one’s existence is experiential, not materialistic,” says Pete Mortimer, co-director of the upcoming feature documentary Valley Uprising: Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution, which will premiere in Boulder, Colorado, on Thursday and Friday before hitting the Reel Rock Tour to 450+ cities worldwide. (Watch the trailer.)
The film begins in the 1960s, known as the Golden Age in Yosemite. The climbers of that era—pioneers such as Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Steve Roper, and Chuck Pratt—were the first to tackle such towering, vertical walls, and their ideas and accomplishments significantly influenced climbing not only in Yosemite, but around the world. In this exclusive bonus clip to the film, those living legends share their memories from the ascending big walls.
Below, Mortimer tells us about this epic clip, how the 1960s-era climbers influenced the future of climbing, and how they made 50-year-old photos come to life with 2.5-D animation.
Adventure: Who do these voices belong to and how did they shape climbing culture in Yosemite Valley and in general?
Pete Mortimer: These voices are from Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Steve Roper, and Chuck Pratt, who were part of the first group of climbers to scale the big walls of Yosemite. Their era is known as the Golden Age, and they are hugely important in Yosemite and global climbing history. Before them, nobody had climbed walls of such verticality and scale anywhere in the world. Huge routes had been done in the Alps, but nothing so continuously steep as the northwest face of Half Dome or El Capitan. It was a huge breakthrough to know that you could spend days and nights up there in the vertical realm and come out the top alive.
A: Did they know at the time that they were part of something important?
PM: I think they were aware that they were part of something bigger in climbing circles, but that was a very small world back then. In terms of the growth of climbing and their influence in the whole outdoors and adventure world, I don’t think that was clear at that time. They were really living on the fringes of society, and it wasn’t till the following generations that this alternative lifestyle really started catching on.
A: These climbers did not have the benefits of modern gear to protect them on the wall. How did they get by? What did they use?
PM: Well they actually hand-crafted some of their own gear, like pitons. Yvon Chouinard was a blacksmith, and he started forging gear and selling it to the other climbers. But some of the other stuff was totally makeshift, especially when they started. But one of the contributions of this group was the evolution of climbing equipment as well as the evolution of the sport itself.
A: What were the most important climbs of this era?
PM: The northwest face of Half Dome was the first big one because that is such an iconic wall—it’s just so steep and intimidating. Then The Nose of El Capitan was a major undertaking by Warren Harding with a series of partners that fixed ropes on the wall and spent 18 months going up and down the thing. After that, Royal Robbins did the first ascent of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, and he did that with a small team and in essentially a single push over roughly a week. That was actually a big breakthrough because of the style in which they climbed it—continuous, and using as little fixed gear like bolts as possible. After the Salathe Wall, there was a real sense of possibility and new routes went up all over the faces of Half Dome, El Capitan, Mount Watkins, and other big walls.
A: Where did you find the photos?
PM: Most of these photos come from Glen Denny and Tom Frost, two renowned photographers who documented many of the people and the climbs from that era. Denny was a real artiste, documenting events but also with an eye toward light and composition—his photos were a big inspiration for this film. Frost was involved as a climber in so many ascents of the era, and he always seemed to have his camera so he has some of the most iconic and historic shots ever taken from Yosemite.
A: How did you animate the photos? Did you make the animation fit the music or the other way around? Why did you use this technique?
PM: It’s a bit of back and forth with animation and music. We work with a 3-D artist named Barry Thompson, and we put the scene together and kind of rough everything into place, and then we do lots of back and forth with him about how we can bring each photo to life. We have ideas, but Barry brings so much to the table in terms of his artisitc and technical vision—he knows what is possible.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: What should people expect from Valley Uprising?
PM: It’s not just a film about climbing, but about living life in this very free, present way where the focus of one’s existence is experiential, not materialistic. Most of the heroes of this film are living in dire poverty, but they are doing exactly what they want with the people they want to be with, and they are performing ground-breaking athletic achievements in the most spectacular positions one can imagine. It’s a very enriching lifestyle, one that has inspired me and affected the way I want to interact in the world.
I think it’s also neat to see the lineage of people who have been drawn to Yosemite, and when you see guys like Alex Honnold and Dean Potter scale these walls, they are not just acting alone but are part of this bigger movement and this connection to the past. I think that adds a level of meaning and enrichment to their actions.
A: Why did Peter Sarsgaard want to do the narration? Does he climb?
PM: Peter Sarsgaard is a bit of a climber, and he’s also a runner and outdoors enthusiast. He knows Alex Honnold and some of the people in the film, and I think he connects deeply with the philosophy and lifestyle behind climbing. He’s kind of a countercultural guy, if you meet him he’s not like some Hollywood star and he just naturally fits in with this whole scene.