The 8th annual REEL Rock Film Tour, which kicks off tonight in Boulder, includes stories that push beyond the state-of-the-art climbing and that showcase a historic look into the sport’s not so distant past. Sender Films adventure movie makers Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer, and Nick Rosen will roll out four new exciting documentaries that will nurture fans’ highest aspirations to ascend big walls and high alpine summits around the world.
“We always have our eye on something bigger and better. It’s a challenge every year to one-up ourselves. It’s like being a professional rock climber,” Rosen said in an interview on the eve of the REEL Rock premiere. “We try to make compelling films about cutting-edge climbing, but we also tell stories about relationships and the real people who give us a look into their lives.”
Set in a few of the most beautiful and remote locations on Earth, the four new Reel Rock films deliver narratives that are surprisingly accessible. Featuring both beginning and master climbers, the stories welcome viewers to experience the athletes’ highs and lows as they wrestle against an unforgiving natural landscape as well as their own limitations.
In the opening frames of the first film The Sensei, Japanese rock climbing sensation Yuji Hirayama battles an epic problem. On un-ascended route on Mount Kinabalu, an overhanging line at 13,000 feet in the misty wind-swept crags of Borneo repeatedly defies the talents and skills of this seasoned master. But when a young apprentice appears on the scene, Yuji gets a fresh perspective on the raw passion and determination of an aspiring climber at the very dawn of his career.
“It was frightening to see the pure strength this kid has,” Yuji says in subtitled translation. “He’s like a raw gemstone that hasn’t been polished.”
Seeing plenty of potential in this emerging protege, Yuji takes American sport climber Daniel Woods under his wing. Though incredibly strong and capable, Woods is relatively inexperienced and has a lot to learn. And in an unapologetic homage to Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (1984), the eager and impressionable Daniel-san has a few things to teach his teacher. “Wait for the right moment. Analyze what you’re doing and just be patient,” Woods says in the film recounting his lessons. “Yuji’s the Sensei. He’s like Mr. Miyagi.”
Another talented young climber takes center stage in the second film from Sender. Spice Girl is the tale of an unlikely hero in the hardscrabble world of British trad climbing. Known for its ridiculously poor surface conditions and truly scary routes that are nearly impossible to protect, climbing in Great Britain is not for the faint of heart. In a region that requires courage above all else and the balls to persevere against gut-wrenching fear, Hazel Findlay is a rising star among bold climbers prepared to take a hard fall on sketchy gear that’s unlikely to hold.
A small blonde lass of 23, FIndlay isn’t especially powerful as a climber, but she is infinitely brave and takes on the most difficult and unpredictable climbing conditions in the world. As she ascends routes with holds that seem to explode with devastating force in her hands she finds joy in the challenge of testing her wits against the uncertain rocks and wonders why more women don’t take on more scary climbing projects.
“It’s seems that given our biology we’ll never be as strong as men,” she says. But there’s no reason why we can’t be as bold as men, why we can’t be as emotionally strong as men.”
With a tenacious spirit Findlay is convinced she can climb anywhere to take on the most daunting challenges imaginable no matter how spicy. Partnering with professional sport climber Emily Harrington in the film she puts that notion to test as they travel to Marrakech Morocco where they ascend an 18-pitch slab route called Babel.
In an extended view of the upcoming feature film Valley Uprising, the REEL Rock Film Tour offers a sneak peak at the middle era of Yosemite climbing. Audiences will be treated to a short segment of the second episode due out in 2014 called The Stone Masters. Set in the 1970s this portion of the movie depicts the exciting life and times of Yosemite’s Camp 4 residents who were the pioneers of modern rock climbing. Including legendary figures like John Long, Ron Kauk, and Lynn Hill The Stone Masters led the way for the dynamic evolution of the sport to introduce free-soloing as well as the transient existence of the dirtbag climber. Steeped in the counter culture of the time this group of rebels defined a lifestyle that revolved intimately around rock climbing and stood in direct defiance of the authorities that tried to control them.
Unfortunately The Stone Masters will only give audiences the smallest taste of the incredible documentary that promises to be the highlight of 2014’s adventure films. As one of the many historical accounts of Yosemite climbing culture through the years the REEL Rock presentation focuses on the little known story of a Colombian cargo plane full of marijuana that crash lands in the backcountry near the Valley. In a mad rush to claim a few hundred bails of pot the climbers enjoy a sudden windfall of cash in a comical confirmation of their whimsical life in pursuit of a good time getting high on the rocks and, well, other things.
Remarkable true events can sometimes overtake the intended subject of a movie project in progress. Though Sender Films had originally intended to capture a historic ascent of Mount Everest by the Swiss Machine Ueli Steck circumstance spiraled completely out of control when he and fellow climber Simone Moro suddenly found themselves in a heated argument that came to blows at 20,000 feet. The resulting film High Tension became instead a serious look into the consequences of using fighting words on an expedition and the hostilities that can bubble to the surface of long standing relationships between western climbers and the Sherpa people who make their mountaineering ambitions possible.
The fight that broke out at Camp 2 on Everest made international news and the guys at Sender were faced with the incredible challenge of telling a very complicated story. Popular opinion suggested that the climbers were arrogant in their approach to the summit and likely brought the wrath of the Sherpa people upon themselves.
“It was a daunting task to tell a story that had just broken that was complex and controversial,” said Rosen.
“It was a terrible thing that happened up there. This was a huge story internationally but it was also beset with confusion and false information. We thought it was really unfair and based on a lot of misconception. We worked really hard to create the film and do justice to the truth of what happened.”
Rosen and his producers conducted many hours of interviews with professional climbers and noted cultural experts to put the events on Everest into proper context. Their goal was to tell a well-balanced and insightful story that might help audiences better understand what happened from the perspective of everyone involved.
“I didn’t know how stuff was going to play. You have to be fair but you also have to hit where people deserve it,” Rosen said. “There was a lot of tension and everyone was working toward a resolution. And when the film started we had no idea what that resolution would be.”
Viewers of the film are free to draw their own conclusions with a better command of the facts. With neither heroes nor villains in the narrative Sender offers an objective account that would rival the reporting of any major news organization. But at the same time they hold true to their primary mission of quality storytelling.
And as in each of the movies in the REEL Rock Film Tour, the audience will come away having experienced a real life adventure hopefully inspired to seek out equally compelling experiences of their own.
The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the generous support of MAKO Surgical Corp. (http://www.makosurgical.com/)