New Film Valley Uprising Depicts a Colorful Slice of Yosemite Climbing History

Yosemite explodes at the seams with rich climbing lore. The towering granite walls of Half Dome and El Capitan attract rock monkeys like moths to flame, and any cragsman worth his sauce knows that legends are made here. Now 60 years of Yosemite’s climbing history—and its colorful tapestry of bold dirtbags and outlaws—come to life in Valley Uprising, a new release by Sender Films screening on the Reel Rock Tour in more than 450 cities worldwide.

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

This highly anticipated film premiered last weekend in Boulder, Colorado, unveiling a labor of love seven years in the making. It artistically chronicles three generations of climbers in Yosemite, weaving together stories of counterculture, rebels, rivalries, epics, and unfathomable feats of bravery.

To capture this history, the filmmakers conducted dozens of interviews and excavated hundreds of archived relics from moldy boxes in remote basements. The result is a creative combination of historic images, re-enacted scenes, present-day interviews with legendary climbers, and modern footage. Mesmerizing 2.5-D animation brings faded photos to life, depicting a palpable journey that jumps off the screen until you can practically smell campfire smoke and feel the sun’s hot rays pulsing off the towering rocks.

Camp 4 in 1968; Photograph by Glen Denny
Camp 4 in 1968; Photograph by Glen Denny

We learn of dirtbag pioneers who figured out how to scale Yosemite’s walls for the first time in the Golden Age of 1955-70. Next come the Stonemasters, whose wild, drug-infused antics spurred a free climbing revolution from 1973-80. The final chapter depicts the Stone Monkey era (1998-present) of super hero-like feats, including free-soloing speed records and the infiltration of high-lining and BASE jumping to the scene.

The film moves at a fast pace, providing context of American cultural trends alongside the evolution of Yosemite climbing. Contributing to an edgy feel, the compelling soundtrack peaks with the hypnotic notes of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, amidst tales of climbers dropping acid for ascents. The brilliantly scripted narrative is captivating. I found myself basking in the glow of each sentence, wishing I linger on the eloquent phrasing.

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

The common theme through all of the generations is the free-spirited nature of the climbing culture, with rebellious characters who thumb their noses at authority, run from park rangers, and stop at nothing to be bolder, climb higher, and devise creative ways to push the boundaries of adventure.

As I watched the film, I found myself engrossed in the determination of each generation—and sad each time an era petered out. I was pulling for these free spirits and wanted their illicit freedom to continue forever. Yet time’s ephemeral nature is precisely what makes it so special. Just like every day or every climb up a rock face is a series of moments that can never occur exactly the same way again, so flows the evolution of cultures living at the base of Yosemite’s towering walls.

Naysayers might grumble that the film leaves out important characters and details. This gripe fails to recognize that Valley Uprising is not intended to depict a comprehensive history of Yosemite climbing. “This is our story of three generations of Yosemite climbers,” stresses Nick Rosen, one of the film’s creators. “Doing the story justice was the most challenging aspect of making the film. It was really humbling.”

This was an ambitious endeavor, and it brilliantly succeeds in providing a riveting glimpse into the world of climbing and the inspiring daredevils who have shaped the sport. No doubt this film appeals to both hard-core climbers and a broader audience. I recommend it as a must-see for anyone who embraces the spirit of adventure.

In the coming months, Valley Uprising is screening in more than 450 cities worldwide. Find a show near you.

Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.