Ten Years Later, REEL ROCK Tour Still Brings Climbing Films to Climbers, But Aims Beyond

Daniel Woods ont he "High Ball" Boulder problem the Process, Bishop, California; Photograph by MAX KRIMMER
Daniel Woods on the “High Ball” Boulder problem the Process, Bishop, California; Photograph by MAX KRIMMER

The old saying that if there’s no camera, it didn’t happen, is especially true for climbing. Unlike traditional sports, in climbing there are no stadiums filled with a cheering audience, and “playing fields” are located in mountain wildernesses.

“The big challenge for us has been to capture these incredible accomplishments and to figure out how to do justice to these stories and share them with the world,” says Josh Lowell, of Big Up Productions, and cofounder of the REEL ROCK Tour, an annual worldwide tour of climbing films. “We think these climbs and climbers deserve to be celebrated.”

Lowell and his fellow filmmaker and REEL ROCK co-founder, Pete Mortimer, of Sender Films, have arguably done more to communicate the sport of climbing to a wide audience than anyone else. Now in its tenth year, the REEL ROCK Tour continues to stay true to its mission of making films that capture the most cutting-edge climbs and climbers.

REEL ROCK 10 features five films that speak to what a diverse sport climbing is, from the grueling alpinism captured in A Line Across the Sky, a short film about Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitz Roy massif in Patagonia, Argentina—an ascent that earned the duo recognition as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year—to the highball bouldering exploits of Daniel Woods in High & Mighty, to Horseshoe Hell, a gonzo documentary of the namesake annual 24-hour climbing competition in Arkansas. A preview of the upcoming feature-length film on the Dawn Wall, as well as a short tribute to the late Dean Potter, a star in many previous REEL ROCK films, round out the line-up.

[Read “How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, Flying.”]

“The REEL ROCK films have evolved a lot over the years,” says Lowell. “People come to REEL ROCK for a cinematic experience, not just some cool-looking action footage.”

In its first year, 2006, REEL ROCK played in around 40 venues. This year, there are nearly 500 shows already booked around the world. The premiere, at the 1,300-person Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado, was sold out both nights on September 17-18.

We caught up with Pete Mortimer to hear his thoughts about the state of climbing media after a decade of REEL ROCK.

What was the original inspiration behind REEL ROCK?
Years ago, each time Josh and I would finish a film, we’d scramble to put screenings together. The shows were successful and were always a great way for people to watch these movies with the community vibe, but they were a drag to organize. When we talked about doing a tour together, combining resources, sponsors and a team to run it, it was just like, ding ding, no brainer.

Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park; Photograph by Brett Lowell
Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite National Park; Photograph by Brett Lowell

What would you say each other’s strengths or weaknesses are as filmmakers, editors, producers?
Josh and I have always complemented each other well, even going back to the original films. Josh’s movies focused more on core climbing; artistically shot; big ascents of mostly bouldering and sport climbing. Mine were more scrappy, trying to be funny, looking for the outcast characters and with a focus on trad climbing.

Josh is a perfectionist, detail-oriented, amazing at the craft of shooting, editing and all the aspects of filmmaking. And I am more of a big-picture, throw-out-ideas-and-see-what-sticks person. I think we also both really respect each other and trust each other’s instincts, and we have a healthy, constructively critical back-and-forth that extends to Nick Rosen, Zac Barr, and other members of our creative team.

Over the last 20+ years, there has been a huge evolution in the way people view films, particularly niche climbing films: VHS to DVD distribution; early experimentations with online subscription models; free Vimeo/YouTube viral distribution. How does the REEL ROCK TOUR fit within this spectrum?
We need to have bigger stories than what you see online, and we are adamant that our films premiere on REEL ROCK. I never want people sitting in a theater paying money to watch something that they saw on YouTube. If we are going to show these movies in theaters, the films need to feel appropriate to the medium, so they need to be big, exciting, funny. We like when the audience gets engaged with cheering, laughing and palms sweating.

How do you choose which stories to tell each year?
We follow 10-15 stories each year and, as you know with climbing, so many dreams fall apart, or take years to come to fruition, so the films on the tour are often projects that have been in the works for years (for example, the Dawn Wall).

We like to represent with alpine, bouldering, and everything in between; with old characters, young, men, women, etc. But in the end, whatever we think are the best stories that we can tell well are the ones that make it on the tour.

A climber competing at the 24 hours of Horseshoe Hell; Photograph by Josh Beecher
A climber competing at the 24 hours of Horseshoe Hell; Photograph by Josh Beecher

Last year, REEL ROCK showed just one feature-length film: Valley Uprising. This year returns to a hodgepodge of short stories. Which format do you think is more successful?
I think both. REEL ROCK 2 premiered King Lines, which was one of our more successful films, but many of our shorts, like The Swiss Machine, Alone on the Wall, and Race for the Nose have also done well. As long as the content is engaging, both shorts and features can play well. I have found that it’s quite hard for us to make a satisfying film that is shorter than 15 or 20 minutes, because it just takes that much time to get the audience into the story.

Over the last 10 years, is there a film that stands out to you personally?
For me it’s Valley Uprising because I feel it’s our most complete film yet. I think the production quality and the deeper themes we tapped into with that film were more meaningful than what we’ve accomplished with the shorter pieces. I hope it will be something people watch 20 years from now.

REEL ROCK has always aspired to reach an audience beyond climbing’s core. How does it feel to play a role in making climbing more “mainstream”?
Since the beginning, we’ve tried to be a bridge between the core and the mainstream. We live in this climbing world, we are passionate about the sport, and we can tell the stories from an insider perspective and find those new characters that emerge from within the climbing world.

But we want to tell the stories in a way that non-climbers can connect with by building up the objectives, showing what they have to go through to achieve them, and filming in a way that engages you in the actual climb.

We’ve found that a fair number of media people come to our various REEL ROCK shows and see these characters and then go on to tell their stories on a bigger platform. For example, with Alex Honnold, Alone on the Wall is still a core piece that climbers can be proud of, while the 60 Minutes episode is perhaps a bit goofy in spots to the core.

What themes do you look for?
When you have a seemingly insurmountable objective, and people who will risk or sacrifice everything to achieve it, that helps a lot. We shoot in the most spectacular locations in the world, and audiences love seeing people in these wild locations performing trying their hardest or sleeping on the side of some cliff or mountain wall. With all our best films, audiences laugh, they encourage, they cheer, and their palms sweat—and those elements are there naturally in so many climbing stories.

Some critics say that the constant presence of cameras and film crews has somehow diminished the true spirit of adventure in climbing. Thoughts?
Gosh, I hope cameras aren’t sucking the life out of climbing!

Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell on the on the Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia, Argentina; Photograph by Austin Siadak
Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell on the on the Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia, Argentina; Photograph by Austin Siadak

What’s your favorite film this year?
A Line Across the Sky, because it’s so unique in what they did and captured, and it’s the most fully developed story.

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