It would be pretty much impossible to tell the story of Yosemite rock climbing in a single documentary. So from the outset of his latest project Sender Films producer Nick Rosen didn’t bother to try. Instead his forthcoming movie Valley Uprising will focus on the overriding themes that thread their way through the lives and times of three generations of big wall alpinists who set the pace of vertical ascents that the rest of the world would follow. In a comprehensive view of these pivotal eras that span more than 60 years of adventure in Yosemite Valley, this epic feature offers up an unprecedented look into the culture that has defined a elusive and often misunderstood sport practiced by unique characters whose personalities defy description and certainly convention.
Much of the storytelling behind this sweeping epic Rosen said “centers around these very esoteric climbing ethics the require their own tenuous explanation,” he told me in an interview. “And then when you’re putting three generations of that together and then also layer on top of that these much bigger themes of this counter-culture spirit in Yosemite climbers and adventure sports and then there’s this conflict of the microcosm that happens with the park rangers of Yosemite. All that stuff is a lot to try to weave into a single film and have it be a coherent single piece.”
Let’s just say it’s complicated. Following in the path of filmmakers like Stacey Peralta who brought the world of big wave surfing to life in Riding Giants Rosen shares in Valley Uprising more of the nuanced elements of a society that to many is foreign and completely unfamiliar.
“It’s even more analogous in its storytelling style to his other film Dog Town and Z-Boys, which is very much about counter-culture,” Rosen said. “(Valley Uprising) is about the conflicts between climbers and with society at large and how the broader trends of society are impacting on this little climbing world in Yosemite Valley. And how Yosemite Valley impacts the world of climbing.”
Rosen pulls together some compelling story lines that reflect much of the history that to many modern climbers has become legend. Going back to the middle of the last century Valley Uprising traces the journey of men and women who pushed the boundaries of contemporary morays to stand tall against the establishment, whatever it might be at the time.
Starting from the earliest days of big wall climbing of Yosemite’s Golden Age in the 1950s and 60s Valley Uprising tells the stories of noted pioneers like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chinourd and Warren Harding. These men of the beatnik generation who Rosen describes as “Jack Karouak reading wild men” began a rebellious tradition of venturing into Yosemite in order to escape the provincial trappings of a monotonous life isolate within the confines of American suburbs. These climbers set in motion the adventure lifestyle that for many continues today. Rosen then follows the era of the Stone Masters through the 70s and 80s that included characters like Ron Kauk, Lynn Hill, Jim Bridwell and John Long. Despite the drug fueled haze of the time these climbers pushed the envelope of athletic performance with the advent of free solo climbing and the creation of sport routes that might have seemed impossible to ascend just 20 years earlier.
It’s these phases of dramatic innovation that mark each significant change in the fundamental nature of the sport. And within the context of these cultural shifts Rosen delivers a story arch that spans the Yosemite climbing scene all the way up to the present day.
“We were keenly aware that when we started this film a long time ago that since the Stone Masters there really hadn’t been a big critical mass scene of climbers that were producing big shifts in climbing performance across all sorts of disciplines until the late 90s when these guys the Stone Monkeys started to come in,” Rosen said. “These were the guys led by Dean Potter, Ivo Ninov, Ammon McNeely, Cedar Wright and Renan Ozturk. These guys that were really living the dirtbag lifestyle, hiding in caves, really in conflict with the rangers as never before.”
This latest generation of climbers represent the modern figures so widely admired by aspiring adventurers who visit the Valley today. Their exploits prompted the rise of notable young climbers like Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Daniel Woods and Sasha DiGiulian who regularly appear in popular videos and sport climbing competitions all over the world. But Rosen said that through the long process of creating his film much of the endemic culture of Yosemite climbing, the core scene of athletes gathered together that had inspired the careers of so many, has died off.
“I just got back from the Valley and you don’t see the same scene as when we started the film, not even remotely,” he told me. “In fact you just see an emptiness. Where there used to be a dozen guys hanging around the slack line in Chongo’s office you see zero people. Zero!”
Due to a heighten vigilance on the part of the National Park Service there are no longer big groups of climbers who take up residence in Yosemite throughout each season. Long time Camp 4 fixture Charles Victor Tucker III (AKA Chongo), an expert on big wall climbing, but considered by many to be a homeless person, had been summarily evicted from the Park, charged with vagrancy. Outlaw alpinists that defy the authority of rangers and camp out-of-bounds are now things of the past.
“The way that the Stone Monkeys were able to survive in the face of these enforced camping limits was sleeping illegally in the boulders and having illegal camp sites,” Rosen said. “That’s now a pretty tricky thing to pull off. These guys (the rangers) have good communications systems, night vision goggles, they know where are the camp sites are. They know where the caves are. They regularly police in the high season.”
That long-standing tension between rangers and climbers helped to shape the illicit culture of the Valley throughout the years. But today as younger men and women come to climb the granite walls of El Capitan, Half Dome and Washington Column they arrive without the support of local mentors who once showed them the underground ways of Yosemite climbing. And while Rosen laments the loss of this particular aspect of life in the Valley he wishes the Park Service would share its perspective on the issue and lend their comments to the discussion and his film. Rosen admits there’s something missing in the story.
“It definitely hurts the film, but it hurts them as well. Sure we take the climber perspective but we’re not dogmatic. We understand the rationality of the policy of things like the camping limits. I totally get it,” Rosen said. “There are 4 million visitors to the park and you have a mandate to provide access and to protect Yosemite National Park and there’s just not that much space. So I would be happy for them to articulate that and not use that against them. But it doesn’t seem like they get it from a PR stand point. They just want this to shrivel up and die.”
But without a doubt Yosemite climbing will go on. Celebrity athletes continue to make names for themselves despite this latest cultural shift.
“Alex Honnold says ‘who cares’. You don’t need a counter-culture. You just need to go and climb all the time,” Rosen said. “It’s kind of true. These guys aren’t spending a lot of time on the valley floor. They’re up their pushing it. They’re climbing. That’s a pretty good way to stay out of trouble. Instead of sitting by the campfire with Jim Bridwell and asking about the gear beta on the Pacific Ocean Wall so you can go try that, you’re emailing your mentors and looking at Super Topo online.”
The film Valley Uprising marks the end perhaps of a long era defined by the antics of guileless rebels in search of adventure. Today as most new climbers cut their teeth on plastic rock in climbing gyms and learn critical route information over the Internet that original wave of enthusiasm inspired more than 60 years ago ripples through to the present. And though the day of the outlaw big wall climber may well be in the past Rosen hopes that this 9th edition of the Reel Rock Film Tour which premieres in the Fall will inspire a new generation to find what culture they can and build a Yosemite dream all of their own.
“Our hope is that this will be a clarion call to people to go and try. Or just to go to Yosemite and experience whatever version that is available for you,” Rosen said. “The very last shot in the film is very much a fist in the air to say that the outlaw spirit of Yosemite is not dead. It’s still there.”