Friday, May 27, 2016

We Are So Good

The news on social media is that we are all so good. We are winning at life. We are falling down sometimes, but in an interesting way, and we are always getting back up. We are alive. We are smiling. We are laughing with our similarly garbed, similarly featured, similarly vaguely employed peers just enjoying the vibe. There's a lake and a mountain nearby. Maybe a cabin too.

It's cool, an honor, humbling even, to be this good. We are starting up, getting down, and making it happen. Our selfie game is top-notch. We are Instagram-ready, always. Our brand is building momentum. Our Kickstarter is kicking butt, albeit in a friendly, kicky way. Our plane ticket to paradise has been bought, punched and posted up.

We still do Facebook. Of course we do. Curating a life across multiple platforms in a disarming, pleasantly aggressive way takes time. But we're grateful. Really grateful. We've learned a lot in the process and we are always hungry for more. We are so good.

In fact we are always getting better. We are winning at fun, at joy, at savoring the best life can offer. We look great while we do it and we feel even better. We are getting some and this is sweet. We love it. You love it too.

We said "Buy experiences, not things," and we bought both. We are winning. We are getting psyched. We are rich in the things that matter. We will share and we will never ever stop sharing. We always deliver.

We are liking, sharing and commenting. We are inspiring. We are telling our story. Anything is possible. We are faster, harder, keener, more aware and we feel great. We know what it is like to work hard and play harder. We believe. In ourselves. In you.

We are sending. We are humbled and grateful to be sending. We are kinda rad but we know this is just part of the process. We are working on some things. We are releasing trailers and previews. We are having a great time just being part of it all. We are refreshed.

We are having an adventure. This journey is our destination. We are going off the grid. We are getting published. We are at an event. We are part of the event. We are at the premier of a thing. We don't know what to call it. That's cool too. It's all a story. Come check it out.

We really think we are beginning to get it after all. But we're not proud. Just quietly joyful. And that's kind of cool. We are ambassadors. We are stoked. We are epic.

We're reflecting on this. What it all means. How it makes us better so we can be better lovers, friends, and residents of this great big beautiful world. We took some video. We're editing it now. We're thanking our sponsors.

We're celebrating life but we're thinking about why. We're posting something about it. It might get some likes. That's cool.

We are so good.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Why Sponsorship is such a Thing

A couple of web pieces came out recently on a topic that the print journals tend to eschew, namely the peculiar game of discussing who should be a sponsored climber. Andrew Bisharat asked what was up with media and “professional climbers” when the hyped grade turns out to not be all that?

Another post by Georgie Abel, entitled “Confessions of A Spray Queen” appeared to claim that self-generated spray was just part of the cost of doing business and certainly a number of comments on Facebook seemed to agree. Indeed the dominant influence on climbing by marketing seems inevitable by all accounts, even desirable in the eyes of many.

And yet…  I would suggest that the reason the topics of grades spray and sponsorship are so touchy is that deep down we are well aware of the arbitrary and superficial discourse that surrounds the topic. That is to say, a motion is made to defer the decisions on remuneration to companies who hope to sell products because, hey, capitalism, and the people have spoken and apparently the people want young vibrant millenials in somewhat skimpy clothing clustering at the base of a boulder at Red Rock or Bishop. Or that we are all special and everyone has a story, whether it’s on a 5.8 or a 5.15, doesn’t matter, because community, and we’re all in this together, really, bound by inspiring words on Instagram. But in the end I would argue none of this really satisfies those who are serious about the sport of climbing.

So why not? I don't hear nearly as much speculation and controversy in other sports regarding who deserves support and why. Are other sports infested with the same sense of grievance and complaint regarding compensation? It's remarkable to see this especially in relation to such a small overall pie, a pie the slices of which remain an unknown quantity owing to nondisclosure clauses in sponsor contracts, again something unheard of in real professional sports.

I'd like to suggest a few issues that climbing presents when we decide about "athlete" support, questions that are endemic to the sport if not actually unique to it. I apologize for the quote marks around "athletes" but I feel it's appropriate given the Greek etymology of the word which specifically refers to contests.

1. There is no fixed objective standard to any achievement in climbing.  Grades? At best a variable quality, grades rise up and wither away, changing from week to week, place to place, person to person. There is simply no compelling way to prove who the best climbers actually are and who is logically deserving of support. In the context of other professional sports this is insane. To succeed in major league baseball, football, etc, you must perform in public at an agreed-upon level against similarly able competitors. In climbing there is no such requirement nor are there organizations who determine who is eligible to compete in sanctioned events that would truly decide who is worthy of support. In climbing you can do what you want and if it appeals to the right set of people you can actually get paid. Crazy but true. Which leads to #2

2. There are no actual teams or governing bodies that have a set standard regarding compensation or support in relation to performance. Did you hear about The North Face "team" tryouts? Me neither. The word team is thrown around a lot but are they actual teams? No, in large part because of #1. Nobody in the climbing media would dare call out a company for sponsoring an unworthy athlete or speculate who would get cut from a "team" the way regular sports journos do. And since there is no way to determine who or what a valuable player actually is, everyone is defaulting to commercial justification for sponsorship.

3. The standard for sponsorship is increasingly social-media-oriented, which is to say presence on the big three SM platforms; Facebook, Instagram, and... well I forget, but it sure isn't Twitter. Anyway this creates big problems for people who are good at climbing but not so good at marketing. Some reply, "Well that is the new reality, that "athletes" have to be good marketers, not just, in fact not even, good climbers, because what matters to sponsors is how many shoes or raincoats or whatever can be sold thanks to that 'athlete's' influence in social media." And hey anyone can count Instagram likes or #s of video plays and tell themselves that supporting a mediocre but high-profile athlete translates into ROI. But this rapidly degenerates into #4
Sly keeping it on the reals. We've all been there though. #legday

4. Image is becoming everything. Ironically, there was a time when real climbers derided commercial attempts to represent the sport either in entertainment or advertising. Cliffhanger, the notorious 1993 movie, its title a spoof on the serial thrillers of yesteryear became notorious for its failure to mesh together Hollywood action and the world of high-level climbing. None of the climbers involved, to my knowledge, looked upon their participation in the project as reflective of the actual sport. It was a highly remunerative job and that was pretty much it. Today real climbers actively court interest in their activities by any means necessary (American Ninja Warrior anyone?) including of course relentless social media updates, designed to induce FOMO in their followers. Whether anything is actually accomplished is increasingly beside the point. Which leads to 5...

5. Image has nothing to do with athletics. Or at least it shouldn't. But sponsorship clearly has a lot more to do with image than it should. And the problem with image (and therefore sponsorship) is that we know the qualities that go into a desirable image have a lot more to do with accidental qualities like innate charisma and appearance than they do with deliberate and therefore morally laudable effort and dedication and that unfortunately in too many instance image plays into easily marketable stereotypes, especially for young women. Obviously the marketing unicorn is the climber who has both attributes but there is little doubt that the benefit of the doubt will go not to the less-attractive achiever but to the lower-achieving attractive climber. And given the lack of structure or criteria for judging achievement outside of commercial viability, that is no surprise. Money talks and everything else walks.

So in a relatively anarchic world of unjudged and unjudgeable climbing "athletes" each doing his or her own thing, with no clear path to joining the ranks of the "pros" and of course nobody saying what the actual financial reward is for any of this, it is hardly surprising to find that there is controversy regarding who deserves what, especially as any compensation involved is relatively small and hardly adequate to support a truly "professional" status. The controversy is enhanced by images of said "athletes" hard at work leading a fairly laid-back life that consists primarily, if we read Instagram correctly, of climbing what they want, where they want, when they want and how they want.

Takin' Care of Business and workin' overtime

This is not the life led by athletes in major actual professional sports. Those actual athletes lead high-pressure lives with relentless practice and travel schedules often with serious risk of degenerative disease as in the NFL, always in the public eye and always with significant risks for non-renewal owing to poor performance. To get to this place, such real athletes have endured years if not decades of specializing in their sports, beating significant odds and a host of competitors to get there. Their compensation is not just a matter of public record; it is a critical aspect of their identity. We may decry their often extraordinary salaries but we rarely dispute that they have worked remarkably hard to get there. But there is no way to get an NFL contract merely by looking good or keep said contract by having many thousands of Instagram followers. Yes lucrative endorsements may follow a winning athlete who has sufficient charisma but in real sports, charisma is never enough. You must win and win convincingly or face the risk of getting cut. And because such a thing does not exist in climbing, we wonder about the score and who is keeping it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

To Blog or Not to Blog: Is that the question?

""There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Oscar Wilde

 I have been diving deep in the waters of writer's block for the past year, in part because I have been really busy, bogged down in family, work and actually training and climbing. The other issue is deciding what's worth writing about. I tend to seek out issues of contention instead of the feel-good mode typical of most climbing media these days. It's not that climbing is not worth writing about but that the current ecosystem of magazines, videos, and social media posts is a self-reflecting pond of complacency and plenty of marketing. How to move past this to the real thing is the only interesting path to follow in my view. To cut through the noise and image seems the only goal worth pursuing.

 Truth is I don't mind marketing per se. We all need things in order to climb well. Good products deserve our support. It's the mindset that in the end the market is all that matters that is the problem. Climbing becomes a mere conduit to the market and the value of a climb is its marketability. This is giving rise to a startlingly large number of social media presences who are far more about the marketable personality and photogenics than substance. If I point this out, I will be described as a "hater" and a critic. But what's wrong with being a critic?

 Basically there is a double standard at work here. For whatever reason, someone decides to tell the world about something and how awesome it is and then there is a video or a Kickstarter, etc. The key point is that this person wants something from us. Attention, time, money, whatever. They want to be recognized for their work. I consider this kind of presentation more of an argument than a statement of fact but many are surprised that a statement regarding the excellence of something could be debatable. In the current mode of thinking a critical reaction is seen as a problem, as though somehow everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard and to benefit from it. This equality of opportunity and reward is to say the least highly debatable. Why can't we say this and debate it?

 In fact climbing used to be full of arguments and critique. Questions of style, ethics, the environment and so on filled the pages of climbing magazines and journals in the past. Granted that some of this argument was competitive bluster, nevertheless a lot of it was actually serious and very relevant to the present day, which, for the most part, sees next to no discussion in public fora on important topics in the areas mentioned above. If we factor in the deadening hand of social media which tends to flatten all too quickly the contours of a question and combine in with that a general tendency to present a cheerful and likeable social profile, suddenly there is a vacuum regarding serious discussion of serious subjects.

 This vacuum certainly exists today. If any readers can point me to people writing regularly in even a mildly polemical mode, let me know. I'm still making up my mind as to whether it's worth it. I kind of think it is but then again I'm a busy person with too much to do and not enough time or money to do it. We'll see.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reel Rock 10: A Review

Last night I caught the second showing of Reel Rock, the closest thing the climbing world has to a blockbuster release, or at least it was until Meru and Everest came out making this fall one of the busiest for climbing video in quite some time. I doubt I will ever see Meru or Everest so this will have to do.

Reel Rock is kind of a big deal here in Boulder, since it acts as a showcase not only for Big Up and Sender Films ( they are the only outfits whose work is shown at Reel Rock) but also for local and national climbing and outdoor brands, whose tables and tents I wandered by in the "vendor village" after picking up my ticket. So it's a thing for sure, especially for the increasing number of young adventurepreneurs who seem to be flocking to Boulder to feed off the outdoor media buzz the town generates.

Readers of this blog know that I have a jaundiced view about outdoor media buzz as it is, that my view is that the distance between reality and image seems only to be widening as the public's access to climbing via HD video is increased. I wasn't impressed by last year's "Valley Uprising" and wasn't planning on going to this year's Reel Rock until I was offered a ticket by a generous third-party donor. So why not? At least I would get to check out the latest style in plaid short-sleeve shirts.

After the usual sponsor shout-outs faded away in the dark cavernous interior of the Chautauqa Auditorium, the films opened with "A Line Across the Sky" which chronicled the voyage of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold across the Fitzroy massif's ridgeline. This climb was a big deal and the trailer on Youtube gives a good sense of the full movie, in fact to be honest, it's not a bad substitute for it since the vast majority of the footage is that taken by Honnold and Caldwell presumably from a Go Pro. Comedic moments from the climb dominated the full-length feature giving a bro-ey vibe to the film even as Tommy tried to explain the conflicts between high-level, potentially fatal, alpinism and the desire to be there for his family after it was all over. The fact that really nothing went wrong, the weather held and that the climbers were certainly more than equal to the task meant that any real sense of conflict, suspense or uncertainty was pretty much absent. Just a couple of guys up in the mountains having a good time.

Next up was a tribute to the recently killed Dean Potter. Again nothing that reached deeper into this man's life, just "sick" footage that most in the audience would have seen elsewhere of the usual highline, BASE jumping, soloing stuff. And then the lights came up for an intermission.

The next film "High and Mighty" was ostensibly about bouldering but what it was really about, apparently, was that bouldering is all about "manning up" and falling from way up there. Daniel Woods felt a bit like a sacrificial victim here, set up in the film as a lowball hero who finally learns the "real" way to climb from Jimmy Webb, especially after Jimmy repeats the Nalle Hukkataival V15 monster in South Africa called Livin' Large while Daniel is shown flailing on TR on the same problem.

The only problem with this plotline is that it is total BS. Daniel has plenty of gnarly highballs to his credit including Lucid Dreaming and Evolution in Bishop and Shining Path in Red Rocks. Furthermore his ascent of the Process, which is what "High and Mighty" was supposed to document, actually occurred six months before Jimmy repeated Livin' Large." Thanks to the way the film was edited, uninformed viewers would assume that Daniel, who is shown earnestly trying to master his fear of falling from the top of the Process (and no f#*king wonder) via meditating and self-help books was some kind of novice at "real" bouldering, at least as it's described by the double-artificial-hipped and multiple-concussed John Sherman.

Really, this segment upset me the most as Daniel is one of the strongest climbers in the world and has established first ascents and demolished numerous testpieces around the world. To fabricate this rivalry between Jimmy and Daniel, who are very good friends, on the basis of who can "man-up" when the occasion demands is nonsense and does a disservice to the sport of bouldering as a whole. I have discussed this with John Gill on occasion and he has made clear his impatience with the notion that bouldering needs to be dangerous to be considered worthy. Heroics were precisely what he sought to avoid back in the 50s and 60s when his most innovative problems were established. Only a later wave of boulderers sought to create a different approach, often based on the headpointing style common in Great Britain. Gill's answer to these debates? "Use a toprope." Problem is that doesn't create crazy footage or a compelling story for a general audience. Oddly the film omitted the fact that not long after Daniel's ascent, a crucial hold broke off the problem rewriting the story yet again.

In terms of actual audience response, by far the most popular was the segment about the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. The rivalry angle was played up again here between, yes him again, Alex Honnold, and the team of Nik Berry and Mason Earle as to who could get the most points/climbing done in 24 hours. Laugh-out loud funny at times, its light-hearted approach to climbing was welcome relief from the earnestness of the previous three segments.

The last piece was a short preview of the Dawn Wall ascent from this spring and not a finished film so I'll pass over it in the hopes that it will reach fruition later this year.

Overall reactions: No stand-outs, that's for sure. Upside? Lots of laughs at times which was welcome. Some excellent aerial footage in Patagonia and elsewhere. Downside? Kind of a bro-fest. Virtually no women appeared in any of the films. A few comments from Becca Caldwell, some drunken women turning up at the Horseshoe, and other assorted brief appearances but in 2015 for no women to be profiled in-depth seems a shame. Another peculiarity and maybe blame climate change, but there's a lot of night-climbing and headlamp footage and frankly that's something nobody's going to be psyched to see a lot of.

In conclusion I would like to see a climbing film collection that was much more widespread in its scope featuring other film-makers and locales. The other issue is the types of stories being told. They ultimately feel relentlessly upbeat, even awkwardly jokey when they shouldn't be, naturally triumphant at the end and in some ways profoundly unreal. Great stuff for a studio's highlight reel or a sponsor's marketing campaign but hardly a believable portrait of what it really takes to get these remarkable climbs done. It would be nice to see truly innovative film-makers emerge to take advantage of the remarkable new technologies out there but so far I haven't seen it. Maybe someday.

For more info about the 400+ locales Reel Rock is going

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death in Climbing

"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" Voltaire
The world of climbing has been in a state of shock since learning of the death of Dean Potter and his companion Graham Hunt in a BASE jumping accident near Taft Point in Yosemite last Saturday. Among other effects, this accident rapidly brought back to earth the climate of euphoria and celebration that existed in the wake of the Dawn Wall ascent in March and the movie Valley Uprising that ends with footage of bootleg BASE descents in Yosemite. Maybe climbers are revisiting hard truths about the vertical environment that cannot be easily dismissed as handwringing or timidity or obscured through redemptive fantasies of "he died doing what he loved" or the like.

The truth is that climbers become remarkably inarticulate in the face of death. Far too many use euphemisms like "passing" or even worse "transitioning" as if slamming headlong into granite at 80 mph is like switching trains or getting a new job. Others implicitly praise themselves for somehow learning something profound or growing from the death of another climber. Pseudo-mystical or poetical utterances about imagined afterlives and "happy hunting ground" scenarios abound. But the truth seems to me to lie elsewhere, away from the quasi-religious speculations and faux-Zen platitudes, the worst of which are expressed in this video interview with Dean Potter. What business a clothing manufacturer has discussing the most serious and unknowable aspect of human existence is beyond my ability to fathom but there it is.

Death is something about which we ultimately know nothing beyond our perceptions of a once-living thing now gone. In climbing it takes on a spectacular aspect because of the nature and locations of most climbing deaths. In dangerous situations climbers like to say they have "cheated death" or "escaped" it, the most foolish saying they "defied death." Death doesn't get defied or escaped, it just is, like math or physics. Climbers like to credit their will or their "mindfulness" or whatever in somehow overcoming death but it seems to me that death works in the way of most things in the universe, things that exist eventually are destroyed, dissolved, disintegrated, and obliterated. In the words of David to his son Solomon in the King James version of the Bible we "go the way of all the earth..."

Climbers have an especially hard time with death because it brings up a number of unpleasant truths we all devote considerable time and energy avoiding. Among the mot important is the fact that we do not have the level of control over ourselves and our environment that we like to pretend we do. There is a kind of selection bias involved whereby, having survived a situation, we imagine that it was because of our preparation, our courage, our choices, even our moral character when of course any number of things could have happened beyond our ability to control that would negate those factors. A climber's death is the surest evidence of the limits of this way of comprehending the world. Thus we turn away and imagine that we would never be caught in that situation ourselves, that we are somehow made of the right stuff

We also like to believe that our aesthetic responses to dangerous situations confer some kind of immunity to harm or catastrophe, or at least provide a justification for being there. As with the magical thinking described above, climbing deaths abruptly foreclose on the rapturous wonder of high places forcing the awareness of the terrible price to be paid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just because we have or believe we had certain feelings about climbing can we really claim that a violent death is justified by those feelings?

Most chillingly to me, that aesthetic feeling leads to the "he died doing what he loved" reaction, a dubious consolation at best. Climbers die hitting objects at high speeds or being hit by those objects. They die smothered in snow and ice or freezing to death. They do not expire blissfully having just completed the climb of a lifetime. Again reality is elided in favor of a fantasy best summed up by the ridiculous but oft-quoted phrase from Peter Pan: "'To die will be an awfully big adventure." This romantic Rupert Brooke-ian nonsense, which was seen often in late Victorian and Edwardian England, died a less-than-glamorous death in the muddy battlefields of the Somme and elsewhere in World War I. However it keeps popping up in the sport of climbing, a sport which in many ways finds its historical origins from that time and culture.

Climbers know deep down that their sport, which is by any rational measure, without real purpose or justification, is potentially very very dangerous. By some this is seen as a form of character-building virtue in its own right, "the moral equivalent of war" as the founder of Outward Bound Kurt Hahn quoted William James. I am skeptical of the extension of this to climbing, not least because there is no moral equivalent of war, war lacking any morality in the first place. Arguing for climbing as a morally virtuous activity because of its danger ignores the very real consequences of that danger and its largely amoral component. The serac doesn't care when it falls, the loose hold merely breaks when it's pulled on. Just because climbers might project a psychological or moral structure to their activities hardly necessitates that such a state actually exists in reality.

Too many authors to count have commented on the fundamentally amoral aspects of combat. From the beginnings of Western literature with Homer' s Iliad and Odyssey, we see the first-hand accounts of those who were there emphasizing not glory or redemption but confusion, disaster, decay and misery. Knowledgeable climbers know that the same applies to climbing accidents yet the same tropes are pulled out to justify what we do: the aesthetic response, the joy, the intensity, the bonds of friendship ("we happy few, we band of brothers" to quote Shakespeare) the claims to heightened awareness, the "carpe diem" BS that clogs online climbing forums every day.

Particularly frustrating is the fact that at least in part this is used in the service of commercial interests, a game that Dean was forced to some degree to play to remain a professional climber. Are words like "risk" and "extreme" just euphemisms for "potentially deadly," euphemisms that are used to sell a vicarious adrenalin rush to an uncritical audience? Should we be thinking more clearly whether the vision of sports sold by Red Bull, to take the most egregious example, is really worth supporting? As long as we stay in denial about the realities of death and dying in climbing apparently the answer is yes.

So how should we respond to climbing deaths? In my view, we do best by acknowledging the truth about them, that they are ugly, they are real and to some extent unavoidable, simply statistically unavoidable since we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. We should also acknowledge the possibility that there is really only loss to the survivors, that trying to create redemption in fantastic or magical thinking only denies the truth of someone's death. If the climber or climber's family was deeply religious, that is their business and not the concern of those outside that close circle. We should certainly not try to fit a climber's death into a preconceived idea about how or why climbing should be practiced. Nor should we be fatalistic about climbing deaths, overly accepting of them. They are as mentioned above, unnecessary, ugly and devastating. If we learn from them, it should be on the most humble terms possible, acknowledging and honoring the sacrifice of life above all.

I still think it was best expressed by the survivor of one of the most notorious climbing accidents of all time, Edward Whymper: "Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” What the end might be for each of us is unknown but I think we would do well to consider it deeply from time to time. In the words of John Donne, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Valley Uprising: A Review

Some months after the Boulder premiere of Reel Rock 9's feature film "Valley Uprising" I was finally able to view it. It played to sold-out crowds here in Boulder and generally the reaction to the film that I heard was favorable. At least two other bloggers were given advance viewing (I wasn't invited or given access to the film before or after its release) and they were a bit more skeptical, with Andrew Bisharat decrying the nostalgia aspect of Stonemaster-oriented media and Wesley Summers noting, quite accurately, that the film consists largely of deftly recycled visual material from earlier productions.

I knew from the trailer I would have a skeptical response and not being a member of the inner circle of the climbing world has its advantages in this respect. I have the freedom to step outside what has become a very self-celebratory scene and give an honest opinion and appraisal of its products. Because of the serious scope of the project, I think this film deserves a serious and more objective view.

I think a lot of this self-celebratory tendency is revealed in the reactions to "Valley Uprising" which is a historical survey of climbing in Yosemite Valley from roughly the late 1950s up to the present. While its main audience is intended to be climbers, there are nods to a general audience, not least in its paradoxical title which hints at rebellion and unorthodoxy, which is of course a staple of mainstream corporate marketing these days. In aiming at this broader audience however, something important is being lost.

"Valley Uprising" is organized into three main eras defined by (more or less) the leading personalities of the day. This lends itself to broad generalizations and myth-making as occurs in the case especially of Royal Robbins and Warren Harding and the Dawn Wall episode. Harding died in 2002 and while I am sure he would have thought this film project amusing, I doubt we are given a clear picture of his personality which seemed above all to be that of a regular working Joe with a penchant for suffering. Robbins, who I talked with after the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, was a genuinely creative and highly motivated climber whose greatest hour might not have even been the famous Salathe Wall but the unmentioned North America Wall, an ascent which ushered in the great age of El Cap's right-side A4 and A5 horror shows.

The era of the Stonemasters is complicated by the absence of Charlie Porter, again recently deceased, who reshaped the future of El Cap with routes like Mescalito, Tangerine Trip, The Shield and the well-traveled Zodiac and possibly just as important, Ray Jardine, whose redefinition of style and method ushered in the era of hard free climbing and whose "experimentation" on the Nose facilitated the free ascent by Lynn Hill. Both individuals seemed never to have been embedded in the Valley scene and Jardine in particular was viewed with considerable suspicion because of his "hangdogging" and willingness to work routes initially too hard for him.

The star of this period is of course Jim Bridwell but even more so the air of rebellion and counterculture embraced by Bridwell and his followers. Part of this of course was linked with the popularity of drug use at the time but it is telling that in interviews with climbers from the time, it is clear that in the only actual "uprising" from this time, the Stoneman Meadow riots of 1970, climbers stayed conspicuously away from the action. The only net result of this conflict was apparently a tighter presence of law enforcement, something the resident climbers would have been anxious to avoid. This supertopo discussion fills in the story from the climbers' side and makes clear that this non-climber related incident really changed the dynamic between park officials and climbers, a dynamic that remained in place well into the 90s when the demographics of climbing began to change and it became more mainstream. In the end the movie fails to flesh out the fuller picture as to why rangers have to do the job they do. Climbers are described as somehow special, above the law by virtue of being climbers, not realizing that without laws, without "the man," the park would not exist at all. It is certainly naive to imagine that because you can climb a big wall, you should have free run in a beautiful place a few hours drive from a major city.

(This PBS documentary gives some background on the job of a ranger and what rangers were thinking of their jobs in the mid-1980s. A persistent theme of rangers not wanting to be cops emerges.

This supertopo discussion has more on the theme of rangers and climbers. Needless to say it's a popular topic but the advice of the majority of commenters is keep your head low and don't break the law. Not exactly the stuff that's going to entertain audiences. )

More important is how the rebellion theme basically overlooks hugely important things like, say, climbing. So the free-climbing achievements of Ray Jardine are not mentioned, Ron Kauk's achievements are overlooked, though his routes are critical for the time and at the tail end of this time, the incredible achievement of the Salathe Wall being climbed free is not even mentioned. The exploratory efforts of Mark Hudon and Max Jones aren't mentioned either. Henry Barber, definitely not a rebel, is ignored. Instead it is the familiar narrative of John Bachar, super soloist, which brings up another issue.

It is remarkable how much of this film features recycled footage from films that many many viewers will be familiar with. TV show such as American Sportsman, Wide World of Sports and excerpts from Masters of Stone videos abound, not to mention standbys such as "El Capitan" by Glen Denny. Interspersed with the special-effects altered still photos from this era, the visuals add to an overall patchwork/collage effect and serve to undermine a bigger sense of visual or directorial unity. In an extreme example of this, a voice-over describes the first ascent of Half Dome's NW face while footage and pictures of El Cap are shown. To a non-climber none of this matters, I suppose, but it reveals the degree to which the vibe of the story outweighs actual accuracy.

This is echoed, so to speak by the interviews which are mostly choppy and extravagantly larded with profanity, perhaps to emphasize that the greying and paunchy men you now see were once upon a time actual masters of the universe who could stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of their hands. It seems to me that bourgeois middle-aged guy profanity should be reserved for times like hitting your thumb with a hammer or drinking with your friends, not films where families and kids might be present. But I digress.

That is why it is such a breath of fresh air to see and hear Lynn Hill, one of the few real survivors from this period (along with Peter Croft who, you guessed it, isn't mentioned.) Lynn Hill has remained a serious climber in a way unmatched by virtually all of her contemporaries and there is a certain wry wisdom in her words as she dissects the testosterone and posturing of the male peacocks of Camp 4. One wishes there was a lot more from the women of this time, especially regarding the pretensions of the male-dominated scene, but unfortunately we are left wondering how they fit in.

The film closes on the more-or-less present where the Stone Masters are replaced by the Stone Monkeys. Setting aside the issue as to whether such a group ever had the status of the Stonemasters, these individuals lack the historical distance and gravitas of their seniors and for them is reserved the indignity of hiding out in dank caves as opposed to the luxury of endless weeks in a restriction-free Camp 4. There is something very reflective of the general economic picture for young people these days but that is not developed very much, if at all. Dean Potter, who blew the lid off speed climbing The Nose, is the patron saint of these climbers, climbers who increasingly are mixing walls and vertical mediums, especially the medium of BASE jumping.

By far the best scenes in the film are the contraband BASE jumps. The blather with escaping rangers etc. is neither here nor there. Obviously BASE jumping in the Valley needs to be prohibited or it would be a nightmare on many levels. But for cinematic appeal, there is no doubt that a GoPro view of tunneling through groves of pine trees at high speed beats the heck out of crawling up granite walls, even if you are watching Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. However the history of BASE jumping goes way back, well before the present day. Ray Jardine has an intriguing mention of hang-gliding into the Valley on his website.

And speaking of Alex Honnold, those in the know will savor the irony of watching America's best known (and very lucratively sponsored) climber living the simple life, driving into the Valley, and punching in at the entrance station, before heading off for another day of hair-raising soloing. You have to wonder if only Alex can afford to live a pure climbing lifestyle, unlike Chongo Chuck or the other cave-dwelling ne'er-do-wells. He and Tommy Caldwell, who, along with Kevin Jorgeson recently (yesterday, just Google it) freed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, are the new face of Valley climbing, about as far from rebellion as it gets. The only people I have seen that were upset by Tommy Caldwell's work on the Dawn Wall for example were some querulous SuperTopo residents warbling about whether there were too many added bolts on the formerly aided sections, a ludicrous question but one that periodically reappears.

In a nutshell, I'd argue that the rebellions contained within the history of Yosemite climbing were largely internal, fueled by the prosperity of the American empire and in no meaningful way offering real alternatives to that empire's triumphant vision of capitalism and materialism. The fact that a significant number of the stars of the 60s and 70s went on to establish very successful businesses of their own speaks to this. The true rebels such as Chuck Pratt or Charlie Porter again are mostly left out of the picture. Even more troubling is the degree to which the Native American presence is written out of the history of the Valley. As the original inhabitants and shapers of the landscape of the valley floor, they deserve some time in the film.

Valley Uprising is an uneasy mix of celebration and history that in the end, for better or worse, may stand as the last word on the subject, at least in terms of video, for some time. However it would be really helpful if there was more conversation about the degree to which this film clarifies or distorts the history of this critical period in world climbing. The film is a serious document that is worth a serious discussion at some point soon.

Valley Uprising is available via DVD and download at Sender Films