Saturday, July 31, 2010

David Lama and Cerro Torre

Red Bull can found in Upper Chaos Canyon, July 2010

One of the most interesting debates raging in the climbing community right now is the issue of Austrian climber David Lama's attempt to free climb Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Lama's sponsor agreed to underwrite the trip but wanted a high-production value film out of it. The quick summary is that in the effort to make a film of the climb, a team of guides added extra bolts  to safeguard the film crew and ultimately abandoned a fair amount of gear on the mountain. The initial story is best read in this article from

Recently Lama, no doubt after prompting from Red Bull, issued a statement which if anything only aggravated the situation more. Primarily, as far as I can tell, Lama was unrepentant about one central point. "Bolts or no bolts, for many the controversy lies in whether or not someone should even attempt a production like ours on such a mountain. That question is what divides climbers. Film projects and photo shootings will always be a part of professional climbing and with that also a part of my life." This naturally leads to a question which is what is the point of climbing media of this type? Today climbing video and photography are increasingly available for free to a degree that I would never have believed possible when I was a teenager. And for the most part, I think it's OK. But I am wondering why there isn't more emphasis on environmental preservation, especially when a great deal of the media being produced is repetitious depictions of climbs that are neither new nor intrinsically interesting. I have reviewed a number of videos on this blog and increasingly find myself bored by those that focus on physcial action, such as sport climbing or bouldering. That was interesting for its own sake in the 80s and 90s when climbing was changing radically. Now that type of climbing is commonplace. Nobody cares about, say, video of Hueco Tanks, unless it tells an interesting story or in some way brings an important new angle to the place.

My feeling is that so-called "adventure climbing" is in much the same spot, that in the end nobody will care if Lama free climbs Cerro Torre, just as at this point another free ascent of El Cap is ho-hum. Climbing media as a platform for sponsor promotion is going down a similar road. Adrenalin rushes and spectacular scenery are a short-term fix and as the media becomes more disposable, the environment can only suffer collateral damage in the process. As the priority shifts from the climb to the film, clearly something is being lost. In chasing an image, we are looking at ourselves in the mirror and ignoring the self within and the world outside.


kt said...

I agree completely with the direction climbing films need to take. The most memorable I've seen over the last couple of years all have good doses of the human element, along with great camera work and angles. E11 was the first climbing film where we got to see the struggle and commitment off the rock, and were shown that some top-level climbers actually have relationships, homes, "lives." King Lines represented an evolution for Big Up away from simple climbing "porn" to the backstory, to a more emotional content. Lesser known films Blood, Sweat and Bagels and The Asgard Project are great examples of what you seem to be saying. Do we care if Leo Houlding pulls off his project on Baffin Island or two strong UK climbers send the Salathe? Not really. But the incredible camera work that puts us right there on these huge walls, and the high emotional content make these films stand out. Finally worth mentioning is The Season series released this year by Fitz Cahall, which is all about the passion and the drive and mostly non-pro levels.

To me, these all represent movement toward the future of climbing media.

Peter Beal said...

Great comment and thanks for the film suggestions!

Anonymous said...

" But I am wondering why there isn't more emphasis on environmental preservation..."

Probably because emphasizing environmental preservation in a film production isn't compatible with flying half-way around the world to produce it. Note the Belgian team who sailed to Greenland, partially out of the desire to make a statement about green travel.

Drilling bolts in a rock, especially one as festooned with them as Cerro Torre already is, only matters to climbers with misplaced environmental priorities, not to the environment itself. The carbon footprint of jet travel created by flying trans-continentally to climb (and by those who contribute to expedition grants that enable it) places this activity high on a list of environmentally impactful sports, regardless of what does/does not happen once they arrive.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Peter. I think about that a lot...I think boredom with some of the media (whether that be videos or print or even campfire conversation) might be a reflection of where an individual is at with climbing. I know that I used to be able to sit around a campfire and talk about climbing until it was time to get up and go climbing, but as I've aged, I definitely enjoy conversations when they drift to other topics. You begin to realize that it's not always what route you sent, but how you arrived and who you did it with that stands out in memory. I think more and more people are picking up on that when it comes to online story telling...the truth also is -- the bar got raised when it came to feature films DVD's and action style. It got raised so high that budget wise it's going to be difficult to keep pushing it further when it comes to budget.

Thanks for the shout out KT. I think you might dig our new project Bryan and I did with Patagonia. It comes out on their site in three weeks. Essentially they told us to go tell stories and make it look good. Filming some of the alpine rock climbing with Colin Haley was certainly memorable.

Also, I'd encourage people to go see if they can get a copy of Sender Films First Ascent Series they did in NGTV. The story telling is first rate -- from Sean Leary's Patagonia episode, to Timmy and Sean O'Neil in the Ruth, to Micah and Jonny's final trip to Mt. Edgar.


Peter Beal said...

Thanks FC. I agree that age and experience raises the threshold of expectation but I think that this threshold applies across the spectrum. Even gym rats would be bored with what passed for cool in 1995. I think that media that keeps it simple and direct and focuses on the natural setting and psychology will endure long after the rest is forgotten. Budget matters but so does storytelling talent. Between The Trees is a great example of a low-budget excellent climbing film.