Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rocky Mountain Highball: The Mountains and Water Review

Rocky Mountain Highball, a climbing movie three years in the making, is a truly unique production since it is that rarest of creatures, a meditative bouldering movie. As an exploration of what it's like to climb on the edge of soloing, it mostly lacks the usual dynamic double-digit efforts of the typical bouldering video, RMH depicts a niche of climbing that only a few brave individuals routinely explore, a niche that ironically was once mainstream in bouldering, especially before the advent of bouldering pads. The historical interviews at the beginning illustrate this truth well and time spent with John Gill and Jim Holloway, among others, is always instructive on what it was like when bouldering was not the popular pursuit it is today

Primarily focused on the Front Range, RMH shows a wide variety of Colorado climbers at various locations, most of them familiar to locals in Boulder, near where much if the action is filmed. None of the boulders or locations are named in the film, which is a pity as many are on public land and fully accessible. Visitors will have to do some digging around to find some of them but that shouldn't prove impossible.

The film faces a number of challenges, the primary one of which is pacing. Climbing of this type is potentially less visually interesting because the climber being filmed must be careful and calculating in terms of attitude, precise and controlled in terms of movement. The graded difficulty is rarely of significance; instead the highball experience is predicated on keeping a cool head off the deck. Unfortunately for film-makers, the people who tend to do well at this game are low-key, understated characters who don't necessarily provide the most interesting interviews. The pursuit of highball bouldering is primarily internal in nature and capturing this kind of inner psychology on camera is not easy. Moments of levity occur, particularly in the form of a garrulous John Sherman, but they are relatively rare, hardly surprising given the risks encountered and being discussed by the climbers. There is no question that in the end, it's a serious game and spontaneity is a potential problem.

To offset these issues, the film-makers have focused on aesthetics, looking at the problems in terms of setting, line, light and overall ambiance. The talents of the photographers and editors are in full evidence in this regard. Long shots and pans emphasize the incredible settings that these problem are located in. The forms and colors of the boulders become the principal actors in many sequences. The viewer has to be ready to think about bouldering in a different spirit, a contemplative and reflective one that puts the boulder and its environment ahead of the climber.

Alli Dorey on Mavericks V5 in Clear Creek Canyon: A still from RMH

Nevertheless, the subject of the film is founded in risk and some of the climbs are risky indeed. The Skyscraper in Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellow Christ in the Flatirons are not really safe to fall off from in any circumstance. They are climbed beautifully, immaculately even but they are not really bouldering. A line is crossed somewhere, discussed in the film to a certain extent, but ultimately left to the viewer to decide upon.

Personally I tend to agree with John Gill's initially expressed desire to define bouldering as climbing movement separated from risk. In my view, true highball bouldering is really a form of "relatively safe" soloing and it seems to me that the seriousness which accompanies the soloing mindset ultimately permeates the film.If you are looking for a lighthearted punchy film, RMH would not be it. It reminds me to a certain extent of the British film Hard Grit but somehow less intense, sometimes almost too casual in its attitude toward the risk of serious injury or death. I think a closer look at this dilemma of risk and reward would have helped viewers better understand what's going on and why the allure of risk and difficulty draws some climbers more than others. The film maintains a certain psychological distance from its subjects that I feel might have been overcome to good effect. This type of climbing has taken a heavy toll on some of the climbers featured and the compulsion to risk it all again and again on a high boulder problem seems worthy of closer examination.

To sum up, RMH is a beautifully photographed and edited journey through the experience of bouldering on tall blocks. I will probably never climb any of the problems, well most of them anyway, unless I am on a toprope. When I was much younger, the lure of executing hard moves well above the ground was often there. For me the appeal of bouldering now is usually this; what is the hardest, most aesthetic problem I can do? Nevertheless, I am impressed by the excellence of the film and the obvious effort that the film-makers have put into documenting the difficult and serious pursuit of highball bouldering in Colorado. If you are at all into the sport of bouldering, you must see this movie.

I will be interviewing Andy Mann about this film and publish that discussion soon.


phillip said...

"This type of climbing has taken a heavy toll on some of the climbers featured and the compulsion to risk it all again and again on a high boulder problem seems worthy of closer examination."

My understanding is that Sherman has had hip replacement and knee surgery. Yet, he still pokes fun at folks (specifically Jason Kehl) for not climbing ground-up in his blog #2 at Deadpoint.

Not judging, just find it interesting that "ground-up" doesn't seem to mean as much as it used to.

Seem to me there is room for all of the different approaches- be it ground-up, onsight, headpoint.

On a personal note: as I approach 40 I am definitely noticing the effects of the relatively benign gym bouldering falls- my knees and back start to complain if I don't downclimb problems. As much as I appreciate the aesthetics of these highballs, I am not willing to pay that toll.

Peter Beal said...

I believe that your description of John Sherman's medical history is accurate, though understated. A friend and I hauled him to a hospital when he got a concussion bouldering Maine, one of several he has had, I believe. That's just a start.

The movie actually shows little of the preparation process for the really high problems/routes, leaving the impression that most are done onsight, ground-up. I really don't know the history on these ascents. I will ask Andy.

Re: aging and falling, absolutely. When you don't know exactly how many seasons you have left, ending one on a messed-up highball seems unwise. I always take a ton of pads and obsess about the right landing points. When I was younger, I thought climbing up high ropeless was pretty cool. Now I think continuing to climb as hard as I can is cool, especially when compared to telling stories about back in the day because my body is totally shot.