Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Western Gold: A Review

I have been on hiatus from writing for the past few weeks, though not for lack of things to consider. I plan on catching up in the next two weeks. I want to begin by taking a look at a new climbing film, Western Gold by the talented boulderer Alex Savage. The trailer for this was released earlier in the year and I felt it showed great promise and was very pleased when Alex offered a copy for review. Despite my harried schedule at the end of the semester, I found myself glued to the screen, a rare event in the current media climate. I hope this review motivates readers to experience the same sense of discovery and authenticity that I felt after viewing Western Gold.

As anyone who has read this blog over time will recognize, I have concerns about the ways in which manufacturers drive the media in the sport of climbing, working to shape the image of climbing that is conducive to brand building. While some may celebrate the flood of "free" media, and I grant that a lot of it is very high quality, especially from a technical standpoint, I feel that commercial pressure on such media adds a superficial gloss that obscures the more meaningful aspects of the sport. I am constantly on the lookout for films that are independent and reflect an independent outlook, that explore new terrain, that respect the fundamentals of climbing, and that respect the environment.

Western Gold is one of the rare videos that is solid in all categories. Virtually every minute there is a shot of a boulder that is a perfect photo in its own right. Most viewers will have never seen the areas, let alone any video of problems (excepting Squamish and even the problems seen in WG are not commonly filmed). The film is clearly Alex's own with no sponsor mentions or logos displayed. But most importantly, this film is about climbing on incredible chunks of stone, done by relative unknowns who display a refreshingly straightforward attitude about their obsession, absent any "professional" pretensions or superstar posturing.

The first section of the film focuses on Leavenworth, an area in the Northwest that has flown under the radar for a while now, even with the 2007 guidebook from Kelly Sheridan. These boulders remind me more than anything else of Switzerland with clean featured gray granite blocks standing out amidst rich green forests. Boulders are filmed at the edge of Icicle Creek, echoing the streamside locales of Magic Wood.

Next up is terrain that could hardly be more remote, Idaho's City of Rocks, where Alex himself does battle with one of the most beautiful problems in the country, Green in the Face V13. Alone on a tall and intimidating overhanging wall, Alex gives a really good idea of the commitment and tenacity required for succeeding on this extraordinary problem.

Las Vegas proves to have an amazing variety of sculpted orange blocks. The problems are often big and clean with singular features that define the line beyond a series of chalked holds. Given the quality of the problems shown here and the immense scale of Red Rocks, I would be surprised if this area does not become a US mecca in the next few years. The Ethan Pringle problems here are each world class with pride of place going to Clockwork Orange and Wet Dream.

 A great find is the bouldering around Cody, Wyoming where great problems are being done that have figuratively never seen the light of day as far as the media are concerned. If these areas were near Boulder, they would probably be on the second video release by now. In Wyoming, it's just business as usual finding classic lines on excellent virgin stone.

The last segment features the huge, moss-covered monoliths of Squamish in British Columbia. The opener is double-V-digit climber Flannery Shay-Nemirow being schooled by a slopey V5, repeatedly crashing into a less than perfect landing. "One day I'll climb V5" she says, smiling intently. Resurrection, a gorgeous overhanging V9 arete seems to go a lot more smoothly. Typical of the problems in the video, the line is obvious, tall, and aesthetic.

The video closes out on two very tall problems, World of Hurt V10 and Teenage Lobotomy V6, more like routes really, problems that emphasize the central place of the climber alone on the rock, where the grades are not the issue but instead the inner experience, the mental control, the search for solutions in the face of risk and difficulty. This is the special quality of the film, the way in which it shows that the frontiers of climbing are not necessarily found in the headlines or the achievements of the "professionals." Instead we see climbers just out climbing, working with what they find and creating something extraordinary, climbs and areas we would all care about, if only we knew.  With all the problems, architecture and form dominates the filming, along with a feel for the mass and scale of what are often huge boulders. The settings and environments are also key to the experience. Less so is the grade of the problem or the celebrity value of the climber. Interviews are short, personal and to the point with no spray or overly complex musings on the sport. The rock takes the priority throughout.

I would unhesitatingly recommend this film to anyone who cares about the sport of climbing, even those who don't boulder. At an hour and a half, plus some excellent bonus material, Western Gold offers a voyage of discovery that few other films can match. I hope Alex keeps on filming and continues to heed whatever inner vision guided this production.

(Update: I meant to include David Lloyd's superb review at http://lloydclimbingblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/review-of-western-gold.html Check it out for another perspective on this superb film)