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