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

Friday, January 9, 2015

What is Really Not Being Said about the Dawn Wall Free Ascent

The long dreary winter here in Colorado is teasing climbers with occasional glimpses of sun that give hope to dreams of finishing projects before plunging them back into the grim reality of iced over roads and snowed in crags and boulders. It's so bad out there that America's rockclimbing sweetheart,Sasha DiGiulian, is going to the Ouray Ice Festival!

It's hardly surprising therefore that the goings on of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Capitan have garnered so much attention in the climbing press. Besides Ashima doing the Swarm (the most famously slash-graded problem in the country) literally nothing is going on (except sends of Lethal Design, photos of which are now banned on Instagram, along with those of Scare Tactics). Basically if you are not on a huge overhanging south-facing granite wall, you aren't rock climbing in North America.

But it's not only breathless up-to-the-minute updates from Andrew Bisharat at Evening Sends on Facebook. In the past two weeks (and we are at something like day 14--I've lost track) virtually every major major news outlet has weighed in on this climb. Naturally the lack of familiarity with the practices of big-wall free climbing has led to some amusing (to climbers anyway) journalistic faux pas, the choicest of which have been compiled by the good folks over at DPM. And then then there are the comments from the readers of the New York Times, who are by far the most polite of the major news outlets. A surprising number of these readers find the Dawn Wall attempt ludicrous, incomprehensible or contemptible, reactions which should give pause to those dedicated to expanding the sport. Brendan Leonard over at Adventure Journal has collected some of these to save time for any of you who want to understand how the American public looks at cutting edge (literally--the climb depends on sawtoothed granite edges for its existence) free climbing. For proof of the problem with skin, one need only consult Tommy's Instagram page where we learn, "I have resorted to setting my alarm to wake myself up every four hours to reapply @climbonproducts." This is what we call media saturation, I believe.

Besides the numerous chronicles of the duo's progress including Tom Evans's awesome El Cap Report, there have been the "what does it all mean" pieces, including this one, perhaps most prominently a piece over at a blog called Fringe's Folly written by Chris Kalman. This essay diplomatically brings up the possibility that somewhere, somehow, that perennially cited and honored (mostly in the breach) quality known as "adventure" may have gone missing. For daring to mention this, Kalman was savaged in various online fora including mountain project. I thought Kalman was being too polite in his arguments and told him so but lo and behold, Freddie Wilkinson referenced his post in the New York Times op-ed section. Why the Gray Lady opts to probe the world of climbing so frequently is a mystery that someone must tackle at some point but I digress...

Anyway the most popular response was framed in roughly this fashion, "It's really hard and what do you know anyway. And Tommy and Kevin are really cool." Which is true. But that's not really an answer and it's especially not an answer because the Dawn Wall has long been the locus of discussion, brutal at times, as to what the point of climbing is. It's really interesting to see how the history behind this climb has melted away because in 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell's 27-day epic first ascent gripped both the general public and the climbing world alike. The aftermath of the ascent and the afterlife of the route forms one of the most interesting chapters in the overall story of climbing in Yosemite and indeed world climbing.

Climbers today are unused to the idea that someone would be watching over your shoulder to make sure you climbed something correctly, that in essence you had to "deserve" to get the first ascent of a route. Climbing was seen in very moral terms in the Yosemite of the 1960s, an ethic that ultimately borrowed much of its ideas from British practices, summarized by the statement, "The sort of man who would drive a piton into English rock would shoot a fox." The object of scorn and derision was not the piton, which was pretty much essential to protect the Valley's many cracks, but the bolt. Ironically the insistence on removing pitons left countless scars in the rock, most famously on Serenity Crack's first pitch. Bolts were a symbol of weakness, of not having "the right stuff" and the high point of this attitude was the Salathe Wall, a circuitous route left of Harding's sieged  100+ bolt masterpiece, The Nose. The Salathe was climbed with only 13 bolts and had a number of serious free climbing sections, making it emblematic of the approach favored by Royal Robbins, the leader of the first ascent team.

Over the course of the 60s, there was a rivalry of sorts between Robbins and Harding. Robbins' advocacy of so-called "purist" methods caused Harding to call him and his followers the "Valley Christians." This difference of opinion reached its climax when Robbins decided that Harding's route to the right of the Nose, now called the Dawn Wall, had too many bolts and needed to be erased. As it turned out Robbins found himself acknowledging the difficulty and quality of the line and stopped chopping bolts very early in  the route. The initial action however was enough to raise a firestorm of controversy, a controversy that saw its final gasp of breath in the rappel-bolting wars of the 1980s. Incidentally both Robbins and Harding no longer climbed seriously in the Valley after that. For many, the Dawn Wall episode was the closing of the so-called Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.

Now we are in a very different place, style-wise, where aid climbing is seen as no longer cutting-edge, indeed not even as actual climbing by many climbers. The flanks of El Cap are criss-crossed by multiple lines, some free, many still requiring aid. The blank on the map no longer exists as far as El Cap is concerned and if the blank on the map is gone for El Cap then basically it's over for climbing in North America. And this, in my view, is the reason for the media frenzy, that we are watching the extinction of an old frontier in climbing in real time. This is the first thing nobody is really saying about the Dawn Wall free ascent. People said this about the first Dawn Wall ascent and they were right.

There will be other free climbs on El Cap, especially once the obsolete insistence on not adding bolts to old aid routes passes away, as it will. Perhaps there will be harder free climbs on El Cap, especially on the right side where the steepest and most featured rock exists. But there will never be another blank canvas like the Dawn Wall, nor another meeting of climber and climb quite like this matchup. So our celebration of this extraordinary achievement is tempered by the knowledge that for better or worse it's the end of an era of exploration that began in earnest with the post-war achievements of climbs such as the Lost Arrow Chimney.

That is the important adventure in the end, not knowing what is next in the bigger picture. What happens when we are done scouring cliffs for difficulty? It will take some serious thought to get past the current mindset that climbers are athletes, that difficulty is an objective reality that can be measured and compared and that exploration and first ascents and the heroic mode of climbing achievement actually matter, as all these ideas are becoming obsolete and washing away beneath our feet like sand on the edge of the shoreline.

The confusion of the average American news reader is forgivable because honestly, and this is the other thing nobody is really saying, climbers don't really know what they are doing right now or why. As climbers we are pushing ourselves into an unknown future where the complexities and uncertainties faced by Tommy Caldwell in 2015 will seem as quaint and out of touch as using actual stove legs for pitons on the Nose or the idea of chopping a bolt ladder because there were "too many" bolts. Ashima's effortless dispatching of a reachy and powerful V13 (or V14, depends on who you ask!) points to the dubious validity of what a really hard climb actually consists of these days. Adam Ondra's 100+ 9a or harder ascents, most done in a matter of tries, undermines any notion that we really understand what hard free climbing consists of.

On the Dawn Wall, as on most of El Cap, we are climbing over ghosts and relics of a bygone age, tiptoeing past the presence of those who came before, a striking number of whom are dead or no longer climbing at all. We share the rock with this past but it's time we also recognize that the present has a claim on this place. The old definitions of adventure may yet apply but in ways that we have yet to recognize. As I have written elsewhere, the temptation to mythologize and idolize the past is especially strong in climbing. The Dawn Wall reminds us that a new era is always just around the corner.