This may be the best climbing film ever made

Ken Burns’s ‘The National Parks’? This is more ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’. A new kind of climbing movie.
By Brendan Leonard

Valley Uprising, a 90-minute feature film about six decades of history of Yosemite climbing, is going to please many and tick off a few – but for Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen of Sender Films, Valley Uprising was about making a film that was accessible to everyone, not just climbers.

We caught up with Mortimer just before the premiere of the film, which is featured at the San Sebastian Film Festival this week.

Check out the trailer below.

© Peter Mortimer

Why should everybody go out and see this film when it comes to their town?
I hope it’s an inspiring film that’s really a celebration of this lifestyle, and of following your dreams, and of living an experiential life as opposed to a materialistic life. And that's the biggest thread of all these people in the film: that they've dedicated their lives, or at least a big chunk of their lives, to having these rich experiences. Yosemite is the place, and climbing is the medium, but it can be anything.

It's super fun to watch! Hopefully you're laughing, and it's inspiring. It’s not the brussels sprouts of documentaries – it’s more like the cheeseburger. That's what we wanted to make. We wanted to make something fun that you want to watch, and then you want to watch again.

Peter Mortimer filming on the Sentinel
Peter Mortimer filming on the Sentinel © Rob Frost

You guys started filming interviews for this in 2007. Is this one of the most complicated film projects you guys have taken on?
By a mile. So much more complicated in every aspect – more complicated than we ever imagined it would be, and more complicated than anything we’ve taken on. There are many characters and so many stories that are connected through Yosemite but, you know, they're connected through the lineage of the sport and the evolution, and how they've influenced each other, but they're not in the same place at the same time.

But that’s not the most complicated part. We gathered materials from hundreds of different sources – people, institutions, archives, libraries, we've gone into people's basements because someone said, "I think that guy has a bunch of photos …" and we call this guy and he says "I have some stuff in my basement, and you can look," so we fly out to Portland, Oregon, and then dig around in his basement – like a lot of the photos of the Dawn Wall were unearthed that way.

It’s not historically inaccurate, but it’s not a historical record. We want to take these specific moments of history and just drop them in there and get you caught up in the drama of that time and then sort of throw you out of there and throw you into the next time.

Dale Bard, Jim Bridwell, Fred East and Jay Fiske chilling at the top of El Capitan.
Dale Bard, Jim Bridwell, Fred East and Jay Fiske © Warner Braun

There isn't a lot of climbing footage from the 60s and 70s. How did you tell the story of those years?
We knew Glen Denny’s photos from the 1960s, and he was very aware that he was documenting these incredible people – he made a point of being there when history was unfolding. Like when Royal Robbins did the first solo on El Cap on the Muir Wall over nine days, Denny ran around to the top and rappelled in and got the photo of Robbins topping out, and then hanging out with his wife on the summit.

For non-climbers, what's so special about Yosemite Valley?
When you drive into the Valley, and you come around and you see El Capitan, there's nothing else you can see – you have to lean forward and put your chin on the dashboard to see the top of it. It's the scale of it, but it's so accessible. You pull into Yosemite, and you can walk five minutes to an overhanging 3,000-foot granite rock face.

And for a climber – obviously the rock is so perfect for climbing, but it’s so rich with history. It’s like the North Shore of Hawaii for surfing.

Warren Harding climbing El Capitan's Dawn wall.
Warren Harding summits El Capitan's Dawn wall © Glen Denny

Has there been push-back?
I think there are a couple different sources of pressure we feel. One is that we really wanted to make this film feel like a bigger, richer, deeper film, that people who don’t climb and think that we do genre stuff would say, "Wow, this was an amazing film,".

The other pressure is the opposite end of the spectrum – it's those core Yosemite climbers who are part of the story and have dedicated their lives to Yosemite – and you know, many who have spent decades there who aren't part of the story, because we skip over huge chapters of history in this movie.

We did add a segment that’s a tribute to all the people who we didn’t include in the film who were a big part of this evolution: Dan Osman, Peter Croft, Todd Skinner, John Muir. Some of them are much bigger individuals, and we have this whole list of all these people who were part of the Valley Uprising.

We did that for two reasons: because it is such a big story, and it kind of feels powerful to say "This is just the tip of the iceberg – look at all the people who have been part of this." We wanted to mention some of these people in a respectful way. We'll see how that goes over.

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