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Climbing filmmaker Pat Ament's ode to mentor John Gill: Gill Through the Ages

Rock climbing legend Pat Ament began bouldering and free-climbing near Boulder in 1958 when he was a student and gymnast at the University of Colorado, and spent his formative years learning from the best of the best. His relationship with mentor John Gill helped shape his own career not only as a climber, but also as a writer and filmmaker: Ament's 1977 biography John Gill: Master of Rock (an updated edition was published in 1998) is one of the classics of climbing literature, and his 2009 film The Disciples of Gill helped demonstrate just how far his mentor's influence has spread throughout the sport, reaching many of today's top climbers. Both Gill and Ament will be signing autographs and talking about the past, present and future of the sport for the local premiere of Ament's new film, Gill Across Time. tonight at 8 p.m. at Neptune Mountaineering, 633 South Broadway in Boulder. We caught up with Ament by phone at his home in Fruita for a bit of "back in the day" banter and to learn more about the new film.

Westword: This is your second film on John Gill and his legacy in climbing. How does it add to what you accomplished with The Disciples of Gill?

Pat Ament: It's actually my third film about Gill! I made another little 16mm film years ago, a little tiny short thing, but I still had all this old footage, and I wanted to do something bigger with it because I realized I was one of the only people who had any footage of John Gill. When I put together The Disciples of Gill, it was such a joy to go back and look at those old film reels, and the film was very well received by the climbing community as I toured across the country with it. Well, a year went by, and I still had so much more material and so many things that I wanted to talk about that I decided to made another film. Sort of like The Godfather Part II, you know?

John Gill demonstates one-arm front-lever technique in an archival photo.
John Gill demonstates one-arm front-lever technique in an archival photo.
Photo courtesy Pat Ament

The new film is called Gill Across Time. He was born in 1937 and had been a competitive speed rope climber at the University of Georgia Tech in his early days, in the late '50s. He could climb to the top of a gym in 3.8 seconds, which is faster than you can pull a rope through your hands if you're just standing there -- I mean, you just can't even pull a rope through your hands that fast. In his day, he was also the world's greatest boulderer, just absolutely phenomenal. He could do one-finger pullups on any one of his first two fingers on either hand, and he invented a thing called a one-arm front lever where he makes his body horizontal while he's hanging with one arm -- just an amazing feat, and it made it possible for him to climb routes that nobody else could even comprehend at the time. That combination of tremendous strength and balance helped him see possibility in some of the wildest places. He really shaped the sport of climbing because of it.

WW: What was it like to go back and rediscover this footage and to realize what you had on your hands?

PA: I always knew this was great footage, but it was just getting older and older, and I was afraid it was going to rot away. It was really the only footage that anybody had of Gill in his prime. I was his main bouldering partner for a long time, and I'd bring my 16mm camera with me from time to time because I was an aspiring filmmaker. I shot a bunch of footage of him because I was really in awe of what he was doing. When I went back to look at it again a few years ago, I thought, "This has got to be digitized; we've got to do something with this. People who care about Gill and about the history of the sport have to see this stuff."

And I was right: People really loved that film. Mike Chessler came up to me after the premiere of Disciples of Gill in Boulder, and said, "Wow, I've never had tears in my eyes from a climbing film." It really touches people. That film centers a little bit around my daughter; she and I are climbing and we're having fun together, and then we sit down to watch the the sunset and I start to tell her about John Gill, who was my mentor, kind of the way I was her mentor. Then we flash back to his life and all this incredible old footage, and at the end of the movie we come back to our discussion on top of the rock. It becomes a very tender sense of time passing, you know, this passing the torch to the next generation sort of thing. It's really a film about friendship as much as it is about climbing. I showed the film in various places from New York to California, and people really loved it everywhere it went. Now, you have to remember, Gill was thirty or forty years ahead of his time, so some of this is very old footage, but it's still captivating even for today's top climbers.

WW: What was left to tell, and to show, with this new film?

PA: I still had all this other stuff and ideas I hadn't used yet, and then I came across even more footage that I didn't even remember I had: I'd forgotten my old Super 8 footage of Gill climbing some hard routes on Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder in the late 60s. And then I get wind of still more footage: He used to climb in the Black Hills of South Dakota quite a bit, and a lady named Beverly Powell -- she was the wife of Mark Powell, the famous Yosemite climber, and they used to go to the Black Hills and climb with Gill -- she saw Disciples of Gill and told me she had a bunch of footage of him bouldering. I talked her into sending it to me so I could digitize it and make sure people would be able to see it. I also filmed some new interviews with people like Layton Kor and Royal Robbins, and Gill himself talks a bit in the film and we see him climbing now in his old age. He's like 74 now and he's just getting this arthritis in his shoulder so that he can't climb as much anymore, but even at that he's just incredible to watch. I have him crossing this really difficult rock wall that he practices on, just continuous 5.10 and 5.11 sort of stuff, and I have the last crossing that he made of it on film before his arthritis started to set into his shoulders. It makes for a tender moment in the film.

WW: Obviously he's one of the true pioneers of the sport, and I know a lot of people talk about him as a hero. In your mind what did he really accomplish and why has he had such an impression on the sport and so many people in it?

John Gill at Middle Teton in 1956
John Gill at Middle Teton in 1956
Photo courtesy Pat Ament

PA: Well, Gill is not only a phenomenal climber -- he was certainly the best freeclimber on the planet for years, just doing stuff beyond anybody's comprehension as a boulderer and also doing a tremendous amount of longer climbs, too, including some of the first 5.10s in the country in the Tetons; people thought they were doing the first 5.10s in Yosemite and Colorado, but he'd beat them to it by a longshot -- but I think even more than all that, the thing that really impresses everyone is his generosity and his humility, his kindness.

He's also been climbing for years and years and become almost this mystical figure: People would go through these various climbing areas, everywhere from Alabama to Missouri to Chicago to New York to Montana to Wyoming to Colorado... and they'd see these little tiny chalk arrows Gill marked on these impossible-looking faces and they'd know that he'd done a route there. Most people wouldn't even be able to do the first moves to get both feet off the ground at one time for one second on these routes, and here he was doing them all around the country, starting in the late 50s. One of the hardest routes he ever did was in 1958 in the Tetons!

WW: As you're showing these films and sharing his story and this footage, what's the response from younger climbers? Do they have any sense of respect for what he did and for what you were able to get on film?

PA: Well, the climbers who have any sense of understanding really admire Gill. He's a legend, there's no question about it. If you think about the absolute best climbers of this era -- people like John Bachar, Peter Croft -- they just absolutely admire Gill and they feel like he's better than they ever were. I mean, today's climbers have their own special talents and skills and achievements, but it's partly because they're standing on the shoulders of giants, and the best of them know it.

In his era, 40 or 50 years ago and with the equipment he had, he did so much. I think any climber who has a sense of what they're a part of has heard of him, but then again a lot of the younger people today are gym rats. They grew up in these climbing gyms learning to paint by numbers on these little dotted routes, and they have very little sense of the real world or anything that came before. You can talk to some kids today and they don't know who Layton Kor is, or John Gill, or Pat Ament, or Royal Robbins. Some of them have never even heard the names John Gill or Royal Robbins! It's like a chess player never having heard of Bobby Fischer! Most people in the sport know who he is, but some people don't keep up on anything and they never learn any history.

I showed Disciples of Gill in New York at a big rock gym, and there were all these people at the show but there was another crowd over in the gym bouldering the whole time the show was on. They had no interest whatsoever in John Gill, and it was curious to me because a rock wall is just a boring piece of cement with some holds on it. Who cares about that compared to a story about a real genius, about real climbing? But what can you do? Some people are just not interested in getting educated. They wouldn't know John Gill from anybody, but that's their loss.

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