In 2007, Sender Films began shooting interviews with rock climbers for a then-unnamed documentary about Yosemite National Park. At the time, the Boulder-based production house was already well-established as climbing filmmakers go, with four full-length movies and innumerable shorts to its credit. (It's since added two more features and a well-received TV series to that count, and helped shoot a 60 Minutes special on renowned ropeless climber Alex Honnold.) But its new project is its longest and most involved yet, encompassing seven years of work, multiple trips to Yosemite, and numerous delays.
On September 11, Sender will premiere the final product at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium at Reel Rock 9, the latest iteration of the annual climbing film show put on jointly with New York's Big UP Productions. Titled Valley Uprising, the film tells the story of the counterculture of climbers who helped make Yosemite the cradle of the sport in America.
"The history of Yosemite climbing is, in a lot of ways, the legend of climbing," says Nick Rosen, a partner in Sender Films. "The stories that you hear about Robbins and Harding, or the plane crash [that deposited a load of marijuana in an alpine lake in 1977] are these stories that people have written about, and you've heard about, but we really wanted to put them to film."
The completed flick focuses on three generations of climbers: the pioneers of Yosemite's Golden Age, like Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, who made the first ascents of iconic big walls like Half Dome and El Capitan; the Stonemasters of the 1970s, who pushed free climbing standards further than ever before; and the Stone Monkeys of the late '00s, who mixed climbing with clandestine BASE jumping off the park's iconic walls.
With two-thirds of the movie set far in the past, assembling Valley Uprising proved to be a special challenge for the filmmakers. Since little contemporary video was available -- and what little there was was of poor quality -- most of the material they had to work with took the form of still photographs. The hunt for images took the team to garages and basements all over the country; One of their best finds was in Evergreen, where a '70s era climber named George Meyers shared his collection of slides with them.
"You just gotta go down there and dig up this trove, and so we did that over and over," Rosen recalls. "Unseen photos of the Dawn Wall climb in 1970 that's this incredibly historic thing, and all the slides just sitting there in a basement. Photos of Jim Bridwell on Zodiac taking a massive whipper that nobody has seen in forever. We were able to find it in mouldering cardboard boxes in somebody's garage in Tahoe."
To help bring the film to life, Sender enlisted the talents of graphics wizard Barry Thompson, whom Rosen calls "a genius when it comes to motion graphics and bringing these photos to life, creating depth in the photos and motion and that kind of thing." Audiences got a peek at Thompson's work at last year's Reel Rock Film Tour, where Sender screened a ten-minute clip from the movie; In our review, we described it as a mix of "talking head interviews and Flying-Circus-esque animated photos."
Sender is careful to emphasize that Valley Uprising isn't meant to be a definitive history of Yosemite's climbing scene. "Pretty early on, we said okay, we're not gonna do the history of climbing in Yosemite. We're gonna do the counterculture history of climbing in Yosemite," says Rosen. So '80s and '90s era climbers like Peter Croft and Dan Osman (who certainly earned his place in the park's pantheon of outlaws) get lost in the gaps. And whether the next generation of climbers will continue to turn on, tune in and drop out is still an open question.
The Stone Monkeys' generation "also evolved into younger climbers who didn't have that same outlaw aesthetic," explains Rosen. "Alex Honnold is a wild man on the rock, but there's nothing wild about him in his personal life. And he doesn't really buy into all that outlaw stuff."
Valley Uprising premieres at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday, September 11 with a second screening on Friday, September 12. It will screen at the Oriental Theater on Saturday, September 13.
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