Valley Uprising Tells the Tale of Climbing's Rogue Heroes -- and its Conflicts

Royal Robbins on El Capitan's North American Wall, 1964.
Royal Robbins on El Capitan's North American Wall, 1964.
Glen Denny

Sender Films took seven years to make Valley Uprising, its joyful, wistful history of the climbing counterculture of Yosemite. And as filmmaker Peter Mortimer told the audience at the feature's premiere in Boulder last night, they used every last hour of that time.

"[Partner Nick Rosen] and I haven't seen the final cut of this," he said. "Actually, no one has seen the final, final cut."

Valley Uprising, which comes to the Oriental Theater this Saturday, September 13, has no pretensions of being a comprehensive history of the sport; the credits begin with a long list of influential climbers who don't appear in the film. Instead, it separates Yosemite's history into three broad swaths, the Golden Age of the 1950s and '60s, the Stonemasters' free-climbing revolution in the 1970s, and the Stone Monkeys' reign from 1998 until the present day.

See also: In Valley Uprising, a Boulder Filmmaker Explores Yosemite's Climbing Counterculture

Each of those periods has its own mythical heroes -- and its own central conflict. In the Golden Age, it's the fourteen-year-long faceoff between Royal Robbins and Warren Harding to see who can climb the Valley's tallest, hardest walls. A screenwriter couldn't have dreamed up a better pair of rivals than the professorial Robbins and alcoholic rogue Harding, whose battle becomes a symbolic war between clean-climbing ethics and dogged siege tactics, eventually reaching a climax during Harding and Dean Caldwell's 28-day ordeal on El Capitan's Wall of Early Morning Light.

The filmmakers brought in graphic artist Barry Thompson to add depth and motion to archival photos from the period, and the results capture the unfathomable vastness of the Valley walls. It's easy to see why the first climbers considered the granite oceans of Half Dome and El Cap unattainable.

The seventies brings its own cast of strong personalities to the park, the strongest of whom is the late John Bachar, a standoffish Californian who pushed ropeless climbing to unheard-of levels of difficulty during the free-climbing boom of the seventies. But with progress comes a loss of innocence, as new corporate endorsements and the polarizing rise of sport climbing set the Stonemasters to fighting among themselves, and Bachar to fighting with seemingly everyone.  

Lynn Hill on Half Dome, circa 1970s.
Lynn Hill on Half Dome, circa 1970s.
Charlie Row

Sender clearly isn't afraid of nostalgia. Behind the conflict and the epic ascents, Valley Uprising is a story about a lost world. Veterans of the Golden Age like Robbins and Yvon Chouinard rhapsodize about the paradise they found in Yosemite, a view that John Long, Lynn Hill and other Stonemasters echo even as they recount climbers' growing friction with National Park Service rangers. "The Stonemasters fit what [the park] was," Long laments. "They didn't fit what it became."

The conflict between climbers and a park service that seems to see them as a problem to be solved is central to the film's third act, and was one of the most controversial aspects of the movie in early test screenings.

"Rangers used to have degrees in biology," muses one Golden Age climber. "Now, they have degrees in marksmanship." In the 1970s, officers began carrying guns following a riot in the park; By the 2000s, they're running surveillance on a homeless camper and tasing an illegal BASE jumper in the neck when he tries to run from them. Both incidents come off as much more eerie in the context of the current national conversation over law enforcement overreach and excessive use of force than they might have in 2010, when the film was originally supposed to be released

While the last generation of climbers continues to push the limits, speed-climbing and BASE-jumping their way into more hazardous territory, the end of the film is suffused with a sense of loss. With the institution of a seven-day annual camping limit, those climbers who choose to live there have to hide out in the boulder fields and forests, under threat of discovery and eviction. And while the film finds a new generation of heroes in Dean Potter and Alex Honnold, that tribalism is gone.

Yosemite still is, and will continue to be, a playground for climbing's visionaries. Whether it can continue to be their home is a matter Valley Uprising leaves in doubt.

Follow Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy.


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