The eighth annual Reel Rock tour, the traveling climbing film show that has become the gold standard in its field over the past decade, launches in Boulder tonight at the Chautauqua Auditorium. On the menu are four new flicks from Sender Films and Big UP productions, including the controversial and much-anticipated film High Tension: Ueli Steck and the Clash on Everest about this spring's brawl between Sherpas and western climbers on the world's highest peak.
"Every year there's this never-ending challenge to up the ante a bit or at least do something distinct from what we've done, and I think we've pulled it off this year," says Sender Films co-founder Nick Rosen.
Over the course of its eight-year existence, Reel Rock--a collaboration between two of the biggest studios making climbing films today--has grown exponentially. This year, the show will visit 450 cities on its world tour. Still, Rosen says the Boulder premiere will always be the main event.
"Sender Films and the Reel Rock tour grew out of a very local, grassroots thing here in Boulder, so for us this is very much a community event even though now it's a global tour and keeps growing every year," he says.
"The excitement here around climbing and climbing films is like nothing I've ever seen anywhere else. The psych is palpable when the theater gets packed and the lights go down: this is our community."
The first film on the program is The Sensei, which Rosen describes as "sort of like a climbing Karate Kid story" about Boulder-based bouldering prodigy Daniel Woods and one of his mentors, Japanese climbing legend Yuri Hirayama.
"Daniel is probably the strongest climber on the planet and he's just getting started in his career. He teams up with Yuji, who is a legend in the climbing world and, in his forties, is transitioning to a mentoring role and fostering a really amazing climbing scene in Japan," Rosen says. "We followed Daniel over to Japan to compete, and while we were there, Yuji saw that Daniel had the potential to help him fulfill his longtime project, an incredible climb in Borneo on Mt. Kinabalu."
Another young climbing prodigy, British climber Hazel Findlay, is at the heart of the second film, Spice Girl, which chronicles her trip to climb a "big scary wall" in Morocco's Taghia Gorge with Boulder local Emily Harrington.
While the first two films are classic Reel Rock fare, the second half of the show is decidedly not. For the third film of the evening, the crew is screening a ten-minute clip from Valley Uprising, a feature-length film about climbing's countercultural heyday in Yosemite National Park that Sender is slated to premiere in 2004. Rosen calls the film "a chunk from the 1970s highlighting the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll era of climbing."
There's little doubt that the most anticipated film on this year's bill is the final one, High Tension. The film focuses on an incident that dominated both climbing and mainstream media earlier this year, when mountaineers Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith were attacked by a group of climbing Sherpas high on Everest after a dispute over fixed ropes spiraled out of control.
"This year we went over to the Himalayas with [Ueli Steck] and Simone Moro, getting ready to do this really cutting edge linkup of two 8,000-meter peaks, Mt. Everest and Lhotse, by way of a route in the dead-zone that nobody has ever done before," says Rosen. "We had a cameraman embedded with them, and then all of a sudden this crazy thing happens with the Sherpas, and becomes a big international news story that we all got sort of shoved into. On very short notice the story changed dramatically, and we had to try to figure out a way to tell this complex, controversial story about this fight that happened on Mt. Everest."
While the fight has been well-documented in the international press, Rosen says High Tension: Ueli Steck and the Clash on Everest features never-before-seen footage of the actual confrontation, as well as a more fully-informed account of the event which takes all sides into consideration. But he's the first to admit that it might just be the most controversial topic Sender has ever tackled.
"It's the first account of this story to be told on film and once the dust has settled," Rosen says. "A lot of news reports came out right when it happened and none of them were fully informed or had the perspective of time. Now I think it's well-timed to offer a truthful representation of it. I'm sure that it's not going to please everybody -- I'm sure it's going to anger some people -- but we really tried to get it right from our perspective."
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Following the Boulder premiere, Reel Rock 8 will come to Denver's Paramount Theatre on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $19.