Sender Films had the story of the year fall into its lap through pure chance. The Boulder-based climbing filmmakers had sent a cameraman to follow the mountain-scaling superteam of Ueli Steck and Simone Moro as they attempted to climb a new route across Everest and its neighboring peak, Lhotse, when the pair became involved in a physical confrontation with a group of sherpas that left both climbers bruised and shaken, ending their expedition and vaulting them into magazine and newspaper headlines around the world.
That incident would become the basis for High Tension, the film that anchors this year's edition of the Reel Rock Tour. The traveling climbing film festival, a co-production between Sender and New York-based Big UP Productions, kicked off its eighth season at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday night with a show that had more in common with documentary than it did with old-school, action-packed climbing porn.
Unlike a traditional film festival, Reel Rock is almost entirely the work of its organizers and their collaborators; until 2011, when they screened a shortened cut of Cold, FORGE Motion Pictures' award-winning film about the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, Reel Rock had never shown a film by an outside studio. With the same filmmakers -- and many of the same subjects -- returning for each edition, ensuring that the show evolves from year to year has been one of Sender's concerns.
"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," co-founder Nick Rosen told Westword writer Colin Bane earlier this week, "and I think we've pulled it off this year."
The night opened up with twin climbing travelogues based on more conventional, kid-meets-rock stories. In The Sensei, Boulder climbing phenom Daniel Woods teams up with Yuji Hirayama, Japan's elder statesman of rock climbing, to establish new sport routes on the barren granite slopes of Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. In the second film, Spice Girl, British climber Hazel Findlay and another Boulderite, Emily Harrington, travel to the oasis of Taghia in Morocco to attempt Babel, a scary, 2,800-foot climb up a massive limestone cliff.
The Reel Rock crew and the camera operators and directors who work with them, including filmmaker Chuck Fryberger, are masters of using their environment to set the tone for their films, and these movies are no exception. The swirling mists that cover Kinabalu make the towering prows and towers that Woods and Hirayama climb look otherworldly, like an islet poking out of a foggy sea. In one of the tenser scenes of Spice Girl, Findlay climbs Once Upon a Time in the Southwest, a blank, knife-shaped slab of rock on the English coast, as the incoming tide begins to creep up towards her dad, who's stuck belaying her by the waterline below.
The third film of the night, "The Stonemasters," was a ten-minute clip from Valley Uprising, Sender's in-progress feature about the history of rock-climbing in Yosemite National Park. The segment briefly introduces audiences to the titular group, a pack of climbing bums who tore through some of Yosemite's boldest ascents in the 1970s, and retells the story of how the crash in the park of a plane carrying pot from Colombia spawned a short-lived gold (er, green) rush among the valley's residents. While the clip at Reel Rock felt more like a ten-minute trailer than a complete movie, the full film, which tells its story through talking head interviews and Flying-Circus-esque animated photos like a hyperkinetic Ken Burns special, will be worth keeping an eye on.
The real draw of the evening, though, was Steck and Moro's story. In the aftermath of the fight, Sender sent a producer to Nepal to track down video of the incident, and while High Tension doesn't reveal any new information that people who've read up on the fight won't already know, seeing it on film adds an emotional dimension to the brouhaha. Watching the shaky, handheld footage of Moro being slapped around as he kneels and attempts to apologize for cursing at the sherpas, or of members of the mob hurling rocks at the tent where Steck is hiding, is viscerally disturbing; from an observer's perspective, it looks more like a near-lynching than a brawl. The doc is likely to be the most controversial film Reel Rock has ever run, though the filmmakers try to give a balanced perspective on the conflict, interviewing Tenzing Norgay's son and other talking heads (including, full disclosure, my former Outside colleague Grayson Schaffer) about how climbing sherpas' poor treatment and dangerous working conditions have built up resentment among many of them toward Western climbers.
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"I myself have changed over and over again," Yuji Hirayama muses during an interview in Reel Rock's first film, and the same could be said for the show itself. Rather than aiming for the adrenaline-soaked highs it has hit in previous years, like Alex Honnold's ropeless climbs in Alone on the Wall or Steck's record-setting rush up the Eiger in The Swiss Machine, this year's Reel Rock is a different beast, one that, rather than inspiring climbers in the audience to run out and jump on the rock, will leave them with a lot to chew on.