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Reel Rock pays tribute to climbing partners

Kai Lightner climbing in the Flatanger Cave, Norway, in “Young Guns.”

The Reel Rock Film Tour is back, and this year the weekend-long adventure film series is paying homage to those folks who show us the ropes, lift us up, help us down, remind us to eat and make us laugh.

Reel Rock 11 is serving up several climbing adventure stories highlighting the benefits of climbing buddies, from a father-daughter team to the ultimate boys trip in the Arctic Circle. The tour will premier to a packed audience at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on Sept. 15, 2016.

But no worries if you’re not a climber.

“Some people come to Reel Rock because they love the stunning scenery, or they want to be inspired by the badass climbing,” says Nick Rosen, creative director of Sender Films, a Boulder-based production company that co-produces the Reel Rock Tour with Big UP Productions.

“Or, they come because they are intrigued by human stories,” Rosen adds. “That’s why we try to have something for everyone.” 

Peter Mortimer, founder of Sender Films, says they choose stories that have interesting characters and rich narratives because they believe these are the aspects that cause the viewer to become invested in a story; to feel a real connection, not only to the goals these athletes are trying to achieve, but with the characters themselves and the struggles they face.   

Mortimer discovered this “formula” while creating his first climbing film, Scary Faces.

“These people living this alternative life, they’re such individuals and colorful characters, I really wanted to capture that and I wanted to have a narrative thread that took you through the story,” Mortimer says.

Sender Films has created more than 50 short and feature films, but the Reel Rock Film Tour, which has expanded from 50 to 500 showings across the world, is still at the company’s core, according to Mortimer. The Reel Rock films are an accumulation of the rock climbing communities’ most compelling current adventure stories, made up of five segmented stories of about 20 minutes in length.

Here is a look at this year’s selection.

‘Young Guns’

“Young Guns” follows two of the youngest climbers in the world to Norway and Japan. Ashima Shiraishi is the youngest person — female or male — to successively climb a V15 bouldering problem. Shiraishi teams up with Kai Lightner, who at the age of 15 became the Open Lead Climbing National Champion. Rosen says Shiraishi’s unusual story and predicament makes her story compelling.

“She’s going to have an amazing story; she’s a girl who grew up with first generation Japanese parents that are part of an artists’ loft in New York City, making it not the typical climbing narrative,” Rosen says. “She’s a 15-year-old girl, dealing with the adult world, going against elite climbers, dealing with media attention and expectations.”

“Boys in the Bug” features Will Stanhope and local Matt Segal’s four year endeavor to climb the Tom Egan Memorial Route, in the Bugaboos of British Columbia
“Boys in the Bug” features Will Stanhope and local Matt Segal’s four year endeavor to climb the Tom Egan Memorial Route, in the Bugaboos of British Columbia Brett Lowell

‘Boys in the Bugs’

Will Stanhope and local Matt Segal are featured in “Boys in the Bugs,” which documents their four-year project to scale the Tom Egan Memorial Route, a 1,500-foot splitter crack up the east face in the Bugaboos of British Columbia.

“There were times where I was definitely lagging, he was the motivational upper, and vise verse,” Stanhope says of pairing up with Segal. “I can’t see it working with another partner, and it definitely wouldn’t have worked as a solo project, or recruiting random people. Definitely a collaborative process, and having a fun-loving, super funny partner was critical.”

In 2009, Stanhope repelled down in the Bugaboos to check for new routes, an exploratory journey that led to his future four-year climbing project. Initially Stanhope noticed that the first 60 feet posed an issue for freeing the climb because the crack is too thin to access with fingers, but after working a variation he was able to find a route to surpass this section and make the complete 13 pitch climb free. The Sender Film crew got their hands on one of the pictures Stanhope snapped of the crack climb and contacted the climbers about filming them for a Reel Rock film.

“There are few guys that exemplify pure love for the sport and have the ability to sacrifice everything in their lives to pull off this crazy thing,” Rosen says. “No one exemplifies that more than Will and Matt.”

Of course four years can’t be completely documented, allowing the boys plenty of time to figure out variations and grind out moves on their own, but both Stanhope and Segal agree that the presence of the film crew was invigorating. In particular the climbers mention Brett Lowell, of Big UP Productions.

“It was great to have some fresh energy up there,” Stanhope says. “It was the turning point. It was definitely a positive thing to have those guys up there. Brett is a real deal climber, so having him up on the wall with fresh eyes on the pitches was super helpful.”

Stanhope sent it clean, but Segal was not able to completely free the climb because of the 5.14 crux.   

“We put so much effort into it together that it was really just a partnership accomplishment because one of us did it,” Segal says.   

After four years of drinking “shitty” instant coffee in pursuit of completing the Tom Egan route, Segal was inspired to found Alpine Start Foods with fellow local Andrew Hyde. Samples of Alpine Start’s instant coffee will be given away during the Boulder and Denver Reel Rock showings.


A Tahoe, California native who now calls Squamish, British Columbia home, Brette Harrington has made a name for herself as the first person to free solo 2,500-foot Chiaro di Luna (5.11a) in Patagonia and she did it in three hours. In “Brette,” Big UP Productions follows the young climber around the world, from Squamish’s granite, to the big wall challenges of El Capitain in Yosemite to the free solo climb at the tip of South America.


Adv_Rad Dad_Credit Mike Libecki
Mike Libecki

‘Rad Dad’

Mike Libecki, true devoted adventurer with almost 70 ascents under his belt, teams up with daughter, Lillianna Libecki, showing that an adventure seeker can also be an awesome father. Libecki says he believes the film “Rad Dad” will inspire parents to get their kids out in nature more, and show how much nature can be used as a learning instrument for life’s lessons.

“I really want her, from the examples I’ve set for her, to learn that really no matter what, you have to believe in your own passion and make it happen,” says Libecki. “To not do what anyone wants or society puts upon you; to have her absolutely follow her true own goals and passions.”

Dingy rides are fun! The guys from "Dodo's Delight" get dingy.
Dingy rides are fun! The guys from “Dodo’s Delight” get dingy. Ben Ditto

‘Dodo’s Delight’

One of Rosen’s and Mortimer’s favorite segments, “Dodo’s Delight,” follows the rowdy crew made up of adventurers Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Ben Ditto and brothers Nico and Olivier Favresse on an epic three-month trip traveling the Arctic Circle on a sailboat captained by colorful 79-year-old retired reverend and British Royal Marine Bob Shepton. The climbing adventure crew used rock-paper-scissors, to make all the tough decisions, like who gets what bunk, who goes first, who gets partnered up and who climbs what route. They filled their free time with music, playing into the wee hours, says Ditto, a well-known photographer and climber. He says he plays a mean pair of spoons during their music sessions in the film. 

“These guys, with plenty of down time and a bunch of cameras, filming themselves, really represents the essence of what makes climbing and adventure great to me,” Rosen says. “There is just a sense of joy that pervades the whole thing.”

According to Rosen, since all the footage in the film was shot by the crew, it created a freshness to the film that they could never have captured if Sender Films had shot it. The fact that all the songs that appear in the segment were actually created and performed by the crew is another reason the segment will stand out as unique. Many of the songs, because of Villanueva O’Driscoll’s influence, are Irish folk, and their theme song, “Dodo’s Delight,” was inspired by their not so swanky boat Dodo.

“In the film, the way these characters carry on with their lives and their adventure, it has the potential to change climbing culture as people begin to appreciate it, especially because of the music, and the lighthearted way they face hardship,” Ditto says.

Mortimer says the tour will be more of an event this year, with vendors, free samples and athletes mingling with the crowd. Screenings will also be filmed this year, edited and posted, which Mortimer hopes will keep the hype going, provide a great feedback loop and allow those who have always wanted to attend the premier in Boulder a sneak peek.

According to Mortimer, capturing, collaborating and presenting the next big movement in climbing as well as staying cutting edge in film making, and doing right by the athletes, is what they constantly are striving for, which he admits, is quite a bit of pressure they put on themselves. Luckily, according to Rosen, climbing is always evolving, new standards are always being created, as well as new styles and personalities continuously emerging, so there will always be fresh content to cover and share.

“Climbing is just so built for story telling,” Rosen says. “It just lends itself so well because this idea of having this dream, trying to do something, trying to get to the top of something, and then all the obstacles, the journey, the training, the relationships, all the things that characters have to go through to achieve, its just so simple and relatable to anyone, on any level. It’s the gift that keeps giving as a storyteller.”