Sender Films’ Reel Rock 8: Peaks behind the screens

Eighth Reel Rock marks new heights for Boulder filmmakers who pioneered rock climbing films

Nick Rosen films a climb for Sender Films.

At this point, it’s impossible to know whether Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen could always tell stories in tandem, or whether that’s the product of eight years working together or the friendship that dates to their days as students at Colorado College. But the way the two can riff off one another to build a scene may say everything about how and why they’ve come together to run one of the most successful film production companies, Sender Films, to make movies about the niche sport of rock climbing.

“Let me contextualize this,” Mortimer begins. “Nick was brought in as a writer to script because I think I saw early on that this was where we could push it in a way that no one else in the outdoor industry was doing. And I was already kind of doing it, but I’m not a writer. … So Nick was brought in to write and he was not brought in, that was kind of it, he was just gonna …”

And here Nick Rosen picks up to help, “Well, I was gonna work on one movie.”

“But the nature of this kind of thing is — he was basically employee number two,” Mortimer says.

“Employee number one,” Rosen corrects. Mortimer wasn’t his own employee. He was the founder of Sender, a solo operation from 1999 to 2004, when he invited Rosen back from a career in New York City as a writer and documentary film … let’s say dabbler, for a single project that led to Rosen joining Sender as partner, writer and producer.

“The next thing you know, your neurotic writer from New York is dangling off the side of a cliff,” Mortimer says. “I mean obviously Nick grew up, he climbed, we climbed together …”

“No, but I mean you get yourself in these situations — and only a few years after moving to Boulder, there I am at the top of this massive formation in Patagonia, which is like the worst weather in the world and I’ve gone up there with these elite climbers,” Rosen says.

“Well, with a guy who wingsuits off,” Mortimer says as Rosen, almost talking over the top of him, says, “Who then, one of them, like just, BASE jumps off.”

To “wingsuit” is to use a special jump suit when BASE jumping, as in, launching yourself from a cliff with a parachute on your back. The wingsuit, with fabric panels between the arms and body and between the legs, propels the wearer farther forward — basically the closest humans can come to flying.

“These guys know the storm is coming in, they know the weather like meteorologists,” Mortimer says.

“They BASE jump off and I’m stuck up there with this other dude with this giant Patagonian storm just bearing down on us,” Rosen says. “And, you know, 12 hours later — ”

“I was actually in the tent below watching,” Mortimer says. It’s not doing the climbs himself that’s the scariest thing; it’s having his team out there. “We could watch the headlights. It was one of the wildest — ”

“It was literally like having a fire hose in your face,” Rosen says.

“And you guys had left your jackets at the base,” Mortimer adds.

“We didn’t have Gore-Tex, we were so — and then it took, and then you’re trying to rappel 18 pitches, the wind is blowing 70 miles an hour, all your ropes are getting caught, and then you’re cutting the ropes so they’re getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Rosen says. “Fortunately it wasn’t freezing — I think there have been several of these.”

Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen | Photo by Becca Saag

The story of Sender Films is, in part, the story of a couple of local Colorado boys made good and living the dream — climbing hard and making a living telling the stories of other climbers. But it’s also the arc of the evolution of climbing films as a genre. When Mortimer started making films about climbing, and Rosen returned from the rat race in New York City to join him writing those films, no one expected it would go as far as it has — to partnerships with National Geographic, brand recognition that has made their festival the opening move for many climbing careers and sponsorship and commercial work that’s blossomed from the Boulder Rock Club and Neptune Mountaineering, which supported the original Reel Rock screening, to Land Rover, which recently commissioned the Sender team for a commercial. This eighth installation of the Reel Rock tour, created by Sender and its partner Big Up, once again sets out to push the bar a little higher with the festivals, tackling the tougher topic of the Sherpa fight on Everest, which included two climbers on a Sender expedition and their filmmaker, and teasing for the final debut of the five-year-long project that has been their debut feature film, Valley Uprising, a retelling of the climbing history of the Yosemite Valley. Amid it all, Mortimer is coordinating a live television broadcast of Alex Honnold free soloing a skyscraper.

“Each one independently is potentially bigger than anything that we’ve done,” Mortimer says. “Each one should be our highest profile project yet, and the fact that we’re doing all three of them back to back —”

“Either means that we’re going to be off the charts, or we’re just going to crash and burn,” Rosen finishes.

* * * *

The Boulder Theater was booked in optimism to screen their first set of films for Reel Rock 1 in 2006 — then, as now, an avenue for Boulder’s Sender Films and New York City-based Big Up Productions to screen their rock climbing films. They sold the theater out and went on to tour to about 45 stops. In 2012, they stepped up from two nights at the 1,000-seat Boulder Theater to two nights at the 6,000-seat 1,300-seat Chautauqua Auditorium. They sold that out, too. This year’s tour, which premieres at Chautauqua on Sept. 19, will kick off a 450-city tour. After eight years, that tour is now reaching more than half as many stops as the legendary Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, which, at 38 years old, visits 800 destinations.

“Within the climbing genre, Sender are the benchmark,” says Jim Baker, world tour manager for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which has featured a Reel Rock film every year of the 10 he’s been with the festival. “In terms of the volume of films and the sheer consistency of top-level products, I don’t think Sender is matched for climbing films. … They have a genuine commitment not only to the craft of filmmaking but to the climbing world, and that shows through.”

“What I noticed right away was one thing was, nobody else was doing it and it was clearly going to become a genre,” Rosen says of his start at Sender. The former journalist, whose career began in the news department of Boulder Weekly more than a decade ago, was recruited for one film after discussing a script concept with Mortimer during a climbing trip.

“We were just bouncing things off of each other and got somewhere pretty fast,” Rosen says. “He was like, ‘Hey, I could use someone to help me write this film,’ … And I was just, like, ‘You know what? Yeah.’”

At the point Rosen was putting his New York City life in storage to come to Boulder to work on the film, it was a different landscape.

“Eight years ago, the genre of climbing films as we know it today didn’t really exist,” Rosen says. They had to go it alone, he says — there wasn’t anyone else to go along with them. “It wasn’t like you could go and just draw on a whole series of different filmmakers like you would in a film festival. I mean it basically was Pete and Josh [Lowell] and then when I joined up it was the three of us, and over the years I think what we’ve done is sort of worked to define this genre and create kind of a new way of telling film stories about climbing.”

Mortimer and Rosen went on to create The Sharp End, about top-level climbers climbing, bouldering, free-soloing, BASE jumping, aid climbing and high lining at their limit (the trailer alone is a veritable whipper-fest), and the Emmy-nominated National Geographic television series First Ascent.

Reel Rock has taken on a life of its own — it’s not just a convenient vehicle, now, it’s a pride-soaked product that’s carefully cultivated, each year aiming to somehow improve on the last.

Part of the explosive growth has been a matter of good timing in terms of technology, equipment, the rise of the Internet and YouTube and the growing interested in the relatively new sport of free climbing, says Josh Lowell, co-founder and director of Big Up. Lowell turned from climbing bum to climbing filmmaker when a finger injury took him off the rock for a few months.

“Because there weren’t a lot of other people doing serious film work about climbing, stuff got noticed,” says Lowell, who knew Mortimer and Rosen from Colorado College. Mortimer collaborated with Lowell on a couple projects, including the sports Emmy award-winning King Lines, about Chris Sharma, then Mortimer took off on his own work. Each independently ran tours to show their films around the country, before deciding to pool the efforts and infrastructure necessary to coordinate a multi-stop tour: Reel Rock.

“In 1997, when I first started filming people bouldering, I never imagined that it could be a viable business. It was just such a small, niche thing,” Lowell says. “The sport of climbing nowadays is much bigger — the number of climbers themselves, but also the awareness of climbing, and I think it kind of feeds on itself. One of the ways that awareness of climbing is increasing is through film and TV content, which we’ve had a significant hand in creating and publicizing.”

It’s a chicken and egg argument to say which came first — an interest in climbing or an audience for climbing movies. We can only say that in the last decade, both have boomed. Reel Rock has ridden that wave.

“I think we’ve had a hand in putting that out there to the world, and then the more people respect and admire climbing and climbers, the more interest there is for what we do, so it’s all been growing hand in hand,” Lowell says.

As a whole, the cultural literacy rate for climbing is up to the point that free solo climber Alex Honnold was profiled in a 60 Minutes segment and on the cover of National Geographic, and it’s fodder for commercials — like that CitiBank commercial that finishes with a female climber topping out on the red sandstone spire of Ancient Art (which, of course, was a Sender project). It’s become fashionable to wear clothes that look trailhead-ready — and even Manhattan has an REI now. Yes, it sells climbing gear.

“Nowadays, everybody knows what climbing is, everybody’s kid has gone to a birthday party at the gym, everybody’s seen something on TV — some of which we probably made — and it’s just a whole different thing now,” Lowell says. “There is definitely a lot more general awareness about what it is and a lot more kind of casual climbers.”

Climbing, as a sport, is no longer the sparsely inhabited country of a few elite. Corporate gyms include climbing walls, and people who may start there perhaps transition to climbing gyms and eventually onto real rock. Climbing has become a pastime for weekend warriors, with an estimated 6.7 million people roping up in 2012, according to the Outdoor Foundation. It’s become a team-building, self-confidence-enhancing activity utilized by corporations and kids’ camps, like The Women’s Wilderness Institute, to spur the courage, confidence, independence and problem-solving skills of girls and women.

But when it came to making climbing look appealing on film, the sport posed some unique challenges. The leading genre for outdoor sports film has long been ski films. They started making films about climbing when only ski films really had an audience. Mortimer and Rosen looked at that — what was essentially a film genre dedicated to, at its most sophisticated, visual poetry, and at a baser level, skiing porn prime for smoking bowls and swapping fist bumps to — and thought about how the differences in climbing don’t translate. Even from a distance, a casual observer can see the difference between a skier hucking cliffs and doing back flips versus a newbie half bent at the waist, pizza-wedging her way down a slope less steep than the average playground slide.

“If you just put on music and watch someone climb, you know, they do a move and then they stop and chalk up and they think about it,” Mortimer says, “The difference between a climb that we could go do and then the hardest climb in the world is this,” he curls his knuckles to a right angle, “versus this,” and he opens his hand so only the ends of the fingertips bend.

“So you have to tell stories, you have to engage the audience,” he says. “That was just a necessity borne of the medium that we’re passionate about, but it’s been our biggest asset because we’re constantly forced to push the narrative side of things to keep people excited.”

And it’s those storytelling chops that have made it possible for their work to transition to the mainstream — you don’t have to know a lot and care a lot about climbing to care a lot about a person who’s stacked up against the odds and facing what looks like a superhuman obstacle.

“A lot of our best films aren’t about life-or-death scenarios, they’re about athletic achievement, they’re about relationships between people, because that’s also a big theme in climbing, mentors and mentees,” Rosen says. “There’s a lot of elements to a good story. Sometimes it’s ‘Is he gonna die?’ Sometimes it’s ‘Are they gonna get along?’”

And it works. Audiences get so sucked in to the storytelling, he says, that they’ll put up a film about Alex Honnold ropeless 2,000 feet in the air and there’s a buzz of “Is he gonna die?” — even when Honnold is sitting in the auditorium, waiting to sign posters.

“The big moments are still the spectacular footage of the person up there dangling from the cliff by their fingertips, and you’re just like cheering them on, but it’s giving you all the context and the everything you need to know to be totally invested with that person,” Mortimer says. “We want your palms to sweat.”

From his first film, the 2001 Scary Faces, about Zac Barr’s attempt at a climb of the same name in Eldorado Canyon, and the 2003 Front Range Freaks (which won awards at Banff, Telluride Kendal, Vancouver and Taos mountain film festivals), Sender Films, and Mortimer’s work, has been about capturing the characters of climbing.

“Climbing lends itself to those stories, I mean, climbers, they always tend to be these slightly lunatic, possessed, maverick types who are willing to pretty much sacrifice anything, including their bones, to accomplish some objective, and the objective is always something that seems impossible and is kind of unprecedented and requires all this sort of build-up and training, and the stakes are always high for that person,” Rosen says. Being in Boulder, in particular, has surrounded them with wild characters and an edgy counterculture that’s infused their work.

“What I think Sender excels on, and Big Up, what I think they excel at is finding characters that are going to emerge, finding people who will jump out at you — in some cases literally,” says David Holbrooke, director of  Mountainfilm in Telluride, which regularly features films from Reel Rock. “Humans need storytelling. When they see it done well, it resonates with them in a way that makes them passionate fans. You see that with Sender.”

And there are very few other film companies in the world bringing that kind of storytelling to climbing.

Lowell credits Mortimer and Rosen with making that push for stories, but says it’s affected his work as it has matured, and has kept the Reel Rock tour ahead of the rising tide of content provided through the Internet. Anyone who wants to can hop online and watch 20 new films a day just to see some action, so to survive and succeed both as filmmakers and as a company in the steep slopes of documentary filmmaking, they’ve had to set themselves apart.

“As the Internet has become flooded with free content that can probably fulfill people’s needs for pure action, that’s also pushed us towards telling deeper stories,” says Lowell. “Collaboratively, we’ve tried to combine the best of both worlds, high end action, amazing looking shots, really stylish editing, but at the same time, weaving deep stories throughout. … We want climbers to be proud of what we’re doing and get excited by it, but we also want the material to be accessible to people who maybe are just starting to get curious about climbing, or they’re interested in general outdoor sports, or anyone really. The stories we tell are about people with big ambitions, and I think there’s something in them that anyone can get value and entertainment and inspiration from.”

It seems to be working.

“Reel Rock is just, by far, the best climbing stuff out there. I go to the Reel Rock tours just to get psyched as a climber, just to enjoy the movies,” says Honnold, the only climber to have free soloed Yosemite’s Triple Crown of big walls — and done it in a day. “I still find the films pretty inspiring and exciting. I watched the trailer yesterday and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t wait to watch them all.’”

Even though, as a frequent guest of Mortimer’s basement, he’s seen them all in rough cuts already.

Like the films that they make, where relationships form the core of what appears on screen, the magic that makes those films happen hinges on the relationships they have with the athletes.

Mortimer, a day after meeting with television networks in Los Angeles, says, “In L.A., people are like, what’s your contract with Alex? … And I’m like, ‘Dude, he’s my buddy, he’s sleeping on my couch right now.’ And they’re like, ‘Geez, he’s gonna fuck you, you gotta get a contract.’ … And we’re like, ‘No, we kinda come from this world and we’ve shared a rope together and we trust each other,’ and so I think we’re so uniquely positioned with these relationships with these athletes — and then our ability to tell these stories and work with the best filmers — to do this.”

They’re all friends, Honnold says of Sender’s crew, so when he’s got a project and someone wants to film it, he goes to Sender.

“I don’t really want anybody else hanging next to me while I’m doing that stuff because so much of it has to do with trust and relationships,” he says.

They’ll talk in advance of a shoot to plan out where to station cameras, what might look more photogenic and what sections may not be worth filming, and which areas of the climb pose problems in terms of getting a roped-up camera crew into proximity for filming Honnold in action, but really, after years of working together, the process has become faster and more efficient.

“You don’t necessarily have to even talk about planning for a lot of stuff because it’s always just kind of obvious this is the way we should do it, because we all know how much work will be involved to hike up to the top of something and rap in and shoot different parts,” Honnold says.

A team of riggers and cameramen will go in, days or weeks before a climb, and set everything so that by the time Honnold is on the rock, they’re locked in place and no one moves until Honnold is at a section where he can safely rest. Then the crew can jumar (ascend the ropes) to the next section and get set up again.

“Filming him is definitely the limit of the risky side because he doesn’t use any ropes,” Mortimer. “If he falls, he would die, and then if you interfered and were to cause that in any way, you would basically, you’d be killing a guy. … A lot of what’s exciting about climbing is these guys who really are pushing it, not just in the physical way but in the mental way, doing, as they say, doing the most dangerous things as safely as possible. That’s what they’re trying to do. And, I mean, we have really strong relationships with them, and we know them and we trust them and they trust us, and there’s a real understanding that we’re not affecting what they’re doing and they would be doing this without us there.”

And it is not, as they say, “Kodak courage” — gunning for a goal beyond your capacity just because someone is pointing a camera in your face — and a recipe for disaster or death.

While Honnold’s climbing career is built on his climbing ascents, and not films, it’s films, particularly those at Reel Rock, that have made him something of a household name and seen him named one of the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year in 2011, and in The New York Times and on 60 Minutes. The Emmy-nominated piece on him on 60 Minutes (the climbing segment for which was filmed by a Sender crew, including Mortimer), came about because a 60 Minutes producer saw a Reel Rock film on him at the Banff Film Festival.

Two years ago, “Sketchy” Andy Lewis was just a slackliner hanging around with climbers in Moab. Rosen and Mortimer got a tip about him — “People were like, you should shoot with this guy, he’s crazy!” Rosen recounts — went out, filmed him for the 2011 Reel Rock, and months after the premiere, Lewis was dancing beside Madonna at the Super Bowl halftime show. Before Lewis, there was Ueli Steck, who was known in the European climbing world but an unknown in the U.S. — until a Sender clip of him on a speed ascent up the north face of the Eiger went viral. And in 2012 there was Ashima Shiraishi, a bouldering prodigy tutored by bouldering champion Obe Carrion. She’s been profiled in The New York Times and by Outside magazine and is doing commercials in Japan — between crushing V13 bouldering problems.

They’ve got an eye for character, you could say.

“In the action sports genre that’s often one of the greatest challenges — how do you make it about more than just the action in a way that can engage audiences beyond that, and that’s an area where I think they excel,” says Baker, with Banff. “They’ve introduced us to many memorable characters over the years and told some really compelling stories.”

Banff itself, which is now, for many, considered the pinnacle of outdoor sports writing and films, started as a small-scale festival conceived by a group of climbers. The success of Reel Rock is indicative of the significant growth in that market, Baker says.

* * * *

Reel Rock 8 revisits the themes seen in earlier years — they’ve captured some of the best climbers in the world on exciting projects. But as always, there’s an emphasis on characters and a classical storytelling approach to get audiences fully invested in rooting for the success and, in some cases, the survival of these climbers.

“That’s what made them so successful in climbing films to begin with,” Honnold says. “Other climbing films were just climbing porn the way like ski porn is just collections of cool shots, and they were the first people to really have real stories with characters that you care about. … That’s what Pete is super good at is telling a story like that — finding a story.”

Among the stories they’ve found this year is that of Hazel Findlay, a British trad climber who’s built her skills on the notoriously run-out cliffs of the United Kingdom. Findlay was filmed on the cliffs in the U.K. and then traveled with a film crew, and Boulder-based Emily Harrington, to Morocco to climb Babel, a nearly 3,000-foot route in the Atlas Mountains with crux pitches graded at a brutal 5.13a. Their 16 hours of climbing started on technical slab climbing and went on to include microcrimps and runouts wandering up a bush-strewn wall and razor-blade holds prone to breaking off, making for mentally and physically demanding climbing, Harrington reported in a blog for National Geographic Adventure.

On the tough pitches, Findlay says, she didn’t even notice the Sender crew was there.

They returned to camp after 24 hours of hiking and climbing. For every minute they were climbing, the film crew was also sitting in a harness or hiking alongside, filming.

Hazel Findlay on a British cliff | Photo by Josh Lowell

“It’s not over once you do the climb. You have to go back and get extra shots,” Findlay says. Those include interviews, close-ups and scenic shots — everyone on the team is always on the lookout for extra content for the film. “It’s not like you just point the camera once and get the shot.”

There’s no one style, Rosen says — sometimes they’ve got Chris Sharma, the first climber to complete routes graded 5.15, making repeated attempts at a 200-foot cliff face with a climb stiffer than anyone has ever climbed before, and they can rig tracking systems and gyro-mounted cameras. Sometimes, it’s “expedition style,” with a cameraman they trust to travel through the misery of high alpine conditions and still run ahead to get in place for shots of faces, capturing emotions, when the camera’s hand-held — and forget about an extra sound guy, that’s never been on the menu. The camera crew they send out is entirely experienced climbers who know how to handle anything — seasoned climbers who would punch anyone they thought was worried about them.

“Honnold 3.0” from the 2012 Reel Rock was shot in a handful of days, Honnold says.

“I just told them I was going to do something and they were like, OK, sweet, we’ll make a Reel Rock piece out of it,” Honnold says. “It was such an easy project, so hassle-free, we all had fun and I did exactly what I was going to do anyway. Those were my climbing goals for the season, they just happened to be there at the same time. I didn’t even have to pose anything, they just captured my actual day of climbing and that was it.”

The crew came to meet him in Bishop on a highball bouldering project, and then following him as he climbed the Yosemite Triple Crown: Mt. Watkins, El Cap and Half Dome, roughly 7,000 feet of climbing, in just under 19 hours, 95 percent free solo with a few points of aid.

“I feel like I should have a disclaimer on this because basically you should not do this — even though I love it and I think it’s so fun,” Honnold says in the film. Off screen, Rosen can be heard laughing in response.

By September, as the tour is just having its premieres and starting its circuit around the world, Mortimer says, the Sender staff is already mapping out next year’s Reel Rock, the expeditions, climbs and journeys they want to follow.

“It’s more than a year-long cycle now,” Lowell says. “The way we’re approaching making these films, we’re shooting things we think might develop into great stories sometimes a couple years in advance. If something really fascinating’s happening, a climber has a really compelling project or a big idea, we’ll start documenting, not knowing when or even if it’s going to come into fruition. But if it does it’ll be a great story.”

Those stories don’t always turn out as planned, as this year’s segment on climbers and sherpas at Mount Everest illustrates. The film they set out to get was one of Ueli Steck, first brought to U.S. audiences in the Reel Rock film The Swiss Machine. Steck planned to link an ascent of Everest with its neighboring peak, Lhotse, in what would have been the longest deliberate stay above 8,000 meters. Cameraman Jonathan Griffith was on location to record that story. What he got, instead, was some of the only video footage of the climbers and sherpas involved in a physical fight near Camp 2 on Mt. Everest in April of this year that involved Steck and Simone Moro and ended with Steck huddled in his tent while people outside screamed death threats at him for most of an hour.

“There are so many versions of events of what happened on that face before the fight,” Rosen says. “It’s a tricky thing, this was a really intense event that happened and we felt, one thing was clear, there was a lot of misinformation in the media about what happened.”

They were never able to speak to the sherpas involved, but did get audio from an interview with one of those sherpas. They interviewed other sherpas, people who employ some of the sherpas who were involved, staff at International Mountain Guides, wilderness EMT and five-time Everest summiter Melissa Arnot, who helped break up the fight, and Norbu Tenzing, vice president of the American Himalayan Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people and protecting the ecology in the Himalaya, and the son of Tenzing Norgay, the first Sherpa to reach the summit of Everest, as well as anthropologists in an effort to better understand what happened that day.

“We’ve got exclusive footage of the fight and the only interviews with those guys,” Mortimer says. “So we’ll definitely be able to tell the full, deep story. We’ll be the first people who are able to tell that.”

Ueli Steck at a camp on Mount Everest | Photo by Jonathan Griffith

“Suffice to say there are pre-existing grievances on Everest, that day just in particular and in general,” Rosen says. “Sherpas are under a tremendous amount of pressure, they’re supporting entire families, sometimes entire communities, and they’re risking their lives to do it.”

It may stir some debate in the climbing community, Lowell says. While they’re not trying to come down on any one side, he says, maybe the big question they’re asking is whether Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is a mountain for climbers anymore.

“Can you go there as a climber and do what you want to do or not, or is it off limits, is it for guided climbers that are paying $50,000 a piece?” he asks.

After all, it is, ultimately, not just first ascents and speed records, but lives that hang in the balance, and that can become, as Rosen says, “an irreconcilable, horrible tension.”

In the years they’ve been in business, only once was the film a memorial — the episode from the First Ascents series dedicated to Micah Dash, Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson, who were killed by an avalanche in China.

“I think there’s an odds game … It’s not like one event is at all foreseeable, it’s just that you know that if you’re going to be in this business for a while, you’re going to know people who die, and you might actually be there when it happens and it might be part of your production,” says Rosen, who departed from the camp where Copp, Dash and Johnson were basing their expedition up Mt. Edgar in China two weeks before the deadly avalanche. He was the last person from the U.S. to see them alive. “Definitely, our darkest hour was China.”

* * * *

The word that regularly appears in response to Valley Uprising, Sender’s first feature film, is “ambitious.”

“There’s no question it’s ambitious,” Rosen says. “We’re trying to make the most ambitious film about climbing that’s ever been made. It’s potentially over-ambitious.”

The goal, which has had Rosen in photo archives and digging up history for more than five years, is to retell the last 50 years of history of the Yosemite Valley, the cradle of American climbing and still the hotbed of some of its more cutting-edge and controversial developments, in a single film.

The work on that film started in 2007, just a year after the first Reel Rock tour. They’ve interviewed climbing pioneers Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard. They’ve dug through the photographic archives of Glen Denny, who captured Yosemite and its climbers in the heyday of the 1960s and released an archive of hundreds of never-beforeseen images to their hands. They’ve used innovative graphics effects to reanimate those black and white photo negatives.

“If Ken Burns is like chamber music, this is like the Sex Pistols,” Rosen says. It’s a counter-culture documentary — after all, climbing used to be counter-culture.

The film splits into three segments: the 1950s and ’60s, when Warren Harding and Robbins were battling over climbing styles and first ascents, the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll Stone Masters of the 1970s and the modern era of free soloing and BASE jumping.

An image of some of the Stone Masters of the 1970s | Photo by Werner Braun

“It’s hard to make the ’50s and ’60s super exciting, at least when you read all that history in the books, it’s like, dudes climbing really slowly for long periods of time in black and white, but they did a super good job of telling it as an exciting story,” says Honnold, who will be featured in the modern segment.

An abbreviated section on the Stone Masters will screen in this year’s Reel Rock tour. The short tells the story of the drug-smuggling plane that crash landed in the high country, out of reach of law enforcement but within range of climbers, who raided it and lived lushly off the spoils for a season.

In a year that saw the Space Dive with Felix Baumgartner BASE jumping from the stratosphere and Nik Wallenda crossing the Grand Canyon on a two-inch-wide wire, the buzz is building among television networks to see people who are pushing the levels of sport do it on television — to a live audience. That’s not action Sender is willing to miss out on.

“I think people are now starting to say this stuff is interesting on a huge scale,” Mortimer says. “It’s a really exciting time, and I think we’re just at the tip if the iceberg for the levels of exposure that this stuff is getting.”

Mortimer and Honnold arrived at their latest project together: a live broadcast of Honnold free soloing one of the world’s tallest buildings.

“We have a bunch of different ideas,” Honnold says. “Our main thing was maybe we should do some kind of more mainstream project, something slightly bigger scale.”

“With the networks, we kind of throw things at the wall and see what sticks and this idea — I mean it took saying it once for people to be like, ‘I didn’t hear anything else you said, let’s talk more about that,’” Mortimer says.

At a point in the year when typically Mortimer would be wrapping Reel Rock, he was spending more of his time in conference calls with lawyers (National Geographic Channel is treating the broadcast as an “acquisition” to avoid liability), and meeting with television production companies to find a partner on what will be their first live broadcast.

“For us, we’re like, that’s cool, we get to play around in a city. It’s something different,” Honnold says. “But now that we’ve discovered how crazy it is to have all the contracts and insurance and all the stuff that goes with climbing in a city, now we’re like, oh, maybe we should have stayed outside — or at least I am, for sure.”

The building he’ll be climbing — as yet unannounced — is well within the range of a climber who has free soloed 5.12 pitches. He describes the 1,700 feet of juggy 5.10 climbing as “a romp.”

And while the networks have fretted about wind and weather, Honnold shrugs. It can’t be any worse than camping on a glacier, he says, and the building isn’t as tall as Yosemite’s El Cap.

As he’s been warming up for the climb and shooting a bit of b-roll for the broadcast, he’s gone out with Timmy O’Neill, the legendary and legendarily charismatic Boulder-based climber who chimneyed his way up a multi-story University of Colorado dorm “looking for his dog” and paused to grab snacks and chat with students through open windows along the way for the Sender film Front Range Freaks.

The climb was reprised with Honnold, though whether the more shy Honnold proved similarly capable of charming students out of their Little Debbies remains to be seen.

Reel Rock takes place Sept. 19 and 20 at the Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $20 and are available at

Editor’s note: Our writer was drawing on historical information for original seating estimates for Chautauqua Auditorium. When the auditorium was built a century ago, expected capacity for the bench seating was 5,000-6,000. When chairs were installed in a remodel, the capacity was reduced to 1,300.


Previous articleVideo and photos: A travel guide to Dar es Salaam
Next articleFlood continues to affect Boulder County; damage surveyed