Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Film Review: Vertical Frontier

Mount Everest is deeply embedded in the minds of climbers and non-climbers alike all over the world. People think about it constantly.  We hear it all the time: "what do I need to do to climb Everest?"

Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world. But that's not what's made it such a household name. No, instead, it was the countless books and documentaries that have been produced over the years describing the gruesome details of expeditions gone wrong, and the heroic efforts of climbers on successful ascents. Popular culture lore helped to create the Everest that exists in our minds...


And while there are other mountains that the collective climbing psyche is fixated on, there are few that have seen so many popular culture references. And fewer yet that have hundreds of documentary films chronicling the tales on their flanks.  Mount Everest is an international household name.  It was the scene of many heroic alpine struggles...but there are other places that deserve such an honor.  One of those places is Yosemite Valley.

Like Mount Everest, Yosemite holds an important place in the history of climbing. It is where modern rock climbing evolved the furthest, the fastest.  And it is a place where technical skill and big wall proficiency is still at the cutting edge.  One great difference between Mount Everest and Yosemite is the fact that there simply have not been as many popular culture explorations of the place and its history to climbers.

Vertical Frontier, subtitled, "A History of the Art, Sport and Philosophy of Rock Climbing in Yosemite," is a Mount Everest style documentary built for the masses.  But unlike many of the Everest documentaries, Vertical Frontier caters to climbers as well as to non-climbers, making it one of the rare films that is entertaining to both audiences.

Vertical Frontier is a slick PBS-style feature documentary narrated by Tom Brokaw that tells the story of climbing in Yosemite from the first forays onto big features in the 1800s to a battle between climbers and the National Park Service at the turn of the century.  In between these two bookends, the film follows the development of climbing skill and technique by chronicling the important ascents over the last 100 years.

Much of the film is done in a standard documentary format; a format that easily allows the filmmakers to tell the story. And though engaging, climbing history is fraught with emotion and one-upsmanship. This, unfortunately, doesn't always penetrate the documentary style.

The capstone of Yosemite's story in the film is the "coming-together" of climbers after a flood seriously impacted the valley's tourist infrastructure in 1997. The National Park Service proposed a change in Camp 4, the campground used by generations of Yosemite Climbers. They wanted to build a new lodge at the historic site.  The last minutes of the film are quite different from the rest, as they are filled with emotion as decades worth of climbers pull together to save the place that provided them with such inspiration.

This 2002 documentary won the "Best Film on Climbing" at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2002 and at the Kendall Mountain Film Festival in 2003. The film won first prize in the Mountaineering Category at the International Mountaineering Film Festival at Teplice nad Metuii in the Czech Republic in 2004.  Additionally, it won the "Viewer's Choice" award at the International Festival of Outdoor Films in 2004 and the "Best Cameraman" at the Tbilisi International Mountain Films Festival in Georgia in 2006. It may be one of the better-awarded documentaries of its type...



Many of the films we see on Youtube or at the Banff Film Festival today are about people pushing standards. They are often slickly produced and are extremely entertaining. But they don't usually give us a glimpse into what came before the climbers on screen demonstrating their acrobatic skills.  Vertical Frontier provides this and is extremely entertaining for it...

--Jason D. Martin

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a great movie.

Kristi Denton Cohen said...

For those of you who would like your own copy, we just lowered the price. http://www.verticalfrontier.org/order/

Thanks to the American Alpine Institute for your support.

Kristi Denton Cohen
Producer/Director