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The Choss Pile: Reel Rock 15 Review

"Black Ice" was the stand in another solid year for Reel Rock.

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I still remember the first Reel Rock showing I ever went to. It was Reel Rock 7 (“La Dura Dura,” “The Shark’s Fin,” “Wide Boyz” and “Honnold 3.0”), and they had it on the UAH campus in Huntsville, Alabama. As far as I know, it was the first and last time Reel Rock came to Huntsville. This was probably because only fifteen people showed up and five of them were a bunch of high school kids, myself included. Everyone who bought a ticket won something from the raffle (a friend of mine who didn’t even climb won a crash pad, which I was a bit peeved about).

Eight years later, Reel Rock is still going. This year, of course, was a bit different than usual, with everyone watching Reel Rock 15 from home, Alex Honnold “hosting” the premiere remotely, and athlete interviews taking place over Zoom. The 2020 compilation was a solid edition, with a diverse cast of characters and an eclectic collection of climbs, topped off with some offbeat virtual emceeing by Honnold. So let’s break it down.

Black Ice

I can’t remember the last time I watched a climbing film that wasn’t about A) Someone projecting a really hard climb, or B) Climbers on an expedition.

For that fact alone, “Black Ice” stole the show. The film depicts a group of young people from inner city Memphis, members of the nonprofit Memphis Rox gym in Soulsville, heading to Montana to go ice climbing with Conrad Anker, Fred Campbell and Manoah Ainuu.

Particularly captivating is the story of S’Lacio, a quiet young kid from the South Memphis streets, with a brother in prison, and who still is suffering the effects of gunshot wounds from several years prior. Not only did he have to invent his own way to swing his ice tool due to his gunshot injury, but S’Lacio had never been out of Memphis, never been camping, never seen snow, and had certainly never been ice climbing.

Watching him send an ice line on top rope was 100x more inspiring than watching some crusher send another 5.14d. The dynamic and camaraderie between Campbell and Ainuu (both black climbers, both crushers) and the crew from Memphis was also compelling.

Malik “The Martian” Martin in “Black Ice.” Photo: Courtesy of Reel Rock.

I’ve been a big fan of what Memphis Rox is doing ever since they opened, and it’s nice to see the gym and its mission get some more coverage, especially during a time when the underprivileged communities in our nation are hurting so badly due to the pandemic. Interestingly, the film was shot well before the summer of 2020, when events like George Floyd’s murder brought longstanding issues of racial inequality and police brutality to the forefront of American media. As a result, the after-action interview between Honnold and the cast and crew was particularly cool, since we got to hear from the folks behind the film in light of everything that’s happened in the last year, from COVID-19 to Floyd and the subsequent protests which swept the nation.

Action Directe

This was perhaps the most traditional film in the lineup, following Melissa Le Nevé’s six-year effort on the legendary Action Directe (5.14d) in the Frankenjura, which led to her becoming the first woman to send the route. There isn’t anything wrong with this film, but there isn’t anything standout, either. It’s someone training for, and eventually sending, a hard sport line. If you’ve watched a few climbing films, you’ve seen this recipe before.

That said, the immense amount of effort Le Nevé puts into the route, going so far as to give up competition climbing in order to train for this particular line, is extremely impressive and inspiring (and made me feel a bit inadequate about my own efforts to send my proj).

Melissa Le Nevé on Action Directe. Photo: Fabian Buhl.

First Ascent, Last Ascent

This buddy film follows Brits Hazel Findlay and Maddie Cope on a series of first ascents in Mongolia. There is a lot of giggling and bouncing around and general “Girls Trip!” vibes throughout, culminating in a sequence where they are reprimanded for climbing on a sacred rock by some local people.

Nevertheless, watching Cope excel as a climber and do her first first ascent is rad, and the friendship between Cope and the more experienced and well-known Findlay is well-depicted. In their defense, I wouldn’t have known I was climbing on a sacred rock either.

Hazel Findlay left) and Maddie Cope in “First Ascent, Last Ascent.” Photo: Alex Gorham.

Deep Roots

Along with “Black Ice,” “Deep Roots” was the other highlight of Reel Rock 15,. The film follows Lonnie Kauk, a sponsored snowboarder, as he embarks on a years-long journey to develop as a climber and reconnect with his father, the legendary Ron Kauk, by repeating his dad’s climbs, notably the unrepeated Magic Line (5.14c). The story also tied in Lonnie’s longstanding link to Yosemite Valley via his mother’s Native heritage. Kauk’s grandmother has been weaving baskets in the Valley for her entire life (she once presented one to the Queen of England).

The film reminds us of who the Valley originally belonged to (hint: it wasn’t Camp 4 dirtbags), and shows just how badly the American government treated them, kicking the Native people off before eventually “allowing” them to move back to their own land.

Lonnie Kauk on Magic Line. Photo: Jim Thornburg.

Lonnie’s progression as a climber is a compelling narrative, too, but it seems the filmmakers could’ve struck gold if they’d dug a little deeper. It’s mentioned that Lonnie and his father had a falling out, and that Lonnie is trying to bridge a gap with his dad through climbing, but there is no clear explanation as to what happened between them or why, and they never seem to reconcile. Ron Kauk shows up as a belayer/spotter a couple of times and that’s about it. It’s unclear why there is no substantial commentary from the elder Kauk. He just utters a few lines here and there and stands just out of the frame, wearing a stoic expression that seems to say, “I don’t want to be here.”

As I watched “Deep Roots,” I couldn’t help but think it’d be more interesting to watch a movie about Lonnie stepping out of his father’s shadow, highlighting his journey as a snowboarder or putting up his own hard climbs, as opposed to stepping into it and retracing his dad’s footsteps climb for climb with the aid of modern gear and tech. That aside, his tick of Magic Line represents a major step up from his father’s send. The elder Kauk led the line with gear pre-placed, while Lonnie manages to send placing gear ground-up, an extremely impressive accomplishment on a climb as finnicky as Magic Line.

Still, “Deep Roots” is a solid entry that manages to synthesize a bit of the old school Valley heyday, a bit of Native heritage, and a bit of beautiful climbing into a nice package.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke is a freelance writer currently based in Puerto Rico. He is a columnist for Rock and IceGym Climber and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Atlas Devices and BAÏST

He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. 

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.