The Dawn Wall and Other Great Glimmerings at Mountainfilm
Filmfest shows everything from Dawn Wall to Mr. Rogers, the Okavanga Delta to the charismatic Maureen Beck.
Tommy Caldwell didn’t attend; he was in Yosemite busy trying to take the Nose speed record with Alex Honnold. But his parents took the stage at the world premiere of “The Dawn Wall” on Friday night of Mountainfilm weekend in Telluride, Colorado. Tommy, looming above them like Oz the Great and Terrible, joined in by Skype.
Unfortunately, his vocals only reached the AV room in the back of the 650-capacity Palm Theater, but the glitch only incited his parents, whose presence touched all, to say how, as his father, Mike, put it, “blown away” and proud they were. What Tommy did not realize a watcher like me in the audience would catch—I think he forgot that his head was 20 feet tall right then—was the moment at the end when he mouthed to Terry Caldwell, “Hi, Mom.” And I swear he said, “Thanks.”
Seven years. That was how long it took Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson to decipher passage up the Dawn Wall, which stacks up an unbelievable seven pitches of 5.14 and 12 of 5.13 on the 3,000-foot El Capitan. Consider, as well, some other numbers: a 40-year anniversary; a four-day festival, happening May 25-28; and 4,000 passholders. All arose from something started by what Pam Shifrin of the Mountainfilm staff said was “40, give or take,” locals who in 1979 would go climbing during the day and watch films at the historic Sheridan Opera House by night.
Another key number this year was two, the two films that felt like the ones to see … and which were poles apart.
The first was, of course, “The Dawn Wall,” chronicling Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s odyssey. The film was outstanding on many levels, one being, through the passage of light and weather, seasons and years, the excruciating amount of time amassed toward a dream that might or might not materialize. The film is so richly observed that you marvel at how not only the climbers but filmmakers spent all—and I do mean all, including 100 days on one pitch alone—those days and nights and seasons up there in the sun, cold and gusty wind.
We get to know Tommy from his origins as a “fragile little kid,” as he puts it, who crawled and talked very late and whose father took him outdoors to strengthen him, to a young adult experiencing terrorism, loss and heartbreak, ultimately lining out a path to some sort of resolution—if he could just piece it all together. In fact, one of the most effective graphics shows the hoped-for route’s disparate sections, going sideways and all over the place like scattered pieces of rice. We understand how much time Tommy spent alone, and then the terrible pressure on Kevin Jorgeson, who had been the abiding, perfect partner, when, the whole world at this point watching after a near-ludicrous media snowball effect, he stalled on the difficult pitch 15—after Tommy passed it …
The other star attraction, in a more subterranean way, was, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the cultural innovator Fred Rogers, who in the late 1950s immediately saw the power of the new medium of television and was an enormous influence in identifying and respecting the deep feelings of very young children. On his show and in his way, he also took on broad and important themes, trying to address racism during the time of segregation; explaining—briefly and gently—the word “assassination” after the death of Bobby Kennedy; and honoring individual value and variety, bringing a boy in a wheelchair as a guest on the show. The end credits (which would be easy to miss, so watch) show that boy, having become a young man, giving Rogers an award amid excitement and fanfare. The film’s producer, Caryn Capotosto, in a Q/A afterward explained that the boy was the “surprise presenter” when Rogers won a Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The venerable Mountainfilm festival always invokes a terrible balance between seeing films, which you really want to watch, and seeing people. You can’t do it all, the organization tells you. Pick some films and arrive early and get your “queue cards.” Also go for the gallery walk to see art, and the coffee and beer talks to hear visual artists, authors and more.
I saw—what, half of the films I had intended? And that is just half of the ones I was interested in. That was partly because of the tragic death of one of Mountainfilm’s greatest fans, the accomplished local mountaineer Charlotte Fox, which meant grieving with the community as well as intending on sidewalk greetings, hiking and climbing. Telluride is—I do apologize to my home town—the most beautiful of all the Colorado mountain towns, in its box canyons, maze of steep streets and gingerbread houses, cliffs and waterfall. And a via ferrata from which to see them all.
I was dying to see “RBG,” which is one of the myriad examples of this now varied and rich stew of outdoor, environmental, educational and cultural films—all of which are described in a website, a new app, and a 126-page festival booklet—but that turned into one of my sacrifices since I can see it elsewhere. I was interested in but kept missing the archival-plus-modern footage of “Return to Mount Kennedy,” the story of the namesake Bobby Whittaker, who returned to the mountain climbed by Bobby Kennedy with Whittaker’s father, Jim, first American to climb Everest. Mountainfilm has a wonderful habit of keeping an open final “TBA” day, in which films are re-shown in part according to audience feedback, for such missed chances, but to tell the sad truth, I was writing an obituary for Charlotte then, the only thing my brain would consent to do.
“Into the Okavango,” on the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a wetlands region in the Kalahari Desert, was another I wish I had seen: a look at an abundantly wildlife-rich but vulnerable area, facing such threats as those of poachers. As a friend, Annie Maest Cooney, said about this film but with words that apply to all Mountainfilm: “If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”
The “Bears Ears Battle” presentation featured Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation, and the writer-filmmaker Angelo Baca discussing our administration’s intended two-thirds reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, a plan that is anathema to recreationalists and, very deeply, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, which has for many years labored to protect these wild lands containing thousands of cultural and archeological sites.
When asked at the end of the program, “What can we do?” Branch spoke of “lifting up” the voices of Natives, and said, “Write your Congressional delegates showing them that this is a priority in terms of trying to shut down any efforts to ratify [the reduction]. … We have litigation funds also.” (See Protect Bears Ears and Utah Dine Bikeyah.)
Baca provoked huge applause with these closing words: “You have a lot of power as an American citizen. You have the ability to vote, you have social networks, bank accounts, status, clout, things the rest of the world does not have. Now is the time to work together in partnership to protect our lands.”
Max Lowe, young filmmaker, showed his and Aidan Haley’s “Adventure Not War,” about Stacy Bare, a military veteran who returned home only to troubles, drug use and thoughts of suicide. Of a mentor, Bare says in the film, “He asked me to put off killing myself for a week or two and go climbing with him, and it changed my life.” Bare began a mission to return to the countries (including Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia) where he has fought or cleaned up from warfare, and in which he is now trying to climb and ski.
A former Marine in the audience said to Bare, as he stood onstage with the crew after the showing, “I’m glad you went back to find yourself, because you lose a part of yourself there.”
Trauma was the subject of a riveting and expressive presentation by the photographer Cory Richards (who had also taken stills for the Okavango Delta presentation), in a visual and narrative memoir. Richards was the first American to climb an 8,000-meter peak in winter, and was also avalanched from it, setting off PTSD in addition to effects he had already suffered from a volatile childhood relationship. His presentation dealt with addiction, depression, divorce and general chaos—how, then, did it feel so cohesive?
His talk at the Sheridan was followed by one from David Breashears, climber, Emmy-award-winning filmmaker, and founder of the non-profit GlacierWorks educational project to document and disseminate awareness of the effects of climate change in the Greater Himalayan Region. Breashears showed different photo points in mountainous Nepal, giving old images and then “wiping” them over with barer modern ones.
“Glaciers do melt,” he said. The concern “is the acceleration.”
When he showed local Nepalis his images, he said, “All they could say to me, through an interpreter, was, ‘What’s our future?’ That is the story you see everywhere.” Sherpas, he said, “have made everything I’ve done [in the Himalaya] possible since I was 23.” Breashears represents a full circle, having been one of the festival’s early presenters and board members.
In conversations, among the many films getting buzz were “Dark Money,” on political campaign donations, which was presented by its director, Kimberly Reed; “The Interpreters,” about the painfully complex and very dangerous job of translating for U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan; the reportedly delightful “The Coffin Club,” from New Zealand, on stroppy retirees making their own coffins; and the “From the Vault” collection of favorites from past years, with various makers or participants attending (for example, Nancy Wiley, first woman to appear in a kayaking film, accompanied John Armstrong, maker of “Falling”). Among those many gems were “The Accidental Mountaineer,” about Barbara Washburn, first woman on Denali; the environmental-activism classic “The Cove,” which changed dolphin-fishing policy; “Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the South-West Buttress,” by Lito Tejades-Flores, festival originator; “God Grew Tired of Us,” about the Lost Boys of Sudan; and the hilarious “The Lost People of Mountain Village” by Neal Marlens and Carol Black.
If you haven’t seen “Break on Through,” about the thoughtful and focused Margo Hayes, first female to climb a confirmed 5.15, or “Stumped,” the raucous and winsome tale of Maureen Beck, a climber who is missing one arm to the elbow, in the Reel Rock film fest, watch for ’em.
For further information, see mountainfilm. See also the historical and pictorial tome Mountainfilm: 40 Years by Susan Dalton (available at Between the Covers Bookstore on Main Street, Telluride, (970) 728-4504, or here.)
Charlotte Fox, 1957-2018, Accomplished High-Altitude Mountaineer, Dies In Telluride
Mountainfilm 2013: Whittaker Says Missed Sex and Salad Most