When I was working as the senior editor at Rock and Ice magazine, there was one year when I had to put my foot down.
“Do you think that we could go, I dunno, at least three issues without putting the Stonemasters on the cover?” I whined.
My complaint was mostly rhetorical. People love the Stonemasters. I love the Stonemasters. Everyone loves the Stonemasters. Put “Stonemasters” on a cover and you’re guaranteed to sell issues.
But sometimes I thought, Geez, hasn’t anyone else done anything cool in climbing besides the Stonemasters?! By so frequently writing about a group of dudes who did all their most important ascents almost 40 years ago, I felt as if we were all guilty of chronic Stonemasturbating.
My half-rhetorical protest was taken half-seriously by my coworkers. I think we made it at least four issues without a Stonemasters reference … And to be honest, it wasn’t easy. The Stonemasters are the cultural nucleus of our sport. We’re all just a bunch of electrons doomed to buzz around their colossal mass.
Several months ago I caught an advanced screening of Valley Uprising, the star (and only) feature film in this year’s REEL ROCK tour. From the tireless and talented producers Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer at Sender Films, Valley Uprising has been years in the making. In fact, I’ve been hearing about this film for as long as I’ve know Nick and Pete. Huge congrats to all my friends at Sender Films and Big Up Productions for finally finishing this incredible legacy project.
Valley Uprising is the story of modern rock climbing in Yosemite—which is to say, the story of modern rock climbing period. If you’re a climber, then Valley Uprising is our Bible: chapter Genesis. This film shows how climbing as we know it came to be. Our culture, style, norms, rules, gear, ideas and attitudes: all were tempered within the crucible that is The Valley.
With a heavy focus on personality and image, Valley Uprising paints a portrait of climbing as a counter-cultural response to the risk-averse climate of post-War America. Climbing was, is and always will be a refuge for those who don’t want to buy into traditional norms. Do drugs, drink hard, fuck authority and live free. (Maybe even go climbing, too!) Right on!
Beginning with the climbers of Yosemite’s “Golden Age” (1955-1970), then going to the Stonemasters era (1973-1980), then continuing up to this day with the so-called “Stone Monkey” era (1998-present), Valley Uprising shows a Yosemite-centric evolution of rock climbing through some of the most iconic and mythologized figures in our sport’s pantheon. John Salathé, Warren Harding, Royal Robbins, Jim Bridwell, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, Dean Potter and Alex Honnold: These are the climbing stars who form the constellations toward which Valley Uprising sails.
I consider Valley Uprising MANDATORY viewing for all climbers—ESPECIALLY if you’re one of those young/new climbers who thinks Royal Robbins is a clothing line and Warren Harding was a president.
Don’t be ashamed of your woeful ignorance. Just fix it, right now, and get up to speed on your sport’s roots. Purchase Valley Uprising on Vimeo on Demand.
Before you watch the film, consider this question: Why has REEL ROCK shifted gears this year, from showing us incredible new footage of climbing’s state-of-the-art to instead looking back at a set of archival images that revisit the most well-known stories of our sport’s inescapably Yosemite-centric past?
I ask that question not as a shallow critique of REEL ROCK but because I believe there is a profound response. Think about it.
Why are we watching this film in 2014—really? And what does our pervasive nostalgia for 1970s-era Yosemite climbing culture suggest about our sport today?
The question of whether we even are nostalgic for Yosemite’s Golden Age and Stonemaster era, I think, is answered by the fact Valley Uprising is the only film in this year’s REEL ROCK tour. Obviously, we’re nostalgic. This film isn’t made just for a core climbing audience, but for a mainstream one as well. In other words, people who aren’t even climbers are probably nostalgic for Yosemite in the 1970s, even if they don’t know it yet.
One area in which I think Sender Films is exceptional is that their storytelling often does a fantastic job of walking the fine line between core and mainstream audiences—including one group while not alienating another. This is not an easy feat, trust me, and it really speaks to Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s keen sense of what people will find interesting.
Yet perhaps as a result of this inclusivity, Valley Uprising focuses more on image and personality and less on substance. You see this through the numerous references to all the climbers’ preferences for drugs, booze and free-spirited living; through their constant championing of such abstract (ultimately meaningless) ideals like boldness and risk; and through countless mythologizing hyperboles like “We were running on adrenaline and uncontainable ambition” (Largo).
But you also see the filmmakers’ preference for image by counting who is included in the film, and who is not. Valley Uprising is certainly one side of Yosemite’s story, but it’s far from the whole one (as I’m sure Rosen and Mortimer would concede).
According to Valley Uprising, there were three periods worth mentioning: the Golden Age (1953-1970), the Stonemasters (1973-1980) and the Stone Monkeys (1998-present). There is no mention of Max Jones, Mark Hudon, Kurt Smith, Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, or Alex and Thomas Huber (there are others, too, but to me those were the most glaring omissions). If Valley Uprising aims to show how climbing in Yosemite has progressed and evolved, to not mention these absolute visionaries actually feels like a major injustice.
Yet at the same time, I wouldn’t have cut anyone who is already in the film to put those others in, despite the fact that I’ve never been a huge proponent of the Stone Monkey’s media machine that somehow finds a way to awkwardly insert itself and its legacy at every opportunity it gets. …
Again, I’m not critiquing the filmmakers but rather building a case that Valley Uprising is more about satisfying our nostalgia for Yosemite in the 1970s than it is about providing an accurate depiction of the evolution of big-wall free climbing. And in terms of being able to alleviate our deep nostalgia for the past, Hudon and Jones, Skinner and Piana, and even the Huber brothers just don’t cut it. They don’t fit into that narrative of hard-driving, drug-taking, image-obsessed Stonemasters, which is the narrative that we, apparently, need today. They never have fit into that narrative, and that’s why their legacies will remain diminished.
Nostalgia has the Greek roots nostos, meaning “return home,” and algia, meaning “longing.” An academic essay by Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as a “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.”
In other words, nostalgia is a yearning for a utopia gone. And that really is the story of Yosemite in general. If Valley Uprising is climbing’s “Genesis” story, then consider all the ways in which we’ve fallen from Eden—not just with sport climbing and bolts playing the part of forbidden fruit, but also in terms of how Yosemite has so drastically changed from an untapped wilderness 100 years ago to today’s scene of draconian regulations and appalling commercialization.
I’ll be honest. I thought Valley Uprising was an overwhelmingly sad film. Though the film is peppered with fun moments and one liners that made me laugh, in general I was deeply depressed by Valley Uprising.
“The Stonemasters fit what [Yosemite] was. They didn’t fit what it became,” Largo pontificates, accurately. Perhaps our nostalgia for Yosemite in the 1970s can be explained by some kind of perpetuating desire deep in our collective unconscious to hear stories about how Eden was taken away from us. On so many levels, Yosemite is that story.
The Valley really has become a shitty place to hang out, and it only seems to be getting shittier every year. But who is going to do anything about it?
“The Stonemasters were all about pushing the limit and pissing off the status quo,” said Steve Roper in the film. Compare that to today’s brand of climber. We are doing a fantastic job of pushing the limits—better than any climbing generation before us. Yet we are not pissing off the status quo. Far from it. This current generation is not rebelling or fighting for our freedom. Rather, we have evolved to become a generation with a particularly high tolerance for restriction in our lives. When we’re forced to sneak through these increasingly constrictive loopholes to occasionally catch that glimpse of unbound freedom, we’re not pissed off about having to sneak through the loopholes, but grateful. Look at Honnold who, we see in the film, commuting in and out of the Park each day. It’s a hassle, he admits, but he quickly qualifies that grievance with a sort of melancholic and simple gratitude just for being able to climb in Yosemite at any level at all.
I wonder if our deeply repressed grievances over the restrictions we all face on our freedom today explains our profound nostalgia for 1970s-era Yosemite. Perhaps, but there’s more.
It’s not just we climbers who are nostalgic. Nostalgia is perhaps the defining symptom of our age. Everywhere you look people are recycling the past. Thanks to all our digital archives in which every waking moment of our lives are increasingly documented through photographs and videos, it has never been easier to do this. Just go onto the internet if you want relive recent history and vicariously install yourself in a different frame of time and mind. The result is a pop cultural stasis unlike we’ve ever known. This is true in music (Diddy “takin’ hits from the 80’s, make it sound so cra-zay!”; Girl Talk; etc.) and film (just look at all the remakes and sequels).
The entire hipster culture is nothing if not genuine nostalgia, loosely wrapped in extreme irony.
Periods of intense nostalgia have also been noted to follow revolutions. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the end of the Cold War all resulted in political and cultural manifestations of nostalgia in those societies. I suspect the same is true for us as we attempt to make sense of our own “Uprising,” which of course was the climbing revolution that took place in Yosemite. It’s ironic that a historical film reliving climbing’s 60-year-old past could unintentionally become the most appropriate film for all of us today—not through its content, per se, but rather through our obsessive desire to relive it.
Look at how far and how fast climbing has gone. Royal Robbins, the architect of our entire sport, is still alive and kicking. Climbing is just not that old—but my how it has changed! The demographic of climbing today is one in which we have of everyone from OG godfather Royal Robbins all the way down to Ashima Shiraishi.
It makes a lot of sense that we’re feeling so confused about what climbing is supposed to look like; that we’re fatigued by hearing about the astronomic leaps and bounds in difficulty grades each season; and that some part of us just wishes to return to a place when climbing was simpler and in some ways, better. All of this explains why Valley Uprising might be the only film in REEL ROCK this year. What other stories are there that are worth telling today? Do you really want to see another film of Sharma climbing some 5.15?
Halfway through Valley Uprising, Lynn Hill produced this extra prescient nugget: “If you start believing your own myth, that can mess you up.”
There was another reason that I found Valley Uprising quite sad, beyond just the aforementioned Jungian lamentations over paradise lost. And that was because Valley Uprising doesn’t shy away from showing the truly negative aspects of our sport. Though I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure this was a conscious decision by the filmmakers. Valley Uprising is a wholly sad story. At each turn, our heroes fall from grace and what we’re left with is the reality that the foundation of our sport was built on nothing more than flimsy egomania. Here’s what I mean:
The film begins with the Golden Age of climbers who arrive in Yosemite with great, noble intentions: the pursuit of adventure in the face of a risk-averse American culture in the aftermath of World War II. Royal Robbins and Warren Harding are true American pioneers in every sense. Yet this story quickly devolves into a personality pissing match between two monstrous egos that gets played out on the rock (and at the rock’s expense). And when their conflict reaches its natural apogee on the Dawn Wall, we learn that neither Robbins nor Harding ever climb in Yosemite again, suggesting that they didn’t really love the sport; they were just driven by their own ego all along.
Robbins goes off to become a big corporate businessman while Harding drinks himself to death on his mother’s porch.
Then we come to the film’s main attraction: The Stonemasters: Again, they show up in the Valley with great, noble ambition and the fire and talent to do great things (though apparently, it was mostly all about the drugs). Yet their tight-knit group dissolves when individual egos grow to uncontainable proportions. People disperse, become embittered and disparage things like sport climbing while living out an honestly lonely existence.
Nothing, apparently, happened in Yosemite in the 1980s because the film fast-forwards to the 1990s, when it provides a quick obligatory nod to the movie’s single female character, Lynn Hill, for freeing the Nose—“It goes, boys!” Then we’re off, fast-forwarding to Dean Potter, the Stone Monkeys and Alex Honnold. And here the film gets muddled and confusing because the focus is less on climbing, and more on its tangential outgrowths such as high-lining and BASE jumping.
Again, that Valley Uprising loses its focus during this era of Yosemite speaks not only to the fact that the Stone Monkeys aren’t a real thing—just an image-obsessed regurgitation of the Stonemasters (again, a result of this particular brand of nostalgia)—but it also speaks to the fact that climbing has gotten so huge that we have completely lost our ability to see it with any clarity.
There are so many facets to climbing today. If you were asked to paint a complete picture of climbing today to someone who doesn’t climb, where would you even begin? The very thought of trying to do that overwhelms me.
Also, none of today’s climbers fit the traditional narrative and myth that we want to continue telling ourselves. Tommy Caldwell is going to free the Dawn Wall using wholesale sport tactics, including the addition of new bolts, fixed ropes and multi-year sieges—yet how does that honestly reconcile with the Harding/Robbins rivalry? It doesn’t (and that’s OK).
Alex Honnold, the boldest climber of our time, learned to climb in a gym.
And the best female climber in the world might actually be a 13-year-old girl with bangs.
Climbing as a sport, lifestyle and culture has become so enormous that it’s impossible to fit today’s climbing landscape on a single canvas. It’s confusing and nuanced and not at all simple and that, perhaps, it makes us yearn nostalgically for those simpler times.
The result of nostalgia is a mythologizing of the past—a desire to turn what once was into what we wish it was like. Perhaps because we all yearn to be in a different place or time—something perfect like in our childhood.
Valley Uprising is a symptom of our pervasive nostalgia for 1970s Yosemite culture—but perhaps, it’s also the cure. When I watched it, I was reminded that many of these larger-than-life titans of climbing were largely motivated by image and ego. It’s something I guess I’ve always known, but it was quite another thing for me to see it on a big screen. In that regard, I suppose this is a good thing. Perhaps Valley Uprising will ultimately help relieve us of our nostalgia—by reminding us that the past wasn’t all that great either.