Valley Downfall: How Valley Uprising Distorts Climbing History
We climbers have always been a bit of an insular bunch. To a substantial degree we live in our own little world with our own joys and triumphs and our own concerns and controversies. Yet there is reason to believe that this isolation may be coming to an end; through increasing media exposure and the proliferation of indoor gyms, climbing is creeping ever closer to being a mainstream sport like skiing and snowboarding. With this newfound popularity comes some great opportunities but also a host of challenges, not the least of which is educating newcomers in the history of our sport. I do not believe it is a coincidence that a film as sleek and mainstream as Valley Uprising arrived when it did last year. A whole new generation of climbers, exposed to climbing through gyms and TV features rather than through literature, has been arriving for years now and little has been done to bring them up to speed on who came before them. Many have criticized Valley Uprising and many more have defended it, but all should agree that films like it have a responsibility to depict their subjects as truthfully as they can. This is where Valley Uprising fails, not as a film but as a piece of historical documentation.
When I first heard about Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer’s then upcoming documentary, Valley Uprising, I was ecstatic, and not just because this was at Reel Rock 8 and they were giving out free beer. I had just finished reading Joseph Taylor’s monograph Pilgrims of the Vertical and was excited to recognize the talking heads and recall the larger stories behind their anecdotes. But by the time I actually walked into the theatre last fall I was prepared to be disappointed; this was largely because I had read Andrew Bisharat’s review of the film and it had confirmed my fears. The film is, as he described it, a nostalgic hippie fantasy focused on the mythic “Stonemasters” and their storied, often drug-laced, exploits, which is to put it rather more harshly than Bisharat ever did and, to his credit, alongside his criticisms he found much to be admired in the film.
What it came down to for him was the seeming lack of awareness among the filmmakers of the inherent sadness of the story being told: Royal Robbins and Warren Harding going to war on each other’s routes and then abandoning the valley; the “Stonemasters’” tightknit bonds falling apart over bolting disputes and personality conflicts; the decline of the dirtbag lifestyle and the “Stone Monkeys’” desperate and depressing efforts to fight an increasingly militant park service. The film tries to tell a story of climbers versus the world, of climbing as a counter-cultural phenomenon that thrives in the extreme environment of the massive granite walls, but by the end of the film this thesis begins to wear a bit thin. Climbing is embraced in the valley today, and so the film is forced to focus on what is still illegal: out of bounds camping and base jumping, with extensive footage of Dean Potter et al. As Bisharat and others have pointed out, it seems at least a little unfair that major advances in free climbing and free soloing by such figures as Peter Croft and Todd Skinner are left out so that more footage can be shown of activities like Potter’s “free base” climbing, something it is no exaggeration to say that only he does.
None of this is intended to continue a ‘where’s my favorite climber’ debate, where we all sit around and complain about what the filmmakers didn’t include, like some sad, aging, Lord of the Rings fan who can’t understand why Peter Jackson left out Tom Bombadil. The point is not that they couldn’t include everyone, it is that running time is no excuse for a flawed narrative. I know exactly how this excuse works because I’ve used it many times myself – “I would have loved to include that scholar’s views but professor so-and-so, I had to keep my paper under your ten page limit” – and it’s bullshit. It’s something you say when you have found information devastating to your thesis but can’t handle the thought of a rewrite. Intellectually, it’s a cop out.
When you take a class in historical theory one of the first things they tell you is that constructing a narrative is as much about what you leave out as what you include. The very fact that you are telling that story and not some other story betrays everything about your values through what you believe is and is not important to talk about. Rosen and Mortimer made the decisions they made not just for reasons of running time (at well under two hours, the film is actually quite short) but for the shaping of the narrative they wished to tell. To say otherwise would be to insult their skills as filmmakers and their ability to construct a coherent and focused
A big red flag for me, as I watched the introduction of the film, was the lack of any academic historians. Most egregious was the absence of Joseph Taylor, whose book Pilgrims of the Vertical is the only full length academic history of climbing in Yosemite Valley ever published. Climbing has always had a multitude of amateur historians and more recently a few professionals have started to realize how ripe for study the climbing tradition is, but Taylor’s analysis of the greater sweep of climbing in the western united states is unprecedented and unequaled. With the absence of him or someone like him, this documentary’s historical authority is akin to that of a film about the middle ages based on interviews with renaissance fair attendees. If this is an overstatement, it is only because so many of the major figures of Yosemite climbing history are still alive. Yet critical gaps remain: we hear from Royal Robbins but not Warren Harding and John Long but not John Bachar. It seems an unlikely coincidence that the film’s two most romantically portrayed figures are those who are not around to be interviewed.
One could plausibly argue that Valley Uprising’s thesis, that Yosemite is the birthplace of climbing as we know it and that climbing constitutes a counter-cultural movement, is erroneous. Those interested should consult Bruce Fairley article, “Mountaineering and the Ethics of Technique,” Pilgrims of the Vertical, or really any history of climbing written by a qualified historian rather than by a climber. My purpose here is not to actually refute Valley Uprising, but to show that it is historically irresponsible. Whether or not it is correct, it is bad scholarship. Its faults are myriad: it fails to consult legitimate historians in favor of survivors and pop journalists, it obscures those portions of the record that do not conform to its thesis and tries to pass this off as a necessary and incidental sacrifice, and it makes an argument without acknowledging that it is doing so, presenting its story as the story rather than a story.
Mortimer and Rosen’s documentary style is fluid enough that really understanding what they are doing can be somewhat difficult. The complex overlay of still images, contemporary and vintage video clips, and interviews, with Peter Sarsgaard’s narration makes the film very compelling and entertaining, while obscuring how shaky the argument actually is. As primary evidence the film presents clips from interviews with around forty noted climbers, as well as four non-climbers: a park ranger, a journalist, and two partners of climbers. Despite the diversity this would suggest, the vast majority of the commentary comes from sixteen of those figures, all but one of whom are famous climbers, all but one of whom are male, and half of whom are “Stonemasters” or their close associates.
As for the actual climbs and climbers being discussed, twenty climbers are mentioned in the narration: eight from the “Golden Age,” seven “Stonemasters,” and four “Stone Monkeys,” plus Hans Florine, who is mentioned only in passing. In fact, eleven of those twenty are mentioned only in passing, with most of the narrative discussing the climbs of seven men and one woman, as well as the exploits of Charles “Chongo Chuck” Tucker. To place all of this in context, Mortimer and Rosen use their own commentary, spoken by Peter Sarsgaard, as well as clips from an interview with Daniel Duane, author of the pop history book El Capitan. Exactly how Duane is qualified to provide expert commentary on the history of Yosemite is unclear to me. He is a journalist whose other work includes memoirs regarding his climbing, surfing and cooking exploits, as well as several novels, one of which is climbing themed.
If this seems like a somewhat limited perspective for filmmakers that set out to make the “big definitive history of Yosemite,” it is a problem they were aware of, explaining in the special features that “one of the toughest parts of making this film was deciding who to leave out.” The context for this statement is not, however, what many seem to assume, the exclusion of the many notable climbers other critics have brought up. Instead the it was in relation to their decision to remove from the narrative one of the more notorious “Stonemasters,” John Yablonski.
What we really have in Valley Uprising is therefore not in any way a comprehensive history of climbing in Yosemite Valley but rather a series of first-person anecdotes. It is the “Golden Age” according to Royal Robbins and Steve Roper, the exploits of the “Stonemasters” according to the survivors of that group, and a loosely patched together contemporary history that revolves largely around Dean Potter and Alex Honnold. When you actually break the film’s narrative down into the climbs that it address specifically you begin to understand just how scant Rosen and Mortimer’s narrative really is. The first specific climb they mention is Half Dome, followed by the Nose with Robbins’ repeat, the Wall of Early Morning Light with Robbins’ repeat, the Nose in a day, Hill’s free climb of the Nose, the Nose speed record, and then finally Potter and Honnold’s solo link-ups of those routes. A substantial amount of footage is shown of other climbs but they are not mentioned by name. Mortimer and Rosen pad all of this out with a great deal of cultural information about life in Yosemite Valley but the bare bones of the narrative remains the progression of climbing on only three routes.
At one point in the special features Rosen and Mortimer explain that their goal was to create a “kinetic punk-rock film.” What this comment betrays was that Rosen and Mortimer’s priority with the film was not to truthfully represent their subjects but to entertain their viewers. This is supported by the film’s short running length, as well as their habit of overlaying audio clips so that it is difficult to tell who is speaking unless the viewer recognizes the figures by voice. If the film presented itself as the story of some people who climbed in Yosemite this would be excusable, but it doesn’t. Mortimer and Rosen set out to make a definitive history of Yosemite climbing and those intensions shine through; there is nothing in the film, outside its closing credits, to suggest that they are telling only a fraction of the story.
This is the problem commentators like myself and Bisharat run into critiquing the film: it’s just so good, so entertaining; it is a truly quality piece of filmmaking. When I have spoken to my friends about my concerns they get this vaguely glazed-over, mildly exasperated look on their faces because they liked the film and they know I did too. That it is perpetuating what I suspect to be the single most significant mistake climbers make in assessing their relationship to mainstream society, that they are somehow apart from it, is obscured by exactly how excellent of a job Mortimer and Rosen did.
Again, none of this would really be a problem if not for the historical pretensions of the film. The research and specifically the interview footage Mortimer and Rosen gathered is unprecedented and will be of invaluable assistance to future historians. Royal Robbins admitting that his attack on the Wall of Early Morning Light came out of his anger that Warren Harding was getting all the credit – this is something climbers have suspected for fifty years and he has always denied. The problem, like with so much other pop history, is that it is approached like journalism. They conducted a truly impressive amount of original research while giving a depressingly miniscule amount of attention to the secondary literature that could have informed that research. As far as I can tell, neither Mortimer nor Rosen have any training as historians; their degrees are in geology and political science. What they create is entertainment that looks like history, that claims to be history, but if treated as history is utterly reprehensible.
Jacob Smith is a climber and writer based in Seattle. He recently graduated from Seattle University and has been climbing and reading about climbing for about five years. This is his second contribution to Fringe’s Folly. Thanks, Jacob!