Verite Bites

Posted on: October 1, 2006

[Left] Filmmaker Peter Mortimer, hard at work on his upcoming creation, First Ascent.[Filmstrip] Didier Berthod vs. the Cobra—one of North America's most difficult, and most coveted, cracks. [Photo] Peter Mortimer and Sonnie Trotter

Scene: Didier vs. the Cobra

NARRATOR: Didier Berthod, a young Swiss climber, has set out to make the first ascent of the legendary Cobra Crack, perhaps the hardest traditional climb ever done.

OPENING SHOT: We see the Cobra Crack—a long, thin line that splits an overhanging face of weathered granite right through its middle.

ZOOM IN TO THE UPPER HEADWALL: From the bottom of the frame sprout Didier's chalk-stained fingers. We hear his breathing intensify as he pulls into the steepening crack. He is trembling with the effort, but still in control.

ME, UNABLE TO CONTAIN MYSELF BEHIND THE CAMERA: "Come on dude. Come on dude. Come on dude. Come on dude."

The camera jiggles with excitement, then settles and glides closer as Didier reaches for the last hard move. We see it before he does: the final holds glisten from the morning rain. Inches from victory, he slips... and is off, for a huge whipper.

ME AND DIDIER, IN UNISON: "Aaaaaaaaghhhhh!!!!!"

Welcome to the climbing movie that has become my life.

I came to Canada's Cirque of the Uncrackables in Squamish, B.C., on my quest to make a film about first ascents, the most exciting and adventurous of all climbing pursuits. First Ascent was to be (I hoped) my biggest picture yet: an on-camera journey around the world that features the pioneers of modern climbing in a wide range of settings and disciplines. I was extra psyched because Didier, my personal climbing hero, had set out to make the FA of the Cobra Crack, a climb as elegant as it is improbable. For my relatively young filming career, it seemed like an apotheosis: the perfect climber making history on the perfect climb.

Or it would be, if Didier got up the thing. And I was pretty sure he would, if it ever stopped raining. I only had about five days left to shoot the final scene of Didier vs. the Cobra, the all-important "through-line" story that would stitch together the disparate segments of the film. But as the movie's suspense became my own, I began to realize that in real life, if not in movies, perfect things and happy endings can be elusive.

As often happens, the idea for the current film came while making the last one. For a scene in Return2Sender, I shot Didier in Indian Creek making a first ascent of a 5.13+ crack he named From Switzerland with Love. Didier threw everything he had at the climb: shoving in a heel hook above his head to place gear at the crux, risking a fall that would have landed him on the ledge below. Everybody was cheering him on, including me. Even Didier began to talk to himself in his exhausted Swiss-French accent: "Come on Didier!"

I am neurotically aware of how audiences react to each scene of my movies. When I screened Return2Sender in theaters, Didier's first-ascent efforts elicited more gasps from the audience than nearly any other performance did (well, apart from Biscuit the Terrier's paw-scraping Eldorado dog climbs). In a sport where the stakes are often high, first ascents raise them even higher: the climber is venturing into unknown and unpredictable terrain, punching through each move with the determination of someone out to leave a permanent mark on climbing. Now that makes good film.

It was only after I set out to make a film about first ascents, however, that I began to comprehend just how difficult carrying out my vision could be. After all, today, when generations of ambitious climbers have already picked off every conceivable route, the opportunities for first ascents are limited. Attempts of the few lines that are hard or scary or inaccessible enough to remain unclimbed can drag on for months if not years, burning through money, patience and sanity. Growing up in Boulder, I can remember watching hardmen gradually descend into Kurtzian madness as their interminable projects morphed into dark obsessions. Actually, that sounds like it could make great film, too—but I don't have the time or funding to hunker down for in-depth psychological documentaries. I like to drop in, shoot some thrilling stuff for a week or two, and move on to the next adventure. The chances of catching a radical first ascent on such a schedule are dauntingly low.

Berthod in Squamish’s Cirque of the Uncrackables, British Columbia, Canada. The twenty-three-year-old Swiss has distinguished himself as one of the best crack climbers in the world. [Photo] Sonnie Trotter

In Squamish, I'd managed to cobble together a budget for five weeks to shoot Didier on the Cobra; but of the last twenty days, only five had been dry. Granted, Didier had made the most of those days, and his progress on the route was inspiring. With only minimal scoping on toprope (it's way too steep to hangdog) he had quickly mastered the lower section—thirty feet of 5.12 stemming and finger jams to a key rest—and was already bearing down on the crux.

Above the rest, the wall leans out, getting steeper and more burly as it heads into a bulge, where a stretch of thirty-five feet becomes too hard to place more than one piece of gear. Didier had devised a Velcro release on his harness to hold a BD .75 cam for this section. Torquing from fingertip jams with his left hand, his feet smeared on the rippling edges of the crack, he would pause for the briefest of moments, rip the cam from his harness, fire it in, yard up the rope, clip, then lunge for the next finger lock with his right hand, gasping through clenched teeth at every jam. To gain the final roof, he shoved his middle finger upside down into the crack—like a big "Fuck you!" to the limits of modern rock climbing—cranked up off it and threw himself into a desperate series of liebacks in the final crux.

Each try, he edged a little higher before taking a forty-foot whipper, dangling in space and pleading with his forearms, but otherwise remaining unfazed, ready for another go. It was the sickest crack climbing I'd ever seen.

Meanwhile, I had my own cruxes to deal with. Shooting the Cobra the way I usually would—with one camera suspended above the climber for the close-up on the individual moves, and another "wide shot" that shows the climber and route together—fails to portray the crack's graceful steepness. Position is a challenge for climbing videographers; if you've only got rock to hang from, it's often hard to get out far enough from the wall to get a good angle. Fortunately, the Cobra is surrounded by towering evergreens that make perfect rigging anchors. Between them, we set up a Z-pully system with static ropes that allowed me to hang from a position—out and left of the climb—that offered the perfect vantage point for capturing Didier's flow on the cresting face of the Cobra with one, continuous shot. And as Didier neared the crux, someone on the ground dragged me toward him on a leash—a slow "pan and pull" that gradually intensified the action.

As far as movie magic goes, my methods are a far cry from the Wachowski brothers'. But that's just fine with me; low-budget filmmaking, besides being nice and cheap, seems to suit the rough-edged, unglamorous disposition of climbing itself. And I figure that of all the fancy techniques available to the modern climbing filmmaker, the most important is to embrace a concept that's often debased in contemporary entertainment: reality.

Historically, climbing movies were tightly scripted affairs. If I were making a climbing movie back in the predigital age, Didier and I would probably shoot on sixteen-millimeter film, which is expensive and thus used sparingly. We would wait until after he got the Cobra totally wired, then hold out for a cloudless day, in the "magic hour" of soft afternoon light, before powdering Didier's face, shooting him on sections of the route from various angles, and cutting it together into a seemingly flawless ascent. The climbing films I watched as a kid were more slick than today's films. In classics like Sentinel: The West Face, the stentorian narration removed the climbing from the realm of grit and sweat; Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard moved almost too easily up the granite, never taking falls. It was all solidly PG-13.

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