El Capitan: The Movie
Posted on: October 1, 2012
[Photo] Glen Denny
"I will often stand at the places I looked down at from the wall during those days and those twenty-one nights—during the deadening frost of morning, the searing heat of day, the nostalgic shades of evening, during the hours of starlight, moonlight and storm—and from those places I will look up at that shimmering sea of granite, and remember how it was upon that sea." —Glen Denny to Steve Roper, December 29, 1962, after establishing the third route on El Cap
"It is my feeling that in no other area of the country, with the possible exception of the Northwest, do so many of the climbers climb quite so much for personal publicity.... Increasingly, in the past few years, there have been those whose primary motivation in climbing is an excessive, overt desire for notoriety. Obviously, the American public does not appreciate such a climber, nor do most of his contemporaries, who are easily able to see through such braggadocio." —Roper, A Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley, 1964
IN SEPTEMBER 1958, Glen Denny drove to Yosemite and found himself stuck in a traffic jam. El Capitan reared above, towering over the Valley floor for more than three thousand feet. Ropes hung from the lower flanks of the wall. Tiny dots moved across the rock like ants: climbers. Warren Harding and a handful of partners were inching their way up the Nose. Tourists stopped their cars to gawk, gumming up the road. Denny was one of them. He'd just dropped out of college to learn how to climb. "I looked up, and it just blew me away," he recalls.
From that moment on, Denny wanted nothing more than to climb El Cap. He got a job at Yosemite Lodge and met Harding, whom he recognized from the newspaper photos. Harding took Denny up After Six. Denny led the second pitch, not really sure how to place pitons, and climbed himself into a dead end. He tried to reverse a move, fell, ripped two pins, and plummeted past the belay. He hung off his one good piton just above the ground. "Beautiful form," Harding said. "Especially on the way down." Harding suggested they try a friction climb next. Denny said he thought his fingers were shot. "Don't worry," Harding reassured him, "there won't be any handholds." Harding and Denny went on to make a series of classic first ascents that to this day remain legendary climbs: Washington Column, the Southwest Face of Mt. Conness, Keeler Needle, Leaning Tower and the Rostrum. In 1962 Denny got his shot at El Cap. The Big Stone had only been climbed three times by major routes, twice by the Nose, once by the Salathe Wall. That spring, two brash outsiders—Seattle's Ed Cooper and the Canadian Jim Baldwin—arrived in Yosemite and laid siege to a new line on El Cap. They called the route the Dihedral Wall. The project dragged on for weeks. As Baldwin was climbing a fixed line, his prusik failed, and he slid to the end of the rope where an anchor stopped him from continuing to the Valley floor. His hands were like hamburger. Then the feds arrested Cooper, who'd bragged to a newspaper about an illegal climb on Mt. Rainier. When Cooper and Baldwin were able to return in the autumn, Denny joined the effort. The trio finished the route, topping out after a six-and-a-half day final push. "The wall was my greatest aesthetic climbing experience yet (as well as physical)," Denny said to his friend Steve Roper. "The exhilaration at the summit was absolutely incredible."
Denny's bliss disappeared once he saw the crowd of reporters that Cooper had summoned. "The summit was dead," Denny told Roper. "Cooper had contacted the world of sensationalism, and the goddamn thing ruined the summit. And so the uncomprehending newsmen were there, and it was terrible.... I walked away from the summit down the trail last, and sad."
It wasn't the only time Denny would have his heart broken on El Cap. For a decade, the wall dominated his life. After he put up the Dihedral route, Denny returned to make the third ascent of the Nose (with Roper and Layton Kor). "Why can't we be faster than anyone ever has been?" Denny wrote to Roper before they set off. "An amazing four-day ascent, one which will amaze the hell out of everyone. Just think—almost twice as fast as the second ascent. This is what can make the Nose an almost immortal thing for us.... Five will be OK—a fine performance, which will be historical also. But four would be an amazing breakthrough in speed. I am consumed with this idea.... Three and a half days. We can do it man. Someone will do it someday. To hell with waiting for it to happen gradually."
They did it in three and a half days. After going back to college, Denny decided he wanted to make a film about climbing the Nose. He put together a strong team of climbers, enlisted his filmmaking professor Fred Padula, raised some money, rented a helicopter and spent two months shooting El Cap from every conceivable vantage point. Then Denny walked away—disgusted that the project seemed to be veering toward commercialization. It was the Dihedral Wall all over again.
Denny's footage languished for a decade until Padula edited it into El Capitan, which won the Grand Prize at the 1979 Banff Film Festival. "Amongst climbing films, El Capitan is without peer in poetic beauty," the jury wrote. "The best climbing film I have ever seen," added Yvon Chouinard. Recently I was talking to Royal Robbins about cinematic efforts to portray the sport. "El Capitan," he tells me, "is my favorite climbing film."
Few people have seen the movie in recent years. But now Padula is releasing a digitally re-mastered DVD version of the work—forty-four years after he first walked up to the base of El Cap and shook his head at the impossibility of making a movie on the wall. Filming El Cap, as it turned out, would be the easy part.