El Capitan: The Movie
[Photo] Glen Denny
JOHN EVANS COULDN'T MAKE IT, so Denny had to find another climber. He asked Chuck Pratt, who'd done rigging on the Sentinel Rock film, but the tedium of moviemaking didn't appeal to him. Tompkins suggested Argentine alpinist Jose Luis Fonrouge, who was staying with Tompkins and climbing in Yosemite that spring. Although Fonrouge was just twenty-six, three years earlier he'd made the second ascent of Fitz Roy—putting up a new route, alpinestyle, on that fearsome peak. (Fonrouge died in 2001.) When they filmed a screen test of Fonrouge climbing, the rest of the team was unimpressed. "Colliver and McCracken refused to climb with Fonrouge," says Padula. "They thought he was too cavalier."
"I liked that Fonrouge was from a different place," adds Tompkins. "It would put some spice into the film. But he wasn't very good. He didn't talk much."
Tompkins next pushed for his friend Yvon Chouinard. Denny and Padula shot some footage of Chouinard as well, but he didn't seem interested in the project. Tompkins then suggested including himself.
"Tompkins said, 'These guys aren't interesting personalities,'" Denny recalls. "'Let's get Fonrouge in there. And I'll be the other guy.' I said, 'No. I can't slap these guys in the face.' I wasn't going to kick my friends out. Doug didn't like that."
"I wanted to be up there with guys who had already been up there," Denny adds. "Doug said, 'It'll be more fresh.' I said, 'It'll be fresh enough.' Then Tompkins was heavily pushing Yvon."
Finally, Tompkins suggested Lito Tejada-Flores, a jovial climber who'd been McCracken's college roommate years before. "Lito blossomed the whole project," Padula says. "He was full of energy and enthusiasm. It was contagious. Lito was a miracle. He saved the film."
THE SHOOTING WAS SCHEDULED to begin in May before the Valley heated up. But Padula had problems with the sound equipment. The range of the wireless mics was limited. The transmitting hardware that each climber had to wear was the size of a coffee-table book. After some cajoling, the electronics tech was able to shrink the hardware down to the size of a cigarette box. They hid the mics in tubular webbing that the climbers slung over their shoulders. Denny's girlfriend Ellen Fry sewed up the battery packs and transmitting boxes into vests for the climbers to wear. To boost the signals, they trailed aerials down their pant legs. Tejada hung hardware off the webbing hiding his mic, which ripped the wiring off. It never worked quite right again. They needed someone to change tapes in the recording shed, but they couldn't afford a real sound tech. A young man named Art Rochester, who was in the Valley recording birdsongs, volunteered to help out. All the tinkering delayed filming by weeks. "Denny begins his film of the El Cap Nose," Roper jotted in his diary on May 20.
Over the next few weeks, the climbers fixed lines to El Cap Tower, about halfway up. Denny filmed the climbing from below, then ascended the fixed line, pulled up the rope and asked the team to re-lead the pitch so he could film from above. He also hung from ropes and filmed a third lead from the side. Denny was so absorbed in filming that more than once he forgot to attach himself to his Jumars, jugging the fixed line with nothing securing him to the rope except his grip. "It wasn't like normal climbing," says Colliver. "It was a job."
Denny shouldered an Arriflex 16mm camera with a heavy belt of batteries around his waist. The camera shot 100-foot loads of film, which would normally translate into fewer than three minutes of film time. But you had to change film in absolute darkness, which was impractical on a wall, so Denny shaded the camera with his body, knowing that part of every roll would be ruined by light exposure. "I'd get about two minutes of usable footage from each roll," he says. "We could get thorough coverage of about two pitches a day. We thought it would take a month, but it took two. We were learning as we were going."
At night, they rappelled back to the ground. After every day of shooting, someone had to drive the film nearly 200 miles to San Francisco, wait for it to be processed, and drive it back to Valley for viewing in the crew house. When one batch came back, Padula couldn't find Denny. It turned out he'd hiked to the top of El Cap to photograph Royal Robbins finishing a ten-day ascent of the Muir Wall, the first time anyone had soloed the Big Stone.
"Doug got very discouraged seeing this stuff," Padula says. "I saw it as problems we could correct. Doug said, 'Oh God, I got all this money tied up, and it's not working out.' There was friction between Glen and Doug. Doug had visions of another Endless Summer. Glen was going to make this beautiful art film. Doug said, 'These guys don't know what the hell they're doing.' He was right."
"I didn't like the way it was going," Tompkins says. "It was going to end up being flat. The conversations recorded between the climbers were boring and repetitive. In five minutes, the audience is going to be bored."
ON MAY 25, Fonrouge and Rick Sylvester decided to climb the Nose on their own. The two had done a handful of routes in the Valley, including an attempt to link up Royal Arches with the South Face of North Dome—a climb that included a bivy and ended with a retreat from North Dome. On another occasion, Fonrouge failed to tie a tagline correctly and dropped the rope halfway up the pitch. Sylvester himself had never done a big wall and had only a few pitches of aid under his belt. For the Nose, Fonrouge showed up with some unexpected equipment: a 16mm camera. He had an assignment, he told Sylvester, to film the ascent for Argentine television. The first part of the climb didn't go well. Fonrouge got off route in the Stoveleg Crack and took a whipper, which put a deep rope burn in Sylvester's hand. The duo failed to make it to Dolt Tower by dark, and Sylvester spent the night trying to sleep standing in slings. Fonrouge plucked a hammock out of the haulbag for the bivy. Near the Great Roof, Fonrouge, according to Sylvester, pulled a large block loose. "We had been warned about it," Sylvester says. "I heard shouts from below. I waited for sounds of an ambulance but I didn't hear anything."
Low on El Cap, the film team was jugging their fixed lines. McCracken was 300 feet up, followed by Denny, Colliver and Tejada, who was just leaving the ground. McCracken heard an explosion. High above him, he saw a block the size of a fridge hurtling through space. It fell like a bomb, not touching the wall for hundreds of feet, until it struck the slabs above McCracken. The rock exploded into pieces, sounding like canon fire and filling the air with the smell of sulfur.
"We all had to clean our pants out after that," says McCracken. "It really should have wiped us out. It's a miracle that no one was hurt or the ropes cut."
FROM EL CAP TOWER, Colliver led up the Texas Flake and climbed Harding's decade-old bolt ladder toward the Boot Flake. A bolt snapped. Colliver fell, landing on his side and badly bruising his ribs. The fall was captured on audio but not on film. Even Denny wasn't going to ask Colliver to do that again. They retreated to the ground. Colliver wanted to quit the film. "Gary told Glen, 'How could you expect Fred to make a film about this? He doesn't know anything about climbing,'" Padula recalls. "I was asking myself the same thing."
Denny kept filming with just two climbers. McCracken lowered Tejada half a ropelength to do the King Swing: the huge pendulum that's one of the most thrilling—and scary—moments of climbing the Nose. Denny filmed it on the wall and from a helicopter. It was exhausting running back and forth along the blank stone trying to grab the elusive crack on the left. When Tejada finally caught the edge, Denny flew past in the helicopter holding a white piece of paper on which he scrawled in Magic Marker: Do it again. Denny did that about a dozen times that day. "I drove Lito crazy asking him for take after take on the Boot Flake," Denny says. "I kept asking the helicopter pilot to get closer and closer." Tompkins suggested they film the whole thing from the helicopter. Denny just shook his head.
Tompkins had a lot on his mind. His wife Susie was expecting their second child any week now. And, more pressingly, Tompkins was weeks away from leaving for a six-month expedition to Patagonia with Chouinard and Tejada. He issued an ultimatum: He wanted to direct or he was out. "You guys don't know what you're doing," Tompkins said. He handed Padula the checkbook for the project's bank account and walked away. "They had a vision," Tompkins says. "I had a different one."
When I go to visit him, Tompkins and I sit in the living room of one of his many homes, this one on a hill in Patagonia, Chile, overlooking the national park that he's building in the Valle Chacabuco with his new wife, Kris. Herds of guanacos graze outside the window. Tompkins made a fortune in the business world before cashing out in 1990 and devoting his considerable energies to conservation work in South America.
"We could have really made something," he says wistfully, as if the movie were never made.