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Reel Rock Film Tour: Boulder

Boulder, Colorado explodes with energy when the climbers come out. Last Thursday night was no exception as nearly 2,000 of us lined up around Boulder Theater, eager for the first big shows of the fifth annual Reel Rock Film Tour.

I’ve been to my share of film festivals. In the last few years, I’ve walked away from one disappointed with vapid storylines; another, wondering if I had just seen a three-hour Red Bull commercial. Having been to Reel Rock many times before, I thought I knew what to expect: two well-produced, story-driven, crag-focused, feature-length films. But no! The clips were all short and punchy. Two of the six segments even featured alpine climbing. But most striking to me: the climber-filmmakers from Sender Films and Big Up Productions weren’t just good this year–they proved professional.

The fifth annual Reel Rock Film Tour premiere came to Boulder, Colorado on September 16, 2010. Sender Films and Big Up Productions showed six short films that packed the house for two showings in one night. [Photo] Caroline Treadway

The feature cuts I’m used to seeing from Peter Mortimer and the Lowell brothers have always been dramatic–the triumph of sending a project, emphasized by inspiring beats and wild camera angles, or the emotional collapse when Didier is scooped on Cobra Crack. This year: fewer effects, more rawness, more organic storytelling. I’m no film major, but I found the segments elegantly simple, which allowed the captured footage to speak its own story. This, of course, is not pure austerity but–I’m guessing here–complicated editing that made each segment appear effortless and whole.

The audience favorite was the very last film of the night, “The Swiss Machine.” It brought forward the legend, largely unknown in North America, of obsessive Swiss speed alpinist Ueli Steck. Incredible footage from the Alps captured all, as did Ueli himself, the happy-go-lucky Swiss madcap; the man pushing human speed limits, all the while sponsored by a bathroom company.

The first segment was filmed in the Sierras, on the Incredible Hulk. There, Peter Croft revealed his diabolical side, convincing boulderer Lisa Rands to take the crux on her first day of alpine climbing. “There’s two pitches of 5.12, and she’s going to get the upper one,” Croft whispered to the camera. “Right when we’re both getting tired, I’ll send her off…” Many heavy breaths later, Rands barely clips a poorly placed cam and jitters off with a yelp, the lobes barely holding.

Cheers from the Boulder crowd. [Photo] Caroline Treadway

Other crowd-pleasers were a humor segment about a trip down under and two sendfests, one by Chris Sharma in Spain, the other a competitive diptych of American boulderers Daniel Woods and Paul Robinson.

But, without a doubt, the most astonishing film on this tour is about FreeBASE, the sport that only one person has ever tried. That sport is free soloing difficult, massive walls with only a parachute for protection. And that person is Dean Potter, whose childhood dreams of falling long haunted his climbing. In “Fly or Die,” he rips off the Eiger Nordwand, pushing away in controlled terror to gain precious distance from the wall before releasing his only protection, a parachute. Up next is The Alien Roof on The Rostrum in Yosemite. Pumped to exhaustion, he manages to pull the final overhanging moves. On top, he peeks over the edge, down 800 feet of gray walls to the pines on the Valley floor.

Decried as a lunatic by some, the film explained, Potter understands the risks and accepts them. “For climbers,” he said, “the summit was the end, the everything. Now the summit is the beginning…”

Alex Honnold shuffles ropeless on a Yosemite ledge. The climber has a cameo in “The Swiss Machine.” [Photo] Courtesy Reel Rock Film Tour

Read more about Dean’s BASE jumping in the September 2009 High Camp and “Embracing Insanity” in Alpinist 27.

To find a Reel Rock Film Tour venue near you, visit

“Fly or Die” is one of six films in the First Ascent: The Series box set (view trailer above). The set is available for purchase at