El Capitan: The Movie
[Photo] Glen Denny
YEARS BEFORE I EVER THOUGHT ABOUT CLIMBING, I was hiking a trail in Yosemite high above the Valley floor. The path ran through the trees, turned a corner and came out into the open. There it was, sudden and immense: the southwest face of El Capitan. I'd seen it before, of course, but that was the first time I realized El Cap's power to startle and seize the imagination. When I did start climbing, in 2004, it was in Yosemite. I always assumed that someday I'd do the Nose, but big-wall climbing was fairly low on the list of what I wanted in the sport.
Then a couple of years ago, I began researching a book about the 1968 Fun Hog expedition to Fitz Roy, during which Yvon Chouinard, Doug Tompkins, Dick Dorworth and Lito Tejada-Flores drove a van to Patagonia, picking up Chris Jones along the way. Tejada told me about the epic history of a film he and Tompkins had been working on just before they took off for South America: El Capitan.
I couldn't find the movie for sale anywhere, but Steve Roper lent me his VHS copy. Tracking down a VCR was even harder. The video quality was wretched, the color so washed out that it looked black and white, yet the film itself was captivating. There was no narration, just gorgeous shots of water slowly running off El Cap, birds swooping along its endless flanks, a huge moonrise behind the prow of the Nose. Three men rack up and start climbing. They joke and banter and sleep on the wall as though a bivouac on the side of El Cap was the most natural thing in the world. ("Colliver," Richard McCracken quips while belaying. "First, you pee on me this morning, then you drop dirt on me. I'm a patient man, Colliver, but even I have my limits.") There's a lean muscularity to the film, the primal sound of hammers striking iron. Life on the wall is reduced to its raw essentials, the famished climbers spooning out tinned rations with pitons.
Last autumn, I decided I finally needed to climb El Cap. My partner abruptly bailed, but I met a kid in Camp 4 who was game to give the Nose a go. On a beautifully still late October evening, we started up in the dark, and twenty-five hours later, we finished in the dark. For weeks after, I could think about almost nothing besides climbing the Nose again. Denny, I imagine, must have felt the same way.
[Photo] Glen Denny
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1965, Denny went back to school, enrolling at San Francisco State University to study photography. Denny had been taking pictures for a few years—hauntingly composed photos that captured not just the daredevil acrobatics high off the deck, but also the subtle, quotidian moments back in Camp 4 where the tilt of a head or a furrowed brow told you more about the experience than a 1,000-word trip report ever could. Working as a bartender at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Denny earned enough in tips to buy a Nikon and four lenses. "Going in so much for photography is ruinously expensive," he wrote to Roper in 1964. "But aside from climbing and women, it is to me the most worthwhile thing to do."
Fred Padula, a young teacher at SF State, knew nothing about climbing, but he knew a good picture. "You have a dozen people in your class, and one or two stand out," Padula says. "Glen was my star student. He had a real good eye and was a careful printer."
Denny took Padula's experimental moviemaking course in the autumn of 1966. "Padula had the most interesting film class," Denny says. Denny's class project was filming his friend Steve Miller soloing a steep face on Cathedral Peak—no words, just the act of climbing, with guitar music in the background. He called the short film Nyala (after the African antelope), sent it to the Trento Film Festival, and it won an award. In the summer of 1967, Denny shot a documentary for the Sierra Club about Miner's Ridge in the North Cascades, where the environmental group was fighting an effort to open a pit mine.
More than anything, Denny wanted to make a film as beautiful as El Cap itself. He admired Padula's award-wining 1965 film Ephesus, a twenty-four-minute 16mm movie about an African American church in Berkeley where the choir rocks and the worshipers speak in tongues. It's the kind of film that transports the viewer to a foreign place. If only Denny could take a viewer up a big wall. Denny asked Padula whether he wanted to collaborate on a movie about climbing the Nose. Padula drove to the Valley, walked to the base of El Cap and looked up at the rock that blotted out most of the sky. He couldn't imagine how anyone could climb it—or film it. "I said it looks like a pretty impossible project," Padula recalls.
Before 1968, the Nose had only been climbed a dozen times over the course of nearly a decade. Denny's idea was to put the fourth ascent team—Gary Colliver, Richard McCracken and John Evans—back on the route and film them. Denny would go with them to shoot. But he also wanted to film the team from a helicopter. And record their climbing banter.