El Capitan: The Movie
[Photo] Glen Denny
Denny was always a purist. When newspapers wanted to buy his pictures from the Dihedral Wall, he refused to sell them on principle. When Robbins made the first solo climb of El Cap, Denny had the only photos of the event. Robbins asked Denny to sell them to a newspaper. Denny, holding Robbins to his own frequently voiced criticism of bringing publicity to climbing, declined. Denny took photos for historic or artistic purposes; commercialism was anathema. "I cannot prostitute such a meaningful thing...," Denny had written to Roper after the Dihedral Wall. "I am not opposed to seeing my name in print as such, but not to sell some bastard's rag to a totally ignorant audience."
If he couldn't make the movie he set out to make, Denny would rather not make any movie. Denny asked Padula to destroy the footage. Padula and Denny went to a lawyer's office to dissolve the partnership. Padula got custody of the film. "I didn't have a clear picture of what to do," he says. "I dropped it. It took me three years to pay off all the debts."
TOMPKINS, IN THE MEANTIME, made his own movie. In July 1968, Tompkins and his fellow Fun Hogs drove to South America. For months, they surfed and skied their way down to Patagonia—filmed by Tejada, whose previous cinematic experience consisted of one day of filming on El Cap when Denny handed him a camera and asked him to shoot some footage (which was never used). The Fun Hogs dug a snow cave on the shoulder of Fitz Roy where they waited for two months for decent weather to make the third ascent of the peak—by a new line that would become known as the Californian Route. Tejada put together a twentyeight- minute film called Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the Southwest Buttress, which went on to win best film at the Trento Film Festival in 1969.
Tompkins, however, still wanted a commercial success like The Endless Summer. He gave the footage to a Hollywood producer who reedited it into a longer film, with voiceover narration, a rock soundtrack and an added fantasy sequence, in which the snow-cave-dwelling Fun Hogs dream about climbing in Yosemite with a scantily clad blonde. The new movie, Mountain of Storms, was shown on television but never earned any money. "A corny, total piece of shit," Tejada calls it.
"We were going make this film and make a bunch of money," Chouinard says. "To get the film finished," adds his wife Malinda, "it finished off our savings. It was a lot of money for us."
Chouinard, like Denny, viewed climbing as something sacred. Although he sold pitons for a living and invested in the Fitz Roy film, he felt conflicted about doing anything that could popularize the sport. After he returned from South America, Chouinard created the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which eventually became an enormously successful business. I went to see Chouinard at his cabin in Moose, Wyoming. The house itself is modest, the view outside the living-room window is looking close enough to approach from the backyard.
"I felt it was irresponsible to make more climbers," Chouinard continues. "I didn't want to see more climbers, just like I didn't want to see more surfers. It was something special. We didn't want it to become mainstream. The idea of promoting climbing to make more money was really anathema."
TEJADA CALLED PADULA every so often, asking him how the El Cap film was coming. McCracken, too, kept pestering Padula. McCracken wound up living in a cottage in Padula's backyard for a couple of years and helped him edit the sound, but the project seemed to drag on without any end in sight. "Finally," Padula says, "my wife said, 'Get rid of it or finish it.'"
Padula put together an hour-long film. He set up a projector on a lawn to show it to his friends in Nevada City. The poet Gary Snyder came. After the movie, Snyder stood up. "Fred," he said, "it's done. Don't touch it. Don't fool with it."
The official premiere took place in 1978 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The final print was made at a lab in Los Angeles. Padula flew down to pick it up on the day of the screening. A storm threatened to cancel his return flight. He made it back to San Francisco just in time to get the print to a full house.
Tompkins walked up to Padula with a smirk. "You finally finished it," he said. Denny, too, was there. Padula had called Denny to invite him to the premiere. "I finally got the call I was waiting for for ten years," Denny told his wife (who told Padula's wife). Originally, Denny asked Padula to keep his name off the movie. "It wouldn't be a film without Glen," Padula says. "No one else could shoot it like he did. I wasn't going to let the footage go to waste."
Padula insisted that Denny at least get credit as a "climber who filmed." Denny stroked his beard, thinking. "OK," he agreed.
In 2007 Padula screened an early version of the digitally re-mastered film at the Banff Festival. Denny was in the hall outside the theater signing copies of his photography book Yosemite in the Sixties. The space cleared as the crowd filed into the theater. Denny stayed at his table in the empty hall. Padula and Denny spent a couple of hours riding the bus together back to the airport in Calgary. "He was open and friendly, but he wouldn't discuss the film at all," Padula says.
Denny was more talkative when I spent a long afternoon with him recently. "Imagine my surprise when it appeared as an hour-long film and with the four-letter words still in," Denny told me. "I don't know if I won or lost."
It has been forty-three years since Denny started the film—and thirty-three since the premiere. Denny and I are sitting in his small dining room in San Francisco. We've been talking for hours, mostly about other things, especially climbing. It has grown dark outside, and Denny seems too absorbed in our conversation to turn on any lights. I can barely make out his face across the table in the gloom. What did he think about the final film? I ask.
"I thought it was very good," Denny says. "I think it would be better five minutes shorter."
[Photo] Darcy Padilla
Michael J. Ybarra had many incarnations during his brief, intense life: photographer, writer, aesthete and adventurer. He was a lively and mischievous child, inevitably wandering off to the dismay of our parents, always found again with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile. Even then, his exploration of the outdoors was a search for a deeper understanding of life. As he grew into early adulthood, his writings about adventure sports sought to convey the transcendent quality he found in nature. When Michael started climbing, he discovered his vocation. As with everything he pursued, he undertook it with unparalleled passion and devotion. He relished planning his ascents, carefully studying routes, reading copious amounts of books and compiling just the right gear. Though Michael's time on earth was far too short, I was blessed to have known him for forty-one years. His legacy will live on through the many lives he touched during his quest for truth—and through the prolific body of his published work. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." Thank you for leaving a trail, Michael.—Suzanne Ybarra
High on Bugaboo Spire, Mike Ybarra once explained to me why he found alpinism to be the most rewarding type of climbing. What drew him in, he said, was the way that alpine routes challenge the climber on so many different levels. To succeed in this realm, one must have stamina and skills for moving on rock, snow and ice, and perhaps most importantly, possess what Mike often called a "general mountain sense." Mike seemed to extend this philosophy well beyond the world of climbing to fine food, wine and the arts. The last time I saw him was at an event in San Francisco where he read excerpts from his upcoming book about the 1968 "Fun Hogs" trip to Patagonia. Afterward, we enjoyed a glass of Burgundy, had a nice dinner and talked about literature. One thing led to another, and we finished the evening by buildering through the city's Mission District. Several days later, I received an urgent email from Mike. He'd provided detailed topo diagrams of several of the "routes" we'd climbed, complete with standard YDS ratings. What a complete individual; the climbing world has lost a great one. Onwards, Mike.—Eric Gafner