Filming, Smuggling and Drinking Coffee: The Higher Ground Tour

Posted on: August 31, 2007


The Dirty Bottom Band opening for one of our shows in Calgary, Alberta. [Photo] Chris Alstrin collection

Dear Alpinist crew,

Just finished unloading the mini van after 8,000 miles of driving.

Sorting through all our dirty camping gear, unpaid bills, scraps of paper with e-mail addresses of new friends—and all the DVDs I smuggled across the border—has been a good reflection on the Higher Ground experience.

After close to two years of filming in all degrees of weather, and many delays due to weather, avalanches, broken camera parts, working my normal 9-5 job, getting last minute interviews and months of editing the movie was finished. There were no more excuses, no more stalling techniques. It was time to take Higher Ground on tour.

We started in my hometown of Colorado Springs. Alex flew down for the event and our last bit of editing. The night was filled with anticipation, excitement, intimidation; I felt like a teenager again about to go out on my first date with a girl completely out of my league. I didn't know what to think—were people going to leave the theater? What would everyone say after the film was over? Would I have to leave town because of embarrassment? All these thoughts came through my mind as we're collecting money at the door. I'm not one to cry at the movies (okay maybe just that once during the movie Love Actually, but who wouldn't cry when they get together?)... but when the crowd applauded—and it wasn't one of those short applause moments where you feel like you have to applaud; it was a true applause—I may have shed a tear. It was this show that got me psyched for the tour. We knew we had something we could be proud of on the road. Then we jumped right into Canada, the heart of some of the best rock and ice climbing in North America.

Loaded up in our rented mini van with camping gear, a projector, screen and deck, and not nearly enough snacks, I was excited to finally be on the road. I was a little nervous about crossing the border with all this equipment. I knew exactly what I was going to say if they were to stop and question me. I had everything memorized, down to follow up questions. I've crossed the border many times and knew exactly what they would ask me. I was to tell them I was a schoolteacher and I'm on summer vacation to go climbing, and I was only going to spend three weeks in the country. No officer, I don't have a firearm; no I won't be selling anything in your Country; no I won't be giving anything away; and no, I won't be making money on this trip. Lie, lie, lie... that was what I was about to do, and I suck at lying. Just ask my old girlfriends. So once again I was so worked up about to cross the border, and there must have been beads of sweat running down my face. I could feel my lips twitch as I spoke to the officer. I don't remember any of the words he spoke; I don't think I said anything back—so much for the pre-emptive memorization. All I remember is the large officer handing my passport back and saying, "Have a nice day." I thought to myself, "I should rent a minivan every time I cross the border!" I probably looked like my own worst nightmare: one of those fathers out to go fishing for the weekend.

Alex and I camping outside of Williams Lake. [Photo] Chris Alstrin collection

It's difficult to take something you have invested so much in and put it out there for the world to see, critique and pick at. But that's what we were about to do. I was to meet Alex and his fiance Jodi in Canmore, AB. Alex and I met in 2000 on a climbing expedition in Pakistan. We spent two months there. Anyone who has been on climbing expeditions knows that when you're on an expedition, you either end up hating your partner, or you become best friends. Alex and I became best friends. He's the one who got me into motion pictures. He encouraged me to buy my first camera when I went on a climbing trip to Vietnam in 2002. It was this trip that got me psyched on filming—but that's for another story.

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The three of us either camped or stayed with friends, sometimes friends of friends throughout the tour. There were a few tense moments, like the time I was driving towards Kamloops in heavy traffic and Alex saw a car 1000m away almost get in a head on collision with a semi-truck and told me to slow down, but I didn't want to cause I was tired and wanted to get to Vancouver before midnight. Or the film freezing for what felt like eternity during the Vancouver screening, or the black bear visitor that woke us up in our tents one morning. Oh yes, those were great, tense moments. During the tour we stayed in some absolutely beautiful places. I'm moving to Nelson, BC the first chance I get. There are many compelling reasons to move there: the people, the unbelievable beauty from every angle, but most importantly: the best coffee in the world.

We also met some incredible people, from Anita who baked us bread with so many nuts in it that it started to resemble an energy bar more than a slice of bread, to countless generous climbers, who were quick to buy us beer at the local bar after the show. Asking things like, "Dude, how the hell did you film that one part where..." to "So now that the film is over, what are you going to do?" All in all, the most exciting part of the tour was watching audiences leave the theater after the show. I don't know what it was, but that was what Alex, Jodi and I always enjoyed. It was as if they were in another land. It was rousing to see that each time.

Laughing it up with the band after the Calgary show. [Photo] Chris Alstrin collection

So what is next? Another film? Take six months off and go climbing? Well after all our good times, being chased by bears, drinking beer, hanging out with the band, we're taking Higher Ground to Europe. Watch our website hg-productions.com for details. So if you missed us in Canada, you can buy our dvd on the website or come check us out in the Swiss Alps. I might even tell you how I got that shot.

A special thank you to Jodi Rutten who organized the tour. We could not have done it without her help. Also thanks to The Dirty Bottom Band, who toured with us for eight shows. To everyone who let us stay with them, opened their homes and kitchens. To everyone who supported us and came to our screenings because, without your gasps, cheers, and attendance, we'd just be three people on a really long road trip in empty theaters. We would also like to acknowledge the American Alpine Club, Climbers Access Society of Alberta, Wildsight, and Skaha Bluffs Land Conservancy, which have impressed us so much with their dedication to the climbing community that we donated part of Higher Ground's tour proceeds to their causes.

Everyone at the Ridge Theatre in Vancouver, BC. [Photo] Chris Alstrin collection



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