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El Capitan: The Movie

[Photo] Glen Denny

“I will often stand at the places I looked down at from the wall

during those days and those twenty-one nights–during the

deadening frost of morning, the searing heat of day, the nostalgic

shades of evening, during the hours of starlight, moonlight and

storm–and from those places I will look up at that shimmering

sea of granite, and remember how it was upon that sea.”

–Glen Denny to Steve Roper, December 29, 1962,

after establishing the third route on El Cap

“It is my feeling that in no other area of the country, with the

possible exception of the Northwest, do so many of the climbers

climb quite so much for personal publicity…. Increasingly, in the

past few years, there have been those whose primary motivation in

climbing is an excessive, overt desire for notoriety. Obviously, the

American public does not appreciate such a climber, nor do most of his

contemporaries, who are easily able to see through such braggadocio.”

–Roper, A Climber’s Guide to Yosemite Valley, 1964

IN SEPTEMBER 1958, Glen Denny drove to Yosemite and found himself

stuck in a traffic jam. El Capitan reared above, towering over the

Valley floor for more than three thousand feet. Ropes hung from the

lower flanks of the wall. Tiny dots moved across the rock like ants: climbers.

Warren Harding and a handful of partners were inching their way

up the Nose. Tourists stopped their cars to gawk, gumming up the road.

Denny was one of them. He’d just dropped out of college to learn how to

climb. “I looked up, and it just blew me away,” he recalls.

From that moment on, Denny wanted nothing more than to climb

El Cap. He got a job at Yosemite Lodge and met Harding, whom he

recognized from the newspaper photos. Harding took Denny up After

Six. Denny led the second pitch, not really sure how to place pitons, and

climbed himself into a dead end. He tried to reverse a move, fell, ripped

two pins, and plummeted past the belay. He hung off his one good piton

just above the ground. “Beautiful form,” Harding said. “Especially on the

way down.” Harding suggested they try a friction climb next. Denny said

he thought his fingers were shot. “Don’t worry,” Harding reassured him,

“there won’t be any handholds.”

Harding and Denny went on to make a series of classic first ascents that

to this day remain legendary climbs: Washington Column, the Southwest

Face of Mt. Conness, Keeler Needle, Leaning Tower and the Rostrum.

In 1962 Denny got his shot at El Cap. The Big Stone had only been

climbed three times by major routes, twice by the Nose, once by the Salathe

Wall. That spring, two brash outsiders–Seattle’s Ed Cooper and the

Canadian Jim Baldwin–arrived in Yosemite and laid siege to a new line

on El Cap. They called the route the Dihedral Wall. The project dragged

on for weeks. As Baldwin was climbing a fixed line, his prusik failed, and

he slid to the end of the rope where an anchor stopped him from continuing

to the Valley floor. His hands were like hamburger. Then the feds

arrested Cooper, who’d bragged to a newspaper about an illegal climb

on Mt. Rainier. When Cooper and Baldwin were able to return in the

autumn, Denny joined the effort. The trio finished the route, topping out

after a six-and-a-half day final push. “The wall was my greatest aesthetic

climbing experience yet (as well as physical),” Denny said to his friend

Steve Roper. “The exhilaration at the summit was absolutely incredible.”

Denny’s bliss disappeared once he saw the crowd of reporters that

Cooper had summoned. “The summit was dead,” Denny told Roper.

“Cooper had contacted the world of sensationalism, and the goddamn

thing ruined the summit. And so the uncomprehending newsmen were

there, and it was terrible…. I walked away from the summit down the

trail last, and sad.”

It wasn’t the only time Denny would have his heart broken on El

Cap. For a decade, the wall dominated his life. After he put up the

Dihedral route, Denny returned to make the third ascent of the Nose

(with Roper and Layton Kor). “Why can’t we be faster than anyone

ever has been?” Denny wrote to Roper before they set off. “An amazing

four-day ascent, one which will amaze the hell out of everyone. Just

think–almost twice as fast as the second ascent. This is what can make

the Nose an almost immortal thing for us…. Five will

be OK–a fine performance, which will be historical also.

But four would be an amazing breakthrough in speed. I

am consumed with this idea…. Three and a half days. We

can do it man. Someone will do it someday. To hell with

waiting for it to happen gradually.”

They did it in three and a half days. After going back

to college, Denny decided he wanted to make a film about

climbing the Nose. He put together a strong team of

climbers, enlisted his filmmaking professor Fred Padula,

raised some money, rented a helicopter and spent two

months shooting El Cap from every conceivable vantage

point. Then Denny walked away–disgusted that the project

seemed to be veering toward commercialization. It was

the Dihedral Wall all over again.

Denny’s footage languished for a decade until Padula

edited it into El Capitan, which won the Grand Prize at

the 1979 Banff Film Festival. “Amongst climbing films,

El Capitan is without peer in poetic beauty,” the jury

wrote. “The best climbing film I have ever seen,” added

Yvon Chouinard. Recently I was talking to Royal Robbins

about cinematic efforts to portray the sport. “El Capitan,”

he tells me, “is my favorite climbing film.”

Few people have seen the movie in recent years. But

now Padula is releasing a digitally re-mastered DVD version of the

work–forty-four years after he first walked up to the base of El Cap and

shook his head at the impossibility of making a movie on the wall. Filming

El Cap, as it turned out, would be the easy part.

To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

[Photo] Glen Denny


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.

To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

[Photo] Glen Denny

“It’s going to be very expensive,” Padula

said. Denny said he knew a businessman

who might fund the project–Doug

Tompkins, who’d just sold a climbing store

in San Francisco called The North Face.

Denny invited the two to his apartment.

Tompkins drove his red Ferrari to Denny’s

place. There, he parked sideways across two

driveways so no other cars could scratch his vehicle. “I expected to see

some hotshot businessman with grey hair,” Padula says. “He was probably

two years younger than I was. But he was no bullshit. He never

questioned whether we could do it.”

Padula was turning thirty-one. Denny was twenty-nine. Tompkins

was twenty-five. He’d started climbing in the Gunks as a teenager, ski raced in the US and South America, then tried one business after another

until he seemed to find success with The North Face, which had two

stores and a mail-order business when he sold it in late 1967 for $50,000.

But what Tompkins really wanted to do was make movies like his friend

and surfing buddy Bruce Brown, whose 1966 film The Endless Summer

almost single-handedly re-invented the adventure picture genre. Brown

put $50,000 into The Endless Summer, which grossed $20 million. You

weren’t going to make that kind of money selling tents and sleeping bags.

Padula showed the investor some hand-drawn titles he had made

for the film. Tompkins didn’t like them. Tompkins was an aesthete. His

father was an antiques dealer, and The North Face catalogues were laid out

better than most magazines, with stylized line drawings of famous climbing

photos. “They had a knock-down, drag-out argument about what the

print for the titles should look like,” Denny recalls. “Tompkins kept getting

up and looking out the window to make sure no one was messing

with his Ferrari. That was a bad sign that we didn’t have the same values.”

[Photo] Glen Denny

But Tompkins was nothing if not enthusiastic. He brought in

another partner, his friend Peter J. “Cado” Avenali. “He got Cado to put

up his life savings,” Padula says. “Doug put in [some money]. Glen got

some money from his grandmother. I put in my savings, $5,000. We

had about $30,000. You could buy a really nice house for that much.”

The four signed a partnership agreement. Tompkins opened a bank

account for the film. “Fred and I would have complete creative control,”

Denny says.

The filmmakers went to David Brower at the Sierra Club, who’d just

finished a film of his own. He had 15,000 feet of 16mm film left over,

which he donated to the project, as well as some seed money. “He was

very encouraging,” Padula says.

Denny and Padula looked at other climbing movies. There weren’t

many. The most recent was Roger Brown’s Sentinel: The West Face, which

followed Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins up the side of the monolith.

It won best film at the Trento Film Festival in 1966. The climbing

footage (shot by Tom Frost) was gripping, but the voice-of-God narration

only served to underscore the distance between the filmmakers and

their subjects. “We thought narration was deadly,” Denny says.

(In 1966 Steve Roper, Allen Steck and Dick Long made an 8mm

home movie documenting their ascent of the Salathe route on El Cap.

Long showed up with the camera the night before the climb–the third

ascent of the route–and the climbers studied the instruction booklet by

headlamp. The color film had no audio track until Roper and Steck got

together in the latter’s kitchen in 2008 and recorded their recollections of

the experience, which they turned into a DVD.)

What would it take to make the best climbing film ever? Denny

and Padula came up with a daunting list of requirements. They needed

wireless microphones, which cost a couple of grand apiece, to record the

actual dialogue of the climbers. Tompkins talked an electronics company

into donating four mics to the film–and a sound technician. They

needed a four-track recording machine. Tompkins found a place that

built one to order. They needed a mobile sound studio to house the

gear. Tompkins convinced the National Park Service to allow him put

up a shed at the base of El Cap. They needed power for the equipment.

Tompkins got the NPS to install (for free) a transformer to tap into

the high-tension power lines running into the park. They needed good

16mm cameras. Tompkins flew to Hollywood and rented thousands of

dollars worth of professional equipment–all on credit. “Doug was a

very persuasive salesman,” Padula says. “Tompkins kept coming up with

stuff I couldn’t imagine.”

In May 1968, Padula parked his VW van at the base of El Cap

(in those days the road ran closer than it does now) and started

to unload gear. Denny had a friend who worked for the Curry

Company, the park concessionaire, who loaned the film crew a house

to use in the employee village. “I knew the guy in charge of Curry Company advertising,” Denny says. “Padula was

always for a big budget. I was always for a small

one. I said, ‘We’ll stay in Camp 4.’ Fred said, ‘No,

they’ll steal all our expensive gear.’ I mentioned

it to the guy at Curry and he got us an employee

house for two months.”

Even before the climbers were on the wall,

Tompkins and the filmmakers began to have differences.

“Tompkins wanted the climbers in bright

clothes, probably North Face designs,” Denny

says. “I wanted clothes to look like what we wore

all the time–drab.”

To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

[Photo] Glen 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.”


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.

To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

[Photo] Glen Denny

THE KING SWING ended the first part of filming. Denny thought the

middle part of the route was less interesting visually. He planned to skip

that section and continue the shooting on the last third of the climb.

Denny offered Steve Roper and Dick Erb $60 each to hike to the top of

El Cap and fix ropes to below the Great Roof.

On June 18, Roper looked over the edge at the top of the Nose, terrified

of rappelling the summit overhang, especially since he’d be tottering

under a huge pack stuffed with ropes and bivy gear. But sixty bucks was

sixty bucks. They reached Camp VI, where they spent the night, before

continuing down below the Great Roof the next day and then jumaring

to the rim. “My arms cramped horribly on the last few hundred feet,”

Roper wrote in his diary.

Tejada and McCracken talked Colliver into returning to the project.

The team rapped ten pitches down and then spent four days filming the

upper part of the route. Padula hired a porter to haul a watermelon to

the summit. Tejada and McCracken tore into the juicy fruit with abandon.

Padula filmed it–the final action scene.

Denny came back to the Valley in the autumn to jug fixed lines on

El Cap and shoot scenes of swifts darting off the side of the cliff. Padula

used a telescope to film a full moon rising over the Big Stone. The following

spring, Denny trained his camera on Horsetail Falls. He thought

the water glinting off the side of El Cap could make a lyrical opening for

the movie. If it ever got made.

AFTER TOMPKINS LEFT, Padula expected that most of the money

raised for the film was unspent. Upon returning from Yosemite with

the checkbook, Padula discovered that Doug had withdrawn his money

from the bank. “Doug said he was quitting,” Padula says, “but he didn’t

say he was taking his money. The contract allowed him to back out up to

a certain point. Doug’s a businessman. He saw that things weren’t looking

good and cut his losses.”

Padula picked up the last batch of film from the lab. Would he mind

paying the several thousand dollars he owed? He apologized, but said he

didn’t have the funds. “The helicopter company was calling every day,”

Padula says. “The camera rental company called. The creditors were calling

weekly for two years.”

The filmmakers managed to get a grant of $15,000 from the American

Film Institute, but the money disappeared as soon as it appeared,

paying off creditors. Avenali remained a partner, but not a happy

one. He threatened to sue the filmmakers to get control of the movie.

(Avenali died in 2008.)

Like a married couple, Denny and Padula began to bicker about

money. “Fred said we need to rent a studio to edit,” Denny says. “I said

let’s use your bedroom or mine. The cost escalated without any way to

get it back. It seemed the only way to get out of the financial hole was to

make the kind of film that from the beginning I didn’t want to make.”

Padula wound up renting a basement room for $25 a month to edit the

film. Denny and Padula put together a rough cut. It was more than three

hours long–longer than it takes to make a speed ascent of the Nose today.

“The vision we had talked about from the beginning was fading,”

Denny says. “Originally, the concept was it would be as long as needed.

In the art film world, it comes out as long as it should be. Fred and I

always agreed on that. Because of the unfortunate example of The Endless

Summer, 16mm films could make a fortune. But the film had to be

feature length with clean language. I said we didn’t have enough good

stuff. Padula and Avenali insisted it had to be an hour and a half. They

started to get cold feet about the four-letter words. When it came down

to making money, those words couldn’t be in there. Cado said he would

only kick in more money if it were cleaned up.”

“I felt a real responsibility to make good use of [the money invested],”

Padula explains. “You just don’t take people’s money and kiss it off.” (He

says he didn’t insist about the length of the film.)

One day in late 1969, Padula and Denny were working on the film

as usual. Padula went home. By the time he got there, he found a typed

letter from Denny. “He was basically resigning,” Padula recalls. “He

didn’t want to finish the film and hoped that I wouldn’t. If the film is a

success, it will popularize climbing. That would be terrible.

“Glen and I were very close friends,” Padula adds. “I was crushed.

I felt like I had been stood up. It’s like your girlfriend leaves you with no explanation. It was his concept and dream. I didn’t know what to do

without him.”

To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

[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


To view the Kickstarter Project for El Capitan CLICK HERE.

Michael Ybarra 1966-2012

[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