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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's July/August 2004 Let's Talk film selection:
Vertical Frontier
A Kristi Denton Cohen/Peloton Productions film in association with Sierra Club Productions, narrated by Tom Brokaw

Vertical Frontier

What it’s about
Vertical Frontier is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of the first climbers to ascend the granite walls of Yosemite, the generations of climbers their creativity and passion inspired, and how their love for the sport saved Camp 4, a place rich in history where all their adventures began.

The story of rock climbing really begins with the explorations of John Muir. He caught his earliest glimpse of the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada in 1868 and later became known as one of Yosemite's first climbers and--to many--the Father of Yosemite.

In the 1930s, Yosemite became a laboratory for developing the craft of rock climbing. Using homemade equipment, pioneering climbers spent months planning their routes and realizing their dreams, forging new paths that led to the first ascent of the oceanic wall of El Capitan in 1958. In the 1960s, climbers began another revolution. Their goal was to forge harder routes without damaging the rock. Today, young climbers are finding new ways to scale these walls faster, sometimes using no equipment at all.

From lost souls and party boys, to serious athletes and independent idealists--climbers of all ages and experience levels have come from around the world to test their abilities and find themselves on the rocks of Yosemite.

Interwoven into this history of rock climbing is the tale of Camp 4, the only walk-in campground in the Valley, located on the sunny, northwest edge of Yosemite. Ringed by gigantic boulders, this dusty gathering place has become a mecca for climbers from around the world. Hardly a wilderness experience, Camp 4 offered a different kind of camping, becoming a "boomtown" in the 1960s and 1970s where one could live free, play hard, and climb.

In 1997 floods destroyed portions of the Yosemite Lodge and nearby employee housing. The National Park Service proposed developing employee housing and motel-style lodging in and around Camp 4, which sits on higher ground. Climbers of all ages and experience from more than 40 countries, along with members of the American Alpine Club, joined forces to prevent the destruction of their climbing home by filing suit to stop the development. The film chronicles their efforts, and tells of their victory to win eligibility for Camp 4 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Vertical Frontier features interviews with pioneering and young climbers alike, including:

  • David Brower, the former Sierra Club executive director and Nobel Prize nominee who climbed Yosemite's walls in the 1930s
  • Warren Harding, who made the first ascent of El Capitan in 1958
  • Royal Robbins, who made the first ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome in 1957 and the first continuous ascent of El Capitan in 1960
  • His wife, Liz Robbins, who became the first woman to climb Half Dome ten years after her husband's historic climb
  • Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and the inventor of climbing equipment that made scaling the big walls of Yosemite possible
  • Tom Frost, who made the first continuous ascent of El Capitan in 1960 with Royal Robbins, invented equipment with Chouinard, and later led the effort to save Camp 4
  • Chris McNamara, who climbed El Capitan 55 times by the time he was 21
  • Wayne Merry, who made the first ascent of El Capitan in 1958
  • Lynn Hill, who made the first free ascent by either gender of the nose of El Capitan in 1993
  • Sibylle Hechtel, part of the team that made the first all-female ascent of El Capitan in 1973
  • Hans Florine, who climbed the nose of El Capitan in record time in 1993--four hours, 22 minutes (vs. Royal Robbins's 1960 ascent, which took seven days)

Where to get it
Vertical Frontier is available for $20 (plus shipping and handling), in DVD or VHS format, from Peloton Productions at www.pelotonproductions.com or (415) 699-0697.

About the filmmakers
Produced, directed, and cowritten by Kristi Denton Cohen of Peloton Productions, the 91-minute Vertical Frontier features original and archival photography from Fred Padula, Sterling Johnson, Eric Perlman, Roger Brown, Lynn Hill, Mike Carville, and Mike Strassman; archival photos of climbers and their equipment; and breathtaking photographs of Yosemite and the Sierra. Alison Owings and Ben Galland served as writer and editor, respectively. The film's original score was written and performed by Jeff Watson, a member of the band Night Ranger.

Discussion questions

Printable version of questions

  • Did you enjoy the film? Why or why not? Do you think a person needs to have some rock-climbing experience to be interested in the tales told here? Are there some aspects of the story that are more universal?
  • How is big-wall rock climbing different from other extreme sports?
  • How did early Yosemite climbers view nature? Were they at home there? Were they out to conquer nature, or to develop closer links to it?
  • How have Yosemite climbers' attitudes toward nature changed over time?
  • What about your own relationship to nature? Do you see yourself as a conqueror or an admirer or just another part of the ecosystem? Have your views changed over your lifetime?
  • If you had known about the campaign to save Camp 4, would you have joined in? Why or why not?
  • Which of the climbers profiled do you find most admirable? Which of the climbs would you have most liked to have been part of? Which were most inspiring to you?
  • After watching this film, how would you answer the classic question: Why do climbers climb?
  • Links
    See clips from Vertical Frontier and find out about other Sierra Club films at Sierra Club Productions.

    Learn about awards and screenings at the filmmakers' site.

    Plan a trip to the big walls with help from the Yosemite Association.

    Take action
    To take action on water issues, visit www.sierraclub.org/cleanwater.


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