One of, I think, the greatest features of Netflix is the recommendations they make about what you should watch based off another title you’ve watched. Admittedly, sometimes these titles have very little to do with what you might actually be in the mood to view, but other times, these suggestions can lead you down a rabbit hole of information, and hours or days later when you finally come up for air, you feel you’ve either gained valuable new perspective in a body of information about which you’re newly aware…or you’ve wasted precious hours and braincells lost in mindless prattling and celebrity.
I generally feel the former when I stumble down some documentary wormhole that has me simultaneously Google searching and picking up books about the subject at my local library. I feel the later when I get sucked into a three day binge of Instant Hotel, and all the other short term rental reality shows that go with it.
Most recently, however, it’s been the documentary route. Spurring off of a documentary we watched one night about Yosemite National Park, my Netflix account contained a whole row of suggestions all about extreme rock climbing culture in Yosemite, and as someone who has dabbled very casually in recreational climbing (of the artificial, rainbow colored rock gym variety) and a lover of hiking and the outdoors, off I went on a documentary rock climbing adventure. As a way to get through a long winter, it was choice. Beautiful scenery, adrenaline pumping storylines and camera work, if it doesn’t leave you wanting to pack your car and road trip to someplace gorgeous, you aren’t paying attention!
The title of this post said it all. Here are my “bunch” of documentaries to inspire your next adventure!
Probably the most widely recognizable title on the list, Free Solo recently won the Academy Award for best documentary, and, unlike many documentaries, had a theatrical release playing in theaters across the country. It chronicles Alex Honnold’s attempt to free solo climb the face of El Capitan, perhaps the most recognizable and challenging climb in Yosemite National Park. If you’re not familiar with rock climbing terminology, “free solo” climbing means the climber doesn’t use ropes or harnesses of any kind to aid or protect themselves when climbing. That means it’s just them and the wall, and if they fall, almost certain death. At the time of Honnold’s attempt, it had never been done, and many people considered it impossible. Through two hours of the movie, you’ll very clearly understand why! I’ve already watched this documentary twice, and even knowing how it ended and all the twists and turns along the way, I was on the edge of my seat, heart pounding, holding my breath as much the second time as I was the first. To be sure, this movie WILL NOT make you want to climb a 3200 feet granite cliff without climbing equipment, but it may very well make you want to go see the place where Honnold tries to make it happen!
The Dawn Wall
If there was any question that El Capitan was the pinnacle of Yosemite climbing, a second documentary The Dawn Wall should lay that to rest! The Dawn Wall focuses on a specific section of El Capitan, a face named for the fact that it’s the first part of the cliff to catch the sun in the morning. While many climbers have attempted and successfully completed climbs on other parts of the face, the dawn wall presents a particularly challenging stretch of climbing given the sheer nature of the rock, and large stretches of smooth granite lacking places for hand and foot holds. In 2015, two American climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson set out to climb the dawn wall. Their effort was to be a free climb, which, unlike Honnold’s climb without ropes or harnesses, used that equipment for safety purposes only. That meant if they fell, they’d have protection. However, if they fell or used the aid of the ropes, they had to start that section of climbing over from the beginning again. All told, Caldwell and Jorgeson lived on the wall for 19 days in attempting their record setting climb, though what living on the wall looks like, you’ll have to watch to discover.
Chock full of interesting subplots including Caldwell’s story about being taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan by rebels who raided his climbing camp, the loss of an index finger, a marriage in crisis, and the choice to abandon a partner mid-climb, The Dawn Wall was a story I hadn’t heard about at the time it unfolded, but immediately consumed every news story I could find about after the movie!
If you’re wondering how or why this kind of climbing is even a thing, then you need to follow up with Valley Uprising, a historical look at the progression of climbing in the Yosemite valley from it’s earliest roots, to it’s modern appeal. Valley Uprising is the story of a developing counterculture rife with drug use, alcohol, and pure, raw adrenaline. From the earliest trail blazers who hacked out the original routes on the iconic cliff faces of Yosemite, to today’s technical climbers and pioneers like Honnold and Caldwell, Valley Uprising is the comprehensive look at the evolution of an extreme sport, one that captured the imaginations of a few brave men and women a generation ago, and continues to inspire today.
If you’re looking for a little international flair, then check out Meru. Perched 21,000 feet about the Ganges River in India, the “shark fin” of Mount Meru is a crucible of extreme climbing conditions that tempted the world’s best climbers, but remained unsummitted in 2008 when a climbing party of three friends planned a week long effort to tackle the mountain. That attempt, like those before it, came up short…just 100 meters from the peak. Meru documents the effort of those same three men as they decide three years later to attempt to climb Mount Meru again. Among the climbers, Jimmy Chin, one of the filmmakers who would eventually shoot Free Solo. With him, Elizabeth Chai Vasarheyli, award winning director and filmmaker. The documentary would eventually go on to win at Sundance, and Chin and Vasarheyli would fall in love during the project, eventually marrying in 2013! They collaborated on Free Solo and won the Academy Award together this year. Talk about a power couple!