Review of REEL ROCK 14
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
In partnership with Eden Rock, we were delighted to host Reel Rock 14 this week, to a full house in their newly converted theatre. The theatre comfortably seats 70 people on the first floor at the back of the second bouldering hall. The screen and acoustics are great and I hope this is the first of many screenings and presentations to come.
Eden Rock generously donated a chunk of the proceeds from the first screening to Urban Uprising, so thank you to everyone who bought tickets, you are helping Urban Uprising share the benefits of climbing with young people who might not otherwise get the chance.
For me, this year’s Reel Rock production was epic, inspirational and, at times, hilarious. I came away absolutely psyched. But it was also balanced with a gentle sense of responsibility. Yes you see Tommy Caldwell take a 100’ whipper, but after insisting on placing a time-sapping but crucial cam. And yes you see Nina Williams bouldering on monster 50’ highballs, but you also see her extensive preparation and rehearsals. And yes, United States of Joe’s is a story about anarchic boulderers, but it’s a brilliant story of humanity.
Reel Rock 14 opens with The High Road, featuring 20 terrifying minutes of Nina Williams doing what no other woman has done before on the highest, most difficult boulder problems ever climbed.
Nina quickly rose to fame in the bouldering world, and I first heard about her in 2017 after she became the first female to send Ambrosia, an iconic 50 foot V11 on the largest boulder in the Buttermilks, near Bishop, California. She talks about how she got into highballs “...because they’re dangerous and exciting. It requires a different skill set… The point is to achieve that perfect flow state, but in order to achieve it, you have to go through the jarring, erratic uncertainties first.”
The film focuses on her first female ascent of Too Big to Flail, the monster V10 50’ highball at Bishop. It also focuses on her partner, James Lucas, as he struggles to support her ambitions, being all-too familiar with jarring uncertainties after taking a huge fall while soloing in 2006 and spending 81 days prone in hospital.
Williams is really driven by aesthetics, and this is beautifully portrayed in The High Road with some wonderful detailed close-ups of crimps and smears. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the whole movement, but personally, nothing gets me more absorbed than seeing the minute detail of individual holds and imagining how it would feel under my fingertips and lowering my weight onto it. What also comes across is her methodical approach to highballing, with extensive roped rehearsal, mental preparation and a visceral sense of grace and mastery.
Next there’s United States of Joe’s, a story set in one of the world's best-loved bouldering destinations in rural Utah, Joe’s Valley. In a nutshell, a small group of rebellious dirty climbing youths turn up in remote Emery County in the early 2000s, where they feast upon hundreds of stunning, unclimbed sandstone boulders. Home to Mormons, cowboys and coal miners, our climbers didn’t quite fit in as you can imagine… Animosity started to grow, as did the popularity of bouldering in Joe’s Valley, fueled in part by - I’m very proud to say - Ben Moon. He shook things up when he took a trip out there and put up Valley classic, Black Lung, V13, which is supported by some equally classic old footage.
What happens next isn’t a great surprise, but I loved it. The story takes you through the coming together of two communities and the improvements made to accomodate the climbers, generate much needed tourism income for Emerson, protect the fragile environment, and connect climbers to the local community. I’m not sure if I’ve become particularly jaded by the division we are currently experiencing in the UK, but I found the cooperation and acceptance of different communities in this film heart warming. Outside one of the shop hangs a simple sign. It reads, “We Love Our Climbers.”
Last but not least, The Nose Speed Record sees legendary climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell attempting an outrageous speed record on the Nose, El Cap. And no, I’m not bored of them yet, they are hugely entertaining. What’s more, they are complemented by a stellar cast of equally entertaining climbers as the film takes you through a brief history of speed climbing.
There were three stand-out characters for me. On one hand, you have the most positive competitive person I’ve ever seen, the legendary Hans Florine, who literally wrote the book on speed climbing. Hans started a love affair with The Nose, climbing it more than a hundred times and holding and losing the record several times between 2002 and 2012, where he held it at the age of 48 with Alex Honnold in a time of 2:23:46. On the other hand, you have holders of the 2:19:44 record in 2017 - Brad Gobright and Jim Reynolds. With names like that, I always imagine them to be in their forties running a car dealership in Fargo, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are in their twenties, geeky, and very, very ridiculous. In one scene, Reynolds is seen practicing outside his tent with his katana sword, supposedly to discipline his body and spirit. We then follow him into his tent where he explains to us how we should all be listening to death metal while miming on his air guitar as it plays on his mobile.
Woven through the story are stark reminders of the dangers of big wall speed climbing, but it is cleverly done in keeping with the general feel of the movie - not too flippant nor too depressing. There are also discussions about the responsibilities Caldwell now carries as a father of two young children and how the pair can balance speed with safety. To this end, as in The High Road, you are witness to the amount of preparation and rehearsals - they climb the Nose about a dozen times together in May, including two record attempts on 30th May and 4th June, with the final record run on 6th June. That’s a total of about 44,000 vertical feet - insane levels of fitness.
They say climbing The Nose in less than two hours is the last great sporting barrier, like breaking the two hour marathon, but I don’t know. I think there’s room for another twenty minutes. As Hans Florine said as he watched their attempts from the field below, laying on his back with his plaster cast legs propped in the air, “let Tommy and Alex know that their speed record is safe for six months or so…”
I forgot to mention that midway through Reel Rock, you get a special sneak preview of their upcoming feature film, showing the late Marc-Andre Leclerc soloing high in the alpine. I always feel a bit cheated with teasers, but it looks breathtaking and I’ll be watching out for a film on Leclerc soon I hope.
Thanks again to Eden Rock and for everyone who bought a ticket to help us further the work of Urban Uprising. Nina Williams sums it up perfectly in a recent interview with Outside, “everyone climbs for a different reason, everyone for different experiences. But we’re all connected by being able to move our bodies in the way and direction that we want…. There are times in our lives when we feel directionless. But if you climb, at least you can control your body up a wall.”
If you haven't seen Reel Rock 14 yet, check out the official trailer here.