Reel Rock 8's climbing films leave audiences with a lot to digest

Scott Lentz
Hirayama, Woods, Findlay and company take the stage.
Sender Films had the story of the year fall into its lap through pure chance. The Boulder-based climbing filmmakers had sent a cameraman to follow the mountain-scaling superteam of Ueli Steck and Simone Moro as they attempted to climb a new route across Everest and its neighboring peak, Lhotse, when the pair became involved in a physical confrontation with a group of sherpas that left both climbers bruised and shaken, ending their expedition and vaulting them into magazine and newspaper headlines around the world.

See also: Reel Rock 8 returns to Boulder with its most controversial film ever

That incident would become the basis for High Tension, the film that anchors this year's edition of the Reel Rock Tour. The traveling climbing film festival, a co-production between Sender and New York-based Big UP Productions, kicked off its eighth season at Boulder's Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday night with a show that had more in common with documentary than it did with old-school, action-packed climbing porn.

Unlike a traditional film festival, Reel Rock is almost entirely the work of its organizers and their collaborators; until 2011, when they screened a shortened cut of Cold, FORGE Motion Pictures' award-winning film about the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, Reel Rock had never shown a film by an outside studio. With the same filmmakers -- and many of the same subjects -- returning for each edition, ensuring that the show evolves from year to year has been one of Sender's concerns.

"Every year there's this never-ending challenge to up the ante a bit or at least do something distinct from what we've done," co-founder Nick Rosen told Westword writer Colin Bane earlier this week, "and I think we've pulled it off this year."

The night opened up with twin climbing travelogues based on more conventional, kid-meets-rock stories. In The Sensei, Boulder climbing phenom Daniel Woods teams up with Yuji Hirayama, Japan's elder statesman of rock climbing, to establish new sport routes on the barren granite slopes of Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo. In the second film, Spice Girl, British climber Hazel Findlay and another Boulderite, Emily Harrington, travel to the oasis of Taghia in Morocco to attempt Babel, a scary, 2,800-foot climb up a massive limestone cliff.

The Reel Rock crew and the camera operators and directors who work with them, including filmmaker Chuck Fryberger, are masters of using their environment to set the tone for their films, and these movies are no exception. The swirling mists that cover Kinabalu make the towering prows and towers that Woods and Hirayama climb look otherworldly, like an islet poking out of a foggy sea. In one of the tenser scenes of Spice Girl, Findlay climbs Once Upon a Time in the Southwest, a blank, knife-shaped slab of rock on the English coast, as the incoming tide begins to creep up towards her dad, who's stuck belaying her by the waterline below.

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