New film offers a fun and intimate romp through the world of climbing
By Doug Robinson
Several years ago a young filmmaker knocked on my door. Oakley Anderson Moore wanted to interview me about life in Yosemite during its Golden Age in the 1960s. And, why is this climbing thing so compelling, even addictive, anyway?
She’s a climber, so she already knew, in her gut. And that’s the way her narrative comes across: knowing, companionable, at times even sly – as if to pull every one of us into a world of adventure, ultimately making the point that we’re all in this together.
We talked a lot, on and off camera. I still might have forgotten about it, since that was three houses ago – one way to measure the better part of a decade – except that Oakley kept in touch, phoning every once in awhile to talk about her progress or chew on some conundrum of scripting.
Brave New Wild, a feature-length romp through the world of climbing that is just out this spring, has been well worth the wait. Comparisons to Valley Uprising, with its sweeping history of Yosemite climbing, are inevitable, so let’s get that out of the way first. Brave New Wild is not trying to represent the march of history, except in a very personal way that slowly weaves its way into the heart of climbing.
The film opens with a helicopter filling the screen, hugging the wall of El Cap. In the vast sweep of stone, haul bags declare camping gone vertical. It’s 1970, and archival footage shows a very serious ranger explaining that they are about to rescue two climbers. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell have been on the Dawn Wall longer than any wall climb, ever, and have come through a storm. It’s the first time that TV news crews have brought climbing to national attention.
Cut to Harding, telling the story. “We’ve come here to rescue you!”
“Our biggest problem was we were out of brandy …”
Harding’s voice has a wonderful slow drawl. He’s told this story before, and – just maybe – is a bit tipsy, too. We’re treated to a lot of footage of him, explaining in his trademarked farcical style what, exactly, we’re up to here. Royal Robbins shows up too, explaining his very different version of events, and motivation, that includes wonderfully whimsical animation of his chopping Harding’s bolts. Of course we’ve heard the story of their conflict before, but this time it’s rounded out by an interview with Royal’s partner on the attempt to erase Harding’s climb, Don Lauria, shedding welcome new light on events.
Cut to home movie of a young girl splashing in the Merced River. It’s our narrator Oakley, shot by her father who pans from her up the walls of the Valley. “I began to notice a pattern,” she comments drily, leading us into a lovingly personal exploration into the dirtbag life of a man who, in the same era as the Dawn Wall, turned years of his full focus onto climbing. “What happened to this Golden Age? What did my father see when he looked through that viewfinder?”
We’ve entered into climbing’s biggest question –Why? – but instead of philosophizing we follow her Dad into just enough work as an itinerant fruit picker to support his passion.
Threads great and small weave together into this wonderful tale. The classic cartoons of Sheridan Anderson come alive into fanciful animation, followed by the impressionistic work of a modern illustrator. We’re treated to a rare interview with Joe Herbst, a very under-the-radar guy who as much as anyone opened up to climbing the Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas.
“THE RIGHT CONDITIONS” splashes across the screen, “For the Birth of Rock Climbing in America.” We are treated to UC Berkeley professor Kerwin Klein – himself a climber – explaining how economic boom times after World War II led to a bounty across the country that would support people who wanted to live on the fringes of society. And explore. Like the Beats of the 1950s, leading Jack Kerouac to proclaim a “rucksack revolution.” And climbers.
Brave New Wild is, in its own quirky style, haphazardly touring the country. Seek out a showing and go see it. Or view it online. Your inner dirtbag will relish this fine film.