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Colorado College grads are setting a new standard for climbing films
It all started in a cramped Manhattan apartment, on the hot ground floor of a building on Broadway — not a place where you would expect climbing bums to begin their career in adventure film.
“A pretty ghetto scene,” Josh Lowell recalls. “Shirts off, just editing maniacs.”
Now he’s editing from his forested home in the New York suburbs, where across the lawn is a cozy cottage that serves as a studio, one of REEL ROCK’s two bases. The other is in Pete Mortimer’s native Boulder, a converted house where more of the documentaries within the sport’s premier film festival come to life.
Into its 13th year, REEL ROCK again will stop in Colorado Springs. On Nov. 8, Colorado College’s Armstrong Theatre will be one venue along a tour that counts 50 countries, but it might be the most meaningful for Mortimer and Lowell.
The CC campus was where they met before their rise to prominence. They were geology majors and climbing pals before they were filmmakers, the key players today turning a niche genre into a mainstream one.
“The Dawn Wall,” their co-directed tale following an unprecedented feat by Tommy Caldwell, joined “Free Solo” on recent marquees around the country. The two titles enjoyed long stays in local theaters this fall and are poised to finish the year among the highest-earning documentaries at the box office.
Climbing film “really is coming into a big moment right now,” Mortimer says.
And with it come Mortimer and Lowell. Their 2018 feels even more significant than 2014, when they saw “Valley Uprising,” their feature about Yosemite’s 1960s and ‘70s counterculture, become a Netflix hit.
This year “is far and away the biggest,” Mortimer says.
“The biggest thing for me, personally, is just being really passionate about these stories, and just wanting these climbers’ stories to be out there. I feel like they’re some of the most fascinating people. We often feel like we’re discovering gems people don’t know about, and we feel so lucky.”
If people didn’t know about Caldwell and “Free Solo” star Alex Honnold before, they do now. They have been witnessed on the silver screen at the peak of their powers — Caldwell and a partner trying the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall, previously deemed impossible, and Honnold achieving rope-less glory on El Capitan.
The movies go much deeper than the generational accomplishments and deeper than the technical skill required, the former standard of climbing films. Mortimer and Lowell have helped push for this new standard that has critics raving.
“The Dawn Wall,” wrote The Los Angeles Times, is “an affecting portrait of conquering personal limitations.” Reads the review on RogerEbert.com: “As the most genuine of crowd-pleasers, it will have you rooting instantly for the two hardworking, charismatic athletes. You’ll start to root for the filmmaking, too.”
Audiences are catching on, and that’s quite something for Mortimer to think about. “When I started making climbing videos 20 years ago,” he says, “people like literally had no idea what I was doing.”
Of course, Lowell did. They supported each other in that hot box of an apartment, paying their dues in production on the sets of commercials and whatnot while practicing their obscure passion.
Lowell’s first video depicted the scene of his climbing introduction as a New York youngster: the quartz-covered area known as the Gunks.
It was 1997. Lowell was out of Colorado College and out of climbing commission, no longer able to continue as a crag-hungry nomad with a busted finger.
“I felt like I was kind of in a crisis,” he recalls. “What have I done with my life? I put all my eggs in this climbing basket, and now I have nothing else.”
Then he picked up a camera and started filming at the Gunks. Out of that came “Big Up,” which he had copied onto VHS tapes and mailed to climbing’s underground scenes around the country.
“It wasn’t a business, by any means, and it wasn’t even art yet,” Lowell says. “But it was the seed of something.”
On the business side, Mortimer later helped with a master’s of fine arts in film from the University of Southern California. Just as he and Lowell developed their climbing skills at Shelf Road back in their college days, so did they develop their art.
“Front Range Freaks,” about the characters Mortimer came to know growing up in Boulder, was one of his early videos. In 2007, he and Lowell combined forces for their first high-definition feature: “King Lines,” which chronicled Chris Sharma’s first ascent of the deep-sea arch called Es Pontàs.
But how could they make a living? That question hatched the idea of a tour, with a hired director who would ensure their films reached the masses. Since starting with about 60 screenings mostly in the U.S., REEL ROCK now boasts 500, with more than 150,000 attendees worldwide.
And it’s not only Mortimer’s and Lowell’s names on the films. More directors are introducing more climbers to audiences, and that’s what the founders intended all along.
If you don’t know the name Marc-André Leclerc, maybe you will after the duo’s next, yet-to-be-titled feature. “He didn’t want to film with us a whole lot,” Mortimer says of the Canadian alpinist. But the creators insisted: the prodigy had to be known.
In March, six months after filming wrapped, the 25-year-old Leclerc died in an Alaska avalanche.
“It’s such a tragic story, but to have caught that …” Mortimer says, trailing off. “Guys like this, they can just disappear. So it feels like a really important film to get right.”