By John DeFore
Specialty-doc makers Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer have been shooting films for years, recording the achievements of athletes known only to followers of the rock-climbing scene. They have their crossover film in The Dawn Wall, whose physical challenge is so dramatic non-climbers can identify with it, and whose backstory is easily dramatic enough to make it a fleshed-out film. Big screens are the place to take this vista-rich ride, though, realistically, it will find most viewers on video.
The feat, which drew plenty of media attention in 2015, is a two-person team's attempt to climb the smoothest part of Yosemite's El Capitan monolith — a stretch called the Dawn Wall, believed by climbers to have so few cracks and grippable features that it can't be scaled. (El Capitan as a whole is a magnet for adventure athletes, and paths to the right and left of the Dawn Wall are challenging enough already.) The journey is expected to take two weeks at a minimum, broken down into 32 "pitches" — sections that can be free-climbed within the reach of a single safety rope, each section ending at a resting spot. In between their climbs, the two men will eat, sleep and relieve themselves on portaledges, tiny tents that hang, terrifyingly, from anchors climbers hammer into the cliff face.
But this duo's leader, Tommy Caldwell, supplies as much reason to care about the story as what one veteran climber calls "the most continuously difficult rock climb ever done." A Colorado native who was "slow at everything" as a child and even labeled "developmentally retarded," Caldwell was inspired by a father, Mike, who he viewed as a superhero. Mike nudged the boy into climbing in ways that would cause many to label him an unfit parent — check out that picture of a six-year-old dangling from a rope above a certain-death fall — and by his teens, the student had surpassed his teacher. Tommy went from climbing fan to pro almost accidentally at a Utah event, and was committed from that point on. He fell in love with another gonzo climber, Beth Rodden, and in 2000 they went with two others on an expedition to Kyrgyzstan. Where they were kidnapped by Islamist rebels.
That story's resolution, and the developments that follow Caldwell's return to the US, are surprising enough we'll leave them unspoiled for viewers who haven't read news reports. Suffice to say that they make the El Cap plan — which requires years of obsessive planning on site — all the more mindblowing.
Once it's firmly in the present tense, introducing Caldwell's new partner Kevin Jorgeson and laying out the details of their plan, the movie becomes merely a sweaty-palms chronicle of an insane climb. Photography is predictably gorgeous, finding plenty of different angles on this vertiginous setting, and even surprising us occasionally: When the partners attempt parts of their route overnight (because colder, drier conditions improve their grip), we're able to see only the small part of the rock they're illuminating with spotlights; the rest of the world disappears, and it's just man and granite.
There's plenty of human drama during this climbing as well (some of it caused, or aggravated, by an unexpected media frenzy), alongside physical feats usually reserved on big screens for Tom Cruise and The Rock. Do the men make it to the top? Do yourself a favor and don't check Wikipedia before watching.
Production company: Red Bull Media House
Distributor: The Orchard
Directors: Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer
Producers: Peter Mortimer, Josh Lowell, Philipp Manderla
Executive producer: Jurgen Kinateder
Director of photography: Brett Lowell
Editor: Josh Lowell
Composer: Adam Crystal