In a film class at Colorado College in 1997, geology major Peter Mortimer discovered that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a science lab. A grad school stint in film at the University of Southern California wasn't the right fit, either.
So he chose a middle path instead: making rock-climbing films.
What started off as a hobby gradually morphed into a full-fledged production company, Sender Films, as Mortimer realized the business potential of a new genre.
This week, his alma mater will host the Reel Rock Film Tour, an alliance between Sender Films and Big Up Productions (headed by fellow CC grad and friend Josh Lowell). In 2007, the two companies won a Sports Emmy Award together for Outstanding Camera Work on King Lines, which showed renowned climber Chris Sharma pulling off a super-challenging, deep-water solo in Mallorca, Spain.
Unlike Warren Miller's ski films, climbing videos historically have been extremely low-budget. That's changing, with people like Mortimer employing dramatics and visuals such as swooping camera angles and intensely personal close-ups.
"There's this huge universe of mountain films that's really taking off," says 34-year-old Nick Rosen, a writer and producer who climbed at CC with Mortimer and in 2005 joined his Boulder-based creative staff.
In its third year, the Reel Rock Film Tour will hit more than 75 locations worldwide, assembling climbers in a festival-like atmosphere. Ultimately, the event which seeks to stitch together the geographically dispersed pockets of the climbing world is all about the people.
First of all, take the climbers, ranging from top-notch professionals to construction workers to Harvard medical students scrambling up some rocks on weekends.
"They do it for very little fanfare, next-to-no money and just the pure love or the crazy desire to one-up their body," Rosen explains.
One example is Dean Potter, who in the crowning segment of The Sharp End, the feature film of Reel Rock 2008, solos a difficult face of several thousand feet on the Eiger mountain in Switzerland with no rope. His only safety net a base-jumping parachute.
Second, take the film crew. Anyone who has been behind heavy-duty camera equipment probably can't imagine doing it suspended on a cliff wall from ropes.
"We have a 20-foot lightweight crane that we assemble and an arm for our camera so it can move and flow. It's only 40 pounds, but hauling it up to this rock ledge, assembling it, trying not to drop anything there's a lot of pressure and responsibility," says Rosen.
In addition, camera crews have to keep rolling almost continually because of the complete unpredictability of what could happen next. Trips costing $2,000 could easily be completely thwarted because of weather or injury.
In fact, failure is a central theme.
"It's not all about getting to the top," Rosen says. "I think you have to be prepared to embrace the unpredictable and failure. There's really no way to script this stuff."
Lastly, Reel Rock is all about its audience, a real brotherhood enveloping greenhorns and lifers.
"There's a real counterculture associated with climbing," says Rosen, "A lot of these people are free spirits; they're anti-establishment; they love to get rowdy and drunk sometimes."
Let's hope not while climbing.
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