Climbing: Fitz! Great to talk to you. Tell us more about this project.
Fitz Cahall: Well, the film is called Defined by the Line, and it's basically the story of how we evolve as climbers, into something more than just a climber. When we’re in our 20s or in those very passionate stages of our education as climbers, we go to all these incredible places. We have this unstoppable stoke to visit and climb in as many places as we can. And they have a huge imprint on us.
Now, some of those areas are threatened, and you might say, "Well, what can I do to help?" Then you look at yourself and the whole big thing and how fucked up politics are and how unresponsive the government can be, and then you say to yourself, "Forget it. I'm just a climber."
Then you get older and settle down. Maybe you're not living on the road anymore, and there comes this day when you realize you've developed other sets of skills. And for some of us, then there's a moment when you say, "I'm not just a climber. I'm more than that. I have a stake in what's happening, and I have the ability to participate and influence change and make a difference." Maybe not a giant difference, but a difference nonetheless. So that's the high-level idea of what the film is talking about.
More specifically, we found someone in our bigger climbing community who had a really cool story, someone who fit exactly that idea: Josh Ewing. He's a super-passionate climber, and he's been doing it for a long time. He was head of PR for the mayor of Salt Lake City about eight years ago. Then he went to work for an advertising agency as head of corporate communications and messaging. He had this pretty high-powered job but was still really passionate about climbing. And he discovered this place called Cedar Mesa down in southeast Utah—it's about an hour's drive south of Indian Creek, outside of this town called Bluff. It's one of those places that not a lot of people have been, especially compared to Canyonlands or Arches [National Parks] or even Grand Staircase-Escalante [National Monument]. It's one of those spots that's just been overlooked for whatever reason, though there's a canyon there named Grand Gulch that does see some backpacking. There's an incredible amount of wild desert mixed with archaeological resource. In Cedar Mesa alone there are 56,000 archaeological sites.
If you've ever been to Canyon De Chelly National Monument or Mesa Verde National Park, you get the sense that hey, this was the center of life. This was the town or center of community for these ancient populations. Cedar Mesa then might be considered like the suburbs. There were a lot of people living there but a bit more spread out.
Walk down every single canyon, and you'll find a ruin there. The really cool thing about it is that a lot of them you have to free solo to get to. They're high up on the sides of these cliffs, and you can't use ropes to access archaeological sites—it's actually illegal to do so. So you have to free solo into these ruins—and it's for real. You can't believe that there were grandmas or children free soloing 5.7's 500 feet off the deck. It's pretty cool.
And so Josh fell in love with this place, and he made a big shift in his life. He left his whole career and just reset. He moved down to Bluff, Utah, which is basically one of the quietest places you could possibly be. Definitely not a lot there! But he just wanted to be near Cedar Mesa because it's so rich. Then he became aware of threats.
As oil and gas exploration and drilling spread across Utah, he saw that it hadn't arrived yet at Cedar Mesa but surely would soon. At the same time, there were people in the community who started a group called Friends of Cedar Mesa, a loose volunteer organization. They came to Josh because they realized that this town of 200 people just added a guy who spent 10 years in corporate communications and working in politics, and they needed someone to help spearhead this effort to stave off oil and gas. And he thought, “Why not? Maybe this is what I was meant to do with my life.”
He'd been coming down to climb in Indian Creek and working on his 5.13 projects, and he got to the stage where he knew he was more than just a climber. Maybe this is my chance to do something that I have a stake in. And then he went to work.
He's incredible and has become a good friend over the course of making this film. He's very smart. He's very kind. And very focused. And he came up with this idea of wanting permanent protection for Cedar Mesa. He crafted a monument proposal for President Obama to consider as he leaves the White House at the end of his term. Obama has already set aside a giant swath in the Arctic and smaller bits in California in the past couple months. So Josh and the Friends of Cedar Mesa are hoping to get that chunk of land protected permanently. It wouldn't exclude any oil and gas already there, but it would stop any new oil and gas from coming in.
The last few months have been incredible. Originally the proposal was to save 200,000 acres, and it was just Cedar Mesa. Now, because of the coalition Josh has built, it has 1.9 million acres. There are 100,000 archaeological sites within that and even includes Indian Creek—which for climbers is a huge thing. Indian Creek has been changing over the years, and people have been working really hard to make sure that we maintain access to it, but the use is there and increasing. And while no one really thinks there will be an oil derrick at the base of Supercrack Buttress, there could easily be oil and gas right on the edge of the place we know as Indian Creek, whether it's up on the rim of Supercrack Buttress or just past the main use areas. That would change the dynamic.
There are four or five Native American tribes involved. There are several local organizations that have banded together with Friends of Cedar Mesa. And there are bigger national conservation organizations supporting this.
And so the film is about this process for Josh and this process of realization that each of us have power in our life and have the ability to make a difference—like Josh has.
On top of this proposal, which may or may not happen, we recognize that there could be absolutely nothing that comes of this. But concretely, Josh already got a three-year stay on new oil and gas development in that area. He figured out that all the data the oil companies were working off of was bunk. He basically got the people who consider that to hit pause, which set the oil and gas companies back three years while they re-work their proposals.
The things Josh has accomplished are very real, yet at the same time he's out climbing desert towers and working projects and he's very much a climber. He has a really cool story, one that's not quite finished yet.
CLM: What was your process like for filming? There are both simple and complex storylines and an unknown outcome.
FC: I met Josh nine months ago and have been working with him on filming for about six months. We'd have to rewrite and reshoot quite often because the storyline would change—he'd get more people involved and have the opportunity to do even more. So it was a pretty fluid process.
But I've been there myself, that moment that Josh had where he realized he could make a difference. I've had that moment. I mean I got really excited in 2008 when we elected Obama. And I've been so disappointed since then it was almost like I've dropped out and stopped believing that I had any stake in protecting wild places. But in my heart I know that I do have the ability with my work to make some sort of contribution to protect places that mean a lot to me, places where I grew up as a climber. So it's been really good to go through that process again myself. I've taken the same journey making this film as Josh has working on his efforts.
CLM: How do you think this will resonate with young climbers?
FC: There's a knock on millennials that they don't really do much. But as we spent time in Indian Creek and hired people to rig or to belay, we got to spend a lot of time with this younger generation of climbers and see how they respond to it. What I found was that they have a natural distrust of this political process. Climbers have a strong community, but we're really independent by nature. We don't always trust things that are organized or participate in bigger conservation groups. But what was really cool to see was how fired up some of these guys got. One in particular went back to Colorado and bought a keg. He brought the keg back and posted a bunch of notes on the message boards at Indian Creek about finding out more about how you can protect this place. He got all these young dirtbags who really haven't participated in anything ever to come drink beer and write letters. They wrote to Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Interior, about who they are and why Indian Creek matters to them and why the Bears Ears proposal (the name of Josh's proposal that's out there now) is so important. It was such a cool thing to see the younger generation get engaged by this and to see how our efforts were trickling down and becoming kind of contagious.
CLM: If our readers want to help or take part what can they do? In addition to buying kegs, of course.
FC: Go to Patagonia's website—there will be a petition and more ways to take part. But we're talking about Indian Creek here, you know? If you've had a great day climbing splitters, send a letter to Obama. Please! But even if you don't know these places, I hope people watch this and simply realize that they are capable, too. When it feels like the right moment in life to leap from "I'm just a climber" to "I'm more than a climber" that they choose to participate. And it doesn't have to be conservation but whatever it is that speaks to them. I want climbers who see this film to be open to that when it happens, just as Josh was when it happened to him. Please participate and be open to making a shift in your life when you see an opportunity to help out and give back to the places that have defined you as a climber.
CLM: Will you seek out more stories like this? My mind is spinning with all the climbing areas potentially at risk as well as those moments when you realize you're more than just a climber. Really ripe areas for storytelling.
FC: No doubt. Yes. Thematically I think I've been working on this a long time, though I don't always get to make pieces like this. But this was a particularly rad situation where rad people and rad topics all came together. But I love finding stories about how we interact with our environment and are changed by it. This will be ongoing, though, this particular story, as we get closer to the end of Obama's term.
Plus, if you're into adventure climbing and new-routing, I mean, this whole area of Cedar Mesa is so ripe—there are many stories waiting to be told in that regard, too. I pinch myself when I get this kind of work because it's exactly what I want to be doing with my life.