Doctor of Climbology: 9 Must-Watch Climbing Films

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Doctor of Climbology is your shortcut to becoming cultured in climbing. An imperfect, unscientific guide to 55 must-read, must-see, must-hear climbing stories from masters of the art.

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We’re in a new age of media, and we are bombarded by it 24/7. But whether it’s a heady new memoir or a short video clip of an expedition on Instagram, quality is defined by storytelling. To find out which stories are really worth reading—or watching or hearing—we asked more than 35 writers, publishers, and filmmakers, plus Climbing readers, for their favorites.

This isn’t an end-all, be-all “best ever” ranking (and we ignored magazines—how could we be unbiased there?). Our only claim is this: If you love a good story, then you’ll love the ones highlighted in this series. Click here to see our picks in books, websites, blogs, and podcasts.

4 Must-See Climbing DVDs

We asked today’s leading climbing filmmakers which climbing films they most admired or wished they had made. These four consistently rose to the top.

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El Capitan
by Fred Padula (1978)
“El Capitan” documents an ascent of the Nose in 1968, the days when climbers carried only pitons for protection and wore corduroy knickers and swami belts instead of harnesses. Yet in all the essential ways, the film captures what it still feels like to climb El Cap today: the nervous banter, the sea of granite, the awesome exposure. The climbing footage was shot mostly by Glen Denny, who climbed on a separate rope team. Padula custom-built wireless mics for the climbers to capture more than 100 hours of dialogue and the sounds of the wall. “‘El Capitan’ was pretty much what got me into climbing,” says photographer and filmmaker Andrew Kornylak. “I watched it so many times; the audio is amazing.” For various reasons, the film wasn’t released until 1978. In 2012 Padula painstakingly restored the entire film frame by frame. Now it’s available on DVD in brilliant color.

King Lines
by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer (2007)
This hour-long feature from the Big UP and Sender Films team is THE Chris Sharma movie, following him from Clark Mountain in Nevada to Céüse, France, and to the tepuis of Venezuela, all in search of magical lines to climb. The footage of Sharma’s attempts on Es Pontas, the unrepeated, frighteningly high, deep-water-soloing arch in Mallorca, is simply stunning. “‘King Lines’ was really inspiring to me,” says Louder Than 11 filmmaker Jon Glassberg. “For the first time in a climbing movie, a character was developed really well and followed through the entire journey. I am envious of Big UP’s ability to pull off such a huge story so well, and it is a dream of mine to find a character like Chris, at the right stage in their climbing career, and to tell their story with mass appeal and core authenticity.”

Cold
by Anson Fogel (2011)
Nineteen minutes of pure intensity: Anson Fogel edited footage shot by Cory Richards during the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II in Pakistan into an emotional masterpiece. Photographer and filmmaker Celin Serbo says, “This movie touched on the reality that trips aren’t all fun, often involve a large amount of risk, and leave us wondering why the fuck we are doing this. It seems that so many films focus on the ‘living the dream’ theme and tend to downplay how serious and scary things can be. It got the audience thinking, and as a filmmaker, that is something we all strive for.”

Valley Uprising
by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen (2014)
After seven years of labor on this feature-length documentary about Yosemite Valley, Sender Films released “Valley Uprising” in September as the sole film in the 2014 REEL ROCK Tour. Though criticized by some for over-emphasizing certain Valley legends and shortchanging other crucial periods and players—mainly, the 1980s—the film is fast-paced, engaging, and creatively shot and edited. “I think ‘Valley Uprising’ is the best climbing film ever made, and raised the bar in so many different ways, for both scope and quality,” says photographer and filmmaker Ben Fullerton. “It’s a comprehensive, feature-length documentary that is as deep as it is high.”

2 Hollywood Heroes

Big-budget flicks that got it right. Or close. We asked a dozen leading climbing filmmakers to name their favorite Hollywood film that features climbing. Most cited one of these two.

Touching the Void(2003)
Director (and Academy Award winner) Kevin Macdonald paired stripped-down interviews with the main players and climber/actor reconstructions of the wild events after Joe Simpson broke his leg on 20,814-foot Siula Grande in Peru. The reconstructions are hyper-realistic, and the tension in the film is palpable, despite knowing from the beginning that both men survive. Filmmaker Jim Surette says, “I once made the mistake of telling my mom that ‘Touching the Void’ was the most realistic climbing movie I had seen. She had seen it too and was not comforted by that fact.”

The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Art professor and former assassin Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is recalled for duty by some shadowy agency and heads to Switzerland to “sanction” a climber attempting the Eiger. It’s campy, which is part of the fun. The climbing, first on the 400-foot Totem Pole, on Arizona’s Navajo Reservation, and then on the Eiger Nordwand, is reasonably well done. Still, as filmmaker and photographer John Dickey says, “No big film has ever delved into the characteristics of climbing. Climbing just gets brought out occasionally, like a fast car or a big gun.” This flick has plenty of both, and that’s OK.

3 Films So Bad They're Good

Go ahead. Add ’em to your queue.

Cliffhanger (1993)
Sylvester Stallone goes climbing. His harness buckle breaks in half. Need we say more?

Vertical Limit (2000)
All-points-off ice dynos high on K2, volatile explosives, unintentionally hilarious dialogue, and an Ed Viesturs cameo.

North Face (2008)
The climbing scenes are well-staged in this reconstruction of an ill-fated 1936 attempt on the Eiger. But the plot derails because of a feeble love angle—at the climax Toni Kurz’s girlfriend ventures onto the face and delivers this immortal line to her man, dangling half-frozen from a rope: “Hang in there!”

What are your favorite climbing films? Is there anything we missed? Tell us in the comments.

Culture consultants: Peter Beal, Andrew Bisharat, Michael Brown, Cameron Burns, Fitz Cahall, Doug Canfield, David Chaundy-Smart, Michael Chessler, Jimmy Chin, Paige Claassen, Jeremy Collins, John Dickey, Ed Douglas Anson Fogel, Chuck Fryberger, Ben Fullerton, Damien Gildea, Jon Glassberg, Steve Goodwin, John Harlin III, Clint Helander, Alex Honnold, Steve House, Mark Jenkins, Chris Kalous, Joe Kinder, Andrew Kornylak, Brendan Leonard, Sara Lingafelter, James Lucas, Bernadette McDonald. Angie Payne, David Roberts