Image from the film PROGRESSION. Chris Sharma on the first ascent of Jumbo Love (5.15b), at Clark Mountain, CA. The hardest rock climb in the world. Photo by Boone Speed / boonespeed.com.

Image from the film PROGRESSION. Chris Sharma on the first ascent of Jumbo Love (5.15b), at Clark Mountain, CA. The hardest rock climb in the world. Photo by Boone Speed / boonespeed.com.

I often have superhero dreams, where I can fly, jump to the top of a building, and basically climb whatever I want. In those dreams, my fingers never tire and my body feels light and hollow. The climbers in Big Up Production’s Progression are living my dreams. The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s no bullshit — fancy scene transitions and text effects from past Big UP flicks like Pilgrimage, or The Dosage series are gone, leaving only stark images of gifted humans pushing themselves like mad demons to the edge of the possible. Since this is the Internet age, where everything is instant and ubiquitous, you’ve seen photo stills and video clips, or read articles and blogs about many of the feats of climbing virtuosity captured in this movie, but those things were merely amuse-bouches for this, the main event. Yes, you’ve known for some time that Chris Sharma climbed Jumbo Love, at Mount Clark, but you didn’t see the full send, which more clearly reveals the absurd enormousness of that line, and Sharma’s achievement. You’ve likely read about Kevin Jorgeson climbing the Bishop highball Ambrosia, but maybe you didn’t realize that the problem is basically a cutting-edge free solo. The exploits of “Team America,” a rowdy trio comprised of Alex Honnold, Jorgeson, and Matt Segal, have been well documented in the media, but seeing them ripping into grit’s great lines, with all the breath-stopping moments that entails, is another story entirely.

The second thing you should know is that Big UP (bigupproductions.com) is trying something new with the distribution of Progression — in addition to the DVD ($29.95), you also have the option to download a high-res, full-length version of the movie for $19.95. Another sign that the digital age is altering every form of media. I reviewed a pre-release version of this download, and was impressed — the sound and image quality seemed as good on my big-ass computer monitor as that of the climbing DVDs I own. For 10 bucks less, you get a digital version, meaning no more messy physical media to tote around. I reckon DVDs will follow the same trail into the sunset as CDs, as hard drives grow and processors become speedier, so mark this as another step in the shift away from the old and toward the new. I’m interested to see how it all turns out. …

Progression by BigUP Productions

Progression by BigUP Productions

The structure and underlying theme of Progression is, like its footage, straightforward. “As climbing progresses, it’s getting very specialized,” says Tommy Caldwell in the movie, here playing the role of the old man during a trip to South Africa’s Rocklands with the young scamps Paul Robinson and Daniel Woods. His sentence reveals the rationale behind the people and places the filmmakers (Josh and Brett Lowell and Cooper Roberts, primarily) chose to shoot: specialists at the top of each climbing discipline — sport climbing, competition, bouldering, big wall climbing, gritstone trad, and super-highball bouldering. Progression, as the name suggests, is about the bleeding edge, where humans seem to transcend their earthly condition. The scale of Caldwell’s new project in Yosemite (thousands of feet of 5.14 face so taxing he had to learn a whole new style of climbing to take it on); the pale, leviathan overhang that is Jumbo Love; the vanishing size of the holds on Rocklands super-problems. …

As in any sport, when you approach the limits in climbing, wild things start to happen — this movie captures those things over and over again. One of my personal favorites is Woods sticking a dyno to a small edge on a steep overhang with one hand, all his weight swinging violently, supported only by his right-hand’s fingertips. Even the other mutants watching were flabbergasted. And can you say “mono”? Sharma plugs more of these than a bus full of Dutch school children on a field trip to a leaky dike. Methodically, Progression take us on a tour of the just-barely possible, and arrives at the end atop Jumbo Love, with the feeling that bigger and even badder things are on the horizon. Along the way, the film shows us revealing glimpses of the climbers’ inner thoughts and motivations, but never enough to qualify the film as a human interest piece. Progression sits in the space between the top-shelf climbing porn that is The Dosage series and Big UP’s more personal flicks, like King Lines.

The main purpose of movies like Progression, I’ve always believed, is to inspire. And though most of us couldn’t send Paul Robinson’s warm ups, showing us what people at the top can do is a perfect way to get our tips itching — the sense of hard work, perseverance, and accomplishment is highlighted all the more when everything else is stripped away and we can watch people who’ve dedicated their whole lives to the craft doing what they do best. The rest of us, whose lives demand fragmented attention, can live vicariously, feed on the motivation, and then go send our modest, but no less important, projects. Along the way, viewers will learn a fair bit about what it means to be the best across many of climbing’s genres.

Progression is available in download and DVD formats on October 1, 2009. Visit BigUPProductions.com for more information and to order your copy. You can also see Progression on the big screen during the Reel Rock Tour for the rest of the fall. Visit ReelRockTour.com to find a location near you.