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In “The Sanctity of Space,” Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson Seek Alaskan First Ascents and Purpose in Exploration

Lured by a black and white Bradford Washburn photograph, three renowned climbers pursue a striking new route and the story of an Alaskan legend.

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The Sanctity of Space premieres in U.S. theaters on May 13. More information can be found here.

“Bradford Washburn was the greatest aerial mountain photographer of all time. Hanging out the open door of an airplane, he flew above unmapped mountain ranges—capturing iconic images with which he could make maps, pursue scientific inquiries, discover first ascents, and inspire people.”

So begins the synopsis of The Sanctity of Space, a spectacular new film that follows the life arc of Washburn, a legend indeed, and an Alaskan first ascent by Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson, two professional climbers, documentarians, and authors. Eighty years after Washburn first photographed Denali, a young Wilkinson is lured by an image of the immense Moose’s Tooth Massif and enlists Ozturk and Zack Smith, another U.S.-based alpinist, to attempt the first skyline traverse—the Tooth Traverse.

“There’s so many different types of climbing these days, but we’re really adventure- and landscape-driven people,” Ozturk tells me. “And it’s clearly one of the most beautiful skylines on earth.”

Ozturk and Wilkinson on the Tooth Traverse. (Photo: The Sanctity of Space film)

Indeed, the Tooth Traverse (5.10R M5 A2+; 26,200 feet) is a monstrous linkup of new and existing routes in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge which Ozturk and Wilkinson completed in 2012, after several seasons of effort. But these numbers betray the experience of their ascent, and certainly betray the meaning of the film, which is as much about badass alpine climbing as it is about exploration, documentation, and the life of Bradford Washburn. In fact, it’s why the film is about to be released now, a decade after the ascent, yet it remains as relevant as ever.

Wilkinson came across Washburn’s image of the Tooth Massif in 2006, an image that sparked a decade-and-a-half inquiry into Washburn’s life and work. (Washburn died in 2007, at age 96, of heart failure.) As the trio prepared for the Tooth Traverse, made several strong attempts, and climbed elsewhere in the Alaska range, they began to learn more about Washburn’s life and wide-ranging skill set. “Washburn was accomplished in so many [areas] it was almost hard to define him,” Ozturk says. “He could have been super famous, [as] a cartographer, or because he started the Boston Museum of Science—and he never even promoted his own art. And he was one of the greatest mountain aerial photographers of all time.”

Bradford Washburn with his Fairchild K-6 aerial camera. (Photo: The Sanctity of Space film)

Ozturk and Wilkinson wisely choose not to define Washburn, and they certainly don’t come close to creating an exhaustive biography of the man. Which is a good thing. The 90-minute film is equal parts climbing action, mountain scapes, and an inquisitive look at Washburn’s life, climbs, and impact—told through digitized archival footage and interviews with Alaskan legends like David Roberts and Jack Tackle. There are parallels between Washburn’s first ascent of Mt. Lucania (the third-highest mountain in Canada at 16,644 feet) and the contemporary trials of new routing up gravelly choss and steep, unstable snow. Washburn creates new ways to photograph mountains from the skies while Ozturk and Wilkinson do the same with video. “Brad showed us that you use the best tools you can in any given situation, which is why we went for broke with some of those aerial shots even though we had no idea if it was going to work out,” Ozturk says.  “Ninety percent of the [climbing] films you see [with] that kind of aerial footage … it’s pretty set up. But we were doing it on a first ascent where you don’t even know if you’re going to make it to where you say you’re going to make it.” 

Spoiler alert: the plane (and pilot Paul Roderick) flies past Ozturk and Wilkinson at the perfect moment—golden hour on a fluted snow ridge—and the results are spectacular. The footage is not only the result of their dogged filmmaking during that specific ascent, but of a lifetime of prioritizing documentation—just like Washburn did. 

Herein lies the film’s main source of tension. Ozturk and Wilkinson are professional climbers, paid by big companies to climb, document, and report back about their ascents around the world. Zack Smith, who initially joins them for the Tooth Traverse, is not. He’s happy to be interviewed and occasionally hold a camera, but he uses more traditional means to fund his climbing expeditions (stringing suburban Christmas lights, among other gigs). Ozturk remembers an early attempt of the traverse, as a party of three, when Smith finds a microphone in the bottom of his pack. Smith is the archetypal fast and light alpinist—“he weighs the grams of every carabiner,” Ozturk says—and this added weight was seen as an unnecessary burden. “He gave me this stink eye and I knew it was the beginning of the end of him falling out of love with the process of documenting it. But for Freddy and myself, we always wanted to. The filming was just as important as the climbing.”

Smith (left) and Wilkinson on an early attempt of the Tooth Traverse. (Photo: Renan Ozturk / The Sanctity of Space film)

This idea, that filming can hold the same importance as a cutting-edge ascent, is surely foreign to most climbers, yet we can immediately appreciate the results. And the footage goes far beyond aesthetics: in the five years it took to film The Sanctity of Space, Ozturk and Wilkinson created a substantial aerial-footage library of Denali National Park, captured in ways that it had never been seen before, which will serve to inspire, educate, and impassion future generations. 

In a directors’ statement, Ozturk and Wilkinson write: “The danger in trying to merge genres in film is that if you botch it, you end up losing two stories instead of just one. In this vein, we knew early on our project could not be a comprehensive biography of Washburn’s life. But by remembering his words and spirit, we hope to celebrate his essential message: exploration is sharing.”

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