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By Alexandra Kahn
In July 2015 I began a journey that took me around the world with a group of male rock climbers in order to scout, film, and photograph for the adventure bouldering film, Uncharted Lines. Although this is the fourth film I’ve worked on, I had never attempted a film project that lasted longer than six months, including editing time. The idea of beginning a journey with the planned filming and editing time of one-and-a-half years was just as exciting as it was daunting.
My filming partner throughout all four films was professional climber, Paul Robinson. We had always worked on films with a shoestring budget, self-funding in the hopes that others would believe in the projects as we had. Although our technique proved successful, this film needed to be different. The plan was to travel to various countries around the world with some of the most elite climbers, Jimmy Webb, Chris Sharma and Daniel Woods, seeking new areas and putting up first ascents. We needed to secure additional funding in order to travel to these places, to pay for the athletes to join us, as well as to hire additional videographers and purchase new equipment
That July, we drove to Zimbabwe from Johannesburg, South Africa, to explore Chimanimani National Park as a potential filming destination. It was everything we hoped and more, solidifying our need to continue the exploration and receive funding. With the help of Google Earth, our next scouting trip took us to Eastern Siberia to the Ergaki Mountains, but a brutal storm came and forced us to retreat as soon as we arrived. We knew we had just filmed the start of the movie by capturing the risk of failure that exploratory climbers face each time they choose to visit an unknown zone.
We began the process of creating our proposal. Detailing our vision and the locations we planned to visit, we chose Zimbabwe, Spain, the Southeastern United States, and the Rocky Mountains to create a story based upon the desire to explore, moments of failure and success, and the themes of solitude versus friendship and support. In the end, our proposal was well received by outdoor companies and our premiere sponsors for the film were LifeStraw, Asana, and Clif Bar.
August 2015—March 2016 passed in a blur. We filmed the Southeast while renting an Airbnb and bunking up with Jimmy Webb’s Mom. We filmed Spain while staying in a bright pink townhouse in a picturesque Spanish Village. Preparing for the Zimbabwe section of the film was different. We would be living on a mountaintop in a stone shack without electricity or running water for two weeks. We planned out everything required for survival for the entire trip. Snacks from Clif Bar and our other food sponsor, Justin’s, provided the necessary fuel for many days. We were challenged by the need to power the cameras and computers essential to create the film and by the lack of clean water for cooking and drinking. In these two realms, Goal Zero and LifeStraw proved to be game changers. Despite the obstacles we faced for the Zimbabwe portion of the adventure, we walked away with the footage we needed and in good health.
The final section was shot October, November, and December of 2016, and focused on a few zones across the states of Colorado and Wyoming. Many of the climbers in the film had made the Rocky Mountains their home turf and this section focused on the support and acceptance of climbing from the surrounding community. We were able to make day trips to the Colorado areas but Wyoming required a multi-day commitment and camping. Unaccustomed to camping with a large group, we quickly ran out of water and had to ration food. Once again, LifeStraw came to the rescue. As I passed out water bottles to each athlete, we cleaned last night’s dishes while filling the bottles from the green water source. It was the first time any of the athletes had seen the bottles in action. In Zimbabwe we had used a larger filter bag—it was hilarious to see the climbers’ expressions as they took hesitant sips from the swirling brown water bottles that, thanks to LifeStraw, produced clean and clear drinking water.
Throughout the journey, I constantly searched for female climbers seeking adventure and exploration. I wanted to add a female to the cast and also have a female to interact with. Although Meagan Martin joined the crew at the last minute for one climb, it was not the same as having a female involved in the overall journey we had endured. Outdoor climbing is much more male dominated than indoor climbing and the concept of exploration and seeking first ascents is even more macho. Despite my friendships with the men I traveled with, and my relationship with my filming partner, I felt a longing for female companionship and unfortunately never received it.
As a female climbing media producer, I have observed a big difference in the outdoor exploration-climbing scene. I often see women partner with men in order to seek out first ascents, but I rarely observe female partnerships or groups, like I have with men. I often observe the attitude of “It’s OK, there’s always next time,” when climbing with females, while with males I more often hear, “You got this. Next go!” Maybe it’s a difference in the emotional component and lack of male sensitivity, but I have somehow grown accustomed to this rough “a muerte” (to the death) attitude due to the climbing partners I have spent my years with. Despite being a woman, I now respond more positively to the insensitive approach to sending. Whether that’s a good thing, I’m not sure.
Filming an all male crew of tall, strong athletes, I have been forced to grow a thick shell. I often times had to carry loads half my weight, carry climbing gear when I wasn’t climbing, and run through forests and up mountains so I didn’t get lost and left behind. I felt like I had to be both tough and laid back in order to gain the respect of the men I filmed. I was frequently the only videographer and was forced to manipulate multiple cameras in a variety of locations simultaneously, praying everything would work out. Sometimes I balanced in trees without hands to get the shot I needed, other times I laid on my stomach with the camera stretched out on a rock in front of me to give me the angle I desired. It was never easy and I was constantly tired, sore and a little cranky. My personal climbing took a back seat during the entire filming process, which might have been one of the most difficult parts for me. This was the first time I had traveled to top climbing destinations only to be granted very limited time to climb, if any at all. I learned to not complain and tried to be “one of the guys.”
Now that the project is over and I am climbing again, in some ways I am grateful for the lessons learned. Prior to the journey, I was often shy around pro-climbers, complaining about minutia and limiting my climb selections to only the problems I knew I could excel at. Spending nearly two years in this process, I now will talk to nearly anyone, anywhere. I realize the value of a conversation with a friendly face and the lessons that can come from a story of a stranger. I certainty don’t sweat the small stuff and have become a more positive person who views life as a series of endless possibilities.
Lastly, seeing these guys push themselves in so many ways on so many new types of terrain inspired me to push myself. I seek out any line I think looks beautiful or unique, regardless of the style. I have grown to be a more well-rounded climber and don’t give up easily. While I still cherish my moments with women, I have learned that it’s more important to spend my time with interesting, inspirational and kind people, regardless of their age or gender, rather than specifically seek out female company.
I am so grateful for the experience of Uncharted Lines and to this day there has been no greater source of pride than seeing the opening credits of my film play at The Boulder Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. I already have a new project in the works and will take all that I learned from Uncharted Lines and make the next film even better—but this time, hopefully I can figure out a better balance between work and climbing.
This story was written by LifeStraw as advertising material. Climbing Magazine’s editors endorse the content, but had no involvement in its creation.