What Two Filmmakers Learned Documenting Climbers on El Cap

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El Cap Climbing Filmmaking
Dave Davis films Aaron Jones on the 16-pitch aid route Zodiac (C3+) on El Capitan. Photo: Hugo Langel van Erven

I met a guy at a party a few years back. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m used to people pitching their life stories to me. It usually starts with them saying something like, “Here’s a great idea for a documentary!” and ends with me saying something like, “Well, if we ever decide to do a film about people who collect spools of thread, we’ll certainly call you!”

Mike was different. First, he was a little reluctant to even talk about his “story.” A mutual friend had introduced us, saying to me, “You guys should talk.” I was wary.

Mike Kozusko was in his fifties and had been rock climbing all of his adult life, starting in the East at places like Seneca Rocks in West Virginia and later at places like Hueco Tanks, Texas, where he had lived. For years, he and his wife, Gay, had been leading a near-hermitic life in the high desert of Arizona. His wife climbed with him sometimes, but often he went off on his own adventures, with her blessing. He said that their life was nearly perfect. Then tragedy struck: Gay was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Mike shut down his construction business and gave up climbing to take care of her.

He took care of her for three years before having to put her in a nursing home. He was crushed with guilt over his inability to care for her any longer as her condition deteriorated. But then, a few weeks after putting her in a nursing home, he was struck with an idea: Even though he had been climbing for decades, he had never tackled a big wall. He decided he’d go to Yosemite National Park and climb El Capitan. Solo. He still says he has no idea where the urge to solo it came from.

Davis recording Corbin Usinger on the Nose (5.9 C2). Photo: Aaron Jones

On his first attempt on Zodiac, he bailed. Then he headed to El Cap Bridge to talk to Tom Evans. Many who have climbed in Yosemite know of Tom Evans and his El Cap Report blog. During El Cap’s popular spring and fall climbing seasons, Tom sets up on the bridge over the Merced River that runs through Yosemite. The bridge provides quite a view of The Captain from nearly a mile away. Tom has a huge 800mm lens on his digital camera, and he takes photos of El Cap climbers, weather permitting. At the end of each day, Tom retires to the Yosemite Village Cafeteria, where he assembles his photos and commentary into the daily El Cap Report.

Tom informed Mike that had he succeeded, he would have been the oldest person to solo any route on El Cap. Cut back to the party, when Mike quietly told me that he planned to return soon to Yosemite to attempt to solo Zodiac once again. Maybe he wasn’t able to understand why he had to try it after putting his wife in the nursing home, but this time he could understand that he felt challenged and motivated by attempting to be the oldest person to solo El Cap, “as silly as that notion might be,” he says.

Davis hanging out on the Nose while filming for the “El Cap Report” film. Photo: Aaron Jones

Striking a humble tone, Mike informed me that maybe his story alone wasn’t enough for a film. But he assured me that the real story would likely evolve by just going there and meeting this amazing collection of international climbers in this most amazing of climbing locations. “Adventures will be had,” he promised me.

We had found our next film project.

In the end, we spent a couple of months in Yosemite over the course of three years as Mike tried and tried again to reach his goal. No spoilers here, though. You’ll have to watch our film to find out what went down with Mike’s climb. In the end, our documentary tells the stories of several El Cap climbers. This project taught us so much about climbing—and about following what inspires you.

How We Pursue Filmmaking

Mary Grandelis and Davis, “El Cap Report” filmmakers. Photo: ISFILMVIDEO

1. Find a Mantra

Tom was fond of saying, “The closer you get to El Cap, the harder it gets.” What he meant was that in your mind you can work wonders and do anything, but when reality looms, things get tougher, and that’s when you really have to put in the effort. This film really tested our physical and mental fortitude, and Tom’s words often came to mind when we had to redouble our efforts to see this long-term film project through until the end. Anything worth doing will take a lot of hard work.   

2. Find a Muse

Mike led us to Yosemite, but Ammon McNeely has also been a real inspiration to us. His generosity and kindness coupled with his wild, “El Cap Pirate” nature spoke directly to us about what freedom of spirit really means. He lives his life on his own terms, but in a very unselfish and open way that allows others to also live life on their own terms. Climbing taught him to not sweat the small stuff, so he’s always ready to face adversity with strength.

Find Balance

We’ve been doing yoga for a long time, but it was a static sort of practice; it didn’t bleed over into the rest of our lives. While filming the climbers on the wall, on slacklines, and on highlines, we came to realize that we needed to incorporate more movement into our balance practices. This, in turn, led us to find better physical balance, to understand what moving meditation means, and to find the right balance between creative pursuits and everything else, including climbing.

Find Help

We discovered quickly that filming climbers from below is not only boring, but all you see are their butts (see Beyond the Butt Shot for some climbing photo tips). So Dave got up on the wall to shoot, and we realized that was exactly what our film needed—to be right there on the wall with the subjects to truly tell the stories. Being there in the moment showed us how generous climbers can be, as they began to share very intimate and personal footage of their El Cap climbs with us.  

Find the Dream

Several climbers were glad to help us with the film project because they related to the fact that we, like them, were living our dream. After the third or fourth time we heard this, it started to sink in: Yeah! We are living the dream! The choices we’re making are completely our own, and they’ll lead us where they will. It’s important to understand that you have to take the bad with the good in order to have that kind of freedom to pursue work that gives your life purpose and meaning.