Unlike traditional sports like hockey or football, climbing's big moments aren't televised. There's no network that broadcasts first ascents or hard free solos as they happen. Instead, climbing filmmakers fill that role. They follow athletes into some of the world's deepest corners and crevices to capture the sport's progression on tape. Over the years, climbing films have evolved from crude home videos to visually slick documentaries. Here are my picks for five classics that set the standards. Watch them to understand the evolution.
5. El Capitan (1978)
The name says it all. El Capitan follows climbers Gary Tolliver, Richard McCracken, and Lito Tejada-Flores for three days as they aid their way up the Nose. Poetic at times, the film has a certain amount of rawness too. Cameraman Glen Denny had to shoot a portion of the film in total darkness after sunset caught the climbers mid-pitch.
4. Mountain of Storms (1968)
In 1968, Yvon Chouinard and two friends drove over 5,000 miles in an old van from California to Argentine Patagonia. There, they met up with British climber Chris Jones and made the first ascent of a new route on Mt. Fitz Roy. Mountain of Storms chronicles the trip, which Chouinard would later credit with helping develop his environmental ethic.
With its focus on the journey, Mountain of Storms is as much a travel movie as it is a rock doc. It would later inspire the 2009 film 180 South.
3. King Lines (2007)
It's only four years old, but King Lines is a modern classic. The movie profiles influential sport climber Chris Sharma as he projects Es Pontas, a difficult deep water solo line in Mallorca. Other memorable scenes include Sharma working Jumbo Love and Ethan Pringle freaking out as he tops out the 35-foot highball The Beautiful and Damned. The movie's spectacular camera work won a sports Emmy for filmmakers Josh and Brett Lowell.
2. Masters of Stone V (2000)
This fifth installment in Eric Perlman's Masters of Stone series is all climbing, no talk. The first half of the movie is basically a tour of Moab's climbing scene, with Steph Davis free soloing in Indian Creek and blind climber Eric Weihenmayer sending on Wall Street and Ancient Art.
The real star of the movie, though, is Dean Potter. In the film's unforgettable climax, Potter speed-solos El Cap, blazing up huge sections of the wall unprotected. One of the film's better-known fans is Alex Honnold, who was inspired enough to repeat Potter's stunt last year.
1. Hard Grit (1998)
If there's such a thing as a perfect climbing film, this is it. Hard Grit documents a season in northern England's infamous gritstone climbing scene, as a cast of bold climbers like Ben Moon, Seb Grieve, and Leo Houlding send routes with barely-there handholds and even-less-there protection. This film was many American climbers' introduction to the very British concept of headpointing--getting a dangerous route dialed on toprope before attempting it on lead.
Among the movie's many highlights is a cheeky reenactment of the history of British climbing, presided over by Niall Grimes.