Let's get one thing straight: First Ascent is not a series about climbing. It's a series about climbers.
Co-produced by Sender Films and National Geographic, First Ascent's six episodes focus on climbers who are trying to push the limits of the sport in new and often obscenely dangerous ways. The DVDs are packed with big-wall free solos and alpine epics. There are enough chill-inducing moments to fill a disk by themselves, and enough hard sends to please any rock porn addict.
But what really sets First Ascent apart is its focus on the human factor. The series takes some time off the rock to take a more personal look at the lives of climbers and the emotional and mental journeys behind their sends. It's a refreshing change of pace from typical climbing films, which tend to start and end at the crag.
On the whole, First Ascent has a very documentary feel; instead of technical jargon about grades and handholds, we get talking-head interviews with magazine editors and visits to climbers' childhood homes. The series is accessible enough that non-climbers will be able to appreciate it as well as their dirtbag brethren.
It helps that the filmmakers have such an interesting cast of characters to work with. There's Alex Honnold, the laid-back guy who lives in his van and climbs thousand-foot cliffs with no rope. There's Jonny Copp and Micah Dash, climbing partners from Boulder who crack jokes while edging up icy rock faces and bicker like an old couple when bad weather traps them in their tent. There's Stanley Leary, the climber who carries his late girlfriend's ashes up a mountain face in Patagonia in search of closure.
The episode that tells Leary's story, "Patagonia Promise," was the high point of the series for me. The whole story has a very soulful feel to it, with gorgeous shots of Patagonia and a beautiful scene of the climbers highlining in Brazil. The one episode I did have mixed feelings about was "The Impossible Climb," about Chris Sharma's first ascent of the ultra-hard sport route Jumbo Love. The episode includes a lot of footage that appeared in the film Progression, to the point where it almost feels like a remix. Still, even that has enough new footage mixed in to keep it interesting.
Overall, First Ascent is fantastic, and should give climbers and their non-climbing friends something to sit down and bond over. The box set ($49.95 on Sender's website) contains two disks of episodes plus a third disk of extras, including making-of segments, an unreleased episode, and clips from previous Sender releases. The series will also be available as an HD download.