For more than two decades, photographer Tyler Stableford had the germ of an idea buried in his mind—to make a visual poem about climbing. When Canon came to him last fall and asked for a video showing off their new EOS-1D X camera, he had the means to turn that idea into art. Almost immediately, he knew the climber he wanted to feature.
“Steve House has recently gone through a deep soul-searching process, both after returning from Nanga Parbat and after his near-death accident on Mount Temple,” Stableford said. “He has a compelling combination of honesty, depth and insight—and those qualities are far more interesting in a short film than just physical climbing skills.”
In 2006, Reinhold Messner called House, “the best high-altitude climber in the world today.” He has ticked off numerous first ascents from North America to the Himalayas, took home the 2005 Piolets d’Or with Vincent Anderson after climbing Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face, and in 2010 survived an 80-foot fall at Mount Temple that left him with a collapsed left lung, six broken ribs, two breaks in his pelvis, and seven small fractures in his spine. The accident is chronicled in detail on his blog, and is worth a read, because House can also write.
Stableford, a climber himself, has piled up extreme shoots at every end of the adventure spectrum. He’s trudged the frontlines of forest fires with grunts and clipped himself into frozen waterfalls just a few feet from ascending climbers. A certain other men’s magazine once called him one of the world’s greatest adventure photographers. Now he’s moving into video.
Not long after Stableford and co. released Shattered, Vimeo featured it as a staff pick. Along the way, Stableford's team, which includes Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures, released three behind-the-scenes videos. After seeing all of them, I wanted to know more. Shattered involved two incredibly talented men in fields that require a healthy amount of skill, vision, and, well, stubbornness. What was this collaboration like? I contacted both House and Stableford. Thankfully, both value a high level of openness and honesty. Here’s a bit more on the evolution of Shattered, a five-minute short that took six months to make.
On October 10, 2011, Stableford sent an email to House proposing they shoot a film about soloing.
“When Tyler wrote I was not at a point in my life where I was choosing to solo much,” said House. “I first replied to Tyler that I was more interested in doing a film that discussed partnership and trust, and some of the other positive aspects of climbing that have to do with a team.”
Stableford politely stuck to his guns, which can be seen in his follow-up email to House.
“I think the project will be strongest, and most emotionally powerful, if it focuses only on you, and doesn't involve other people or history etc. I want to keep the film as tight as possible, without a single excess frame.”
House didn’t respond, but one scene from Stableford’s correspondence stuck in the back of his head. Stableford had proposed an ending that didn’t include House reaching the summit. Here is the edited text describing that scene, taken from Stableford’s first email.
"Then we move to shots taken from a fixed line, with a sweeping move to reveal you midway up the route; cutting in and out of detail shots, your eyes, hands, mouth, the tools, etc. The music intensifies, and the film ends abruptly. No top-out."
House liked that description because it was different than any other ending he’d seen in a climbing film.
“That made so much sense to me,” House said. “There is no summit, no raised arms, no triumph, no conquering. Climbing has moved so far beyond exploration and conquest.”
Still, House was not satisfied with the idea of a solo, and he wanted relationships to be featured in the film. He wrote the photographer back—a month after the first email.
"If I want to show the world something about my climbing at this stage, it is that it's evolved, I've evolved. Soloing is still attractive to me, because it is the [simplest] way to climb, but that simplicity, purity of personal introspective journey by way of great risk is no longer the point for me. Now my climbing, and my life, is about partnership, about people, about relationships, about community ... So I turn the challenge back to you[—]to develop a new story, if you are willing."
They went back and forth several times. House emphasized that he wanted to do something timeless and classic that was different from current climbing videos. He didn’t want to push the limits on a solo for a commercial shoot. Stableford wanted to do something different creatively as well, but insisted on a solo. It wasn’t until Stableford’s friend suggested that the short didn’t have to be a documentary, that it could be entertainment, that the two agreed to move forward. Stableford could shoot House climbing solo, keeping the story tight and the visuals focused. House could include relationships in his narrative.
“It was an easy step from there to decide that I would solo some bits, but that anytime I wanted, I could climb on a lead-line that would be removed in post-production,” House said. “This solved the problem for me of not wanting to solo a hard ice climb for a commercial endeavor.”
On December 16, House sent Stableford the first draft. The two emailed back and forth until they had something that touched on all of their ideas, worked with the visuals, and fit a five-minute video. Stableford focused on elements that showed the monomaniacal focus a climber needs.
“The sport provides much of the dreams, drive and reward in their life; yet it also can burn them out, make them one-sided personalities, and give them perhaps a false sense of identity in the larger world,” he said. “And in the case of a dangerous sport like alpinism, such an obsession with the sport can easily kill them.”
House knew that he needed to incorporate his personal life.
“The best part for me was the writing process. In writing Beyond the Mountain I found that the parts of my book that turned out to be the most important to readers were the parts that were the most difficult for me to put down on paper; the personal bits about my own fears, and realizing my shortcomings and failings....”
In the end, some personal stories, including his recovery after the fall at Temple Rock, had to be cut. Instead, House focused more generally on the struggles he’s faced as a world-class climber. His hope is that by sharing some of his vulnerabilities, people will identify with him and push themselves more as climbers.
“Another piece I wanted to get across through the combination of the visuals and narration are that many athletes, including climbers, are portrayed as having super-human powers,” House said. “I don't like that. I really, really don't like that. I believe that this is more hurtful than helpful to the climbing community. Most [people] immediately assume, ‘Oh, I can't do that.’”
House and Stableford continued to tweak the story, even as they were recording the sound in March.
The video almost didn’t happen. One day before the shoot was scheduled, on February 29, Stableford received the EOS-1D X cameras. “The whole project essentially could have collapsed if these pre-release cameras didn't arrive when they did,” Stableford said. Both he and House had prior commitments in March, and the window to climb Bridal Veil Falls, a 365-foot waterfall outside of Telluride, Colorado, was closing.
The pair had two days set aside. House chose the coolest looking line up a spectacular blue cone. “Normally the route stays well right of there,” he said. “In a dihedral between the ice and the wall, where there is less sustained climbing.”
He knew Stableford had the knowledge and skills to set up the rigs and shoot his route. After the first night, Stableford realized he needed to reshoot parts. “That only meant I had to climb up and down that steep bit of ice a bunch of times, but that's no problem,” said House. “It was really great fun to re-climb such a beautiful ice feature so many times, and a good work out.”
The only other reason House had to go out of his way on the shoot, was for a “low-tech makeup break.” When snowflakes stopped falling, he grabbed a handful of snow from the wall and threw it on his face.
Detailed shots of House’s face are the last visual. They are filmed the way Stableford described in his very first email. The words came from House.
“I have shared a rope with 19 people who are now dead. Killed by mountains. Most were simply in the wrong place at the wrong moment. The wrong place: Is it here? The wrong moment: Is it now? Will I know?”
Then the video goes to black, but we asked House for more.
“Well, of course the answer is: ‘No, you won't know,’” he said. “But only those that have been close to the situation themselves will see that immediately. Most will have to think a bit, which I hope they do.”
The six ribs House fractured in that 80-foot fall from Mount Temple still ache every day, and they may for the rest of his life, but that obviously hasn’t stopped him from climbing. Mostly because he still feels very creative on the rock and keeps a positive mental state.
“I tried to climb Makalu's west face last year with Marko Prezelj, but my body was definitely not strong enough then,” he said. “I think I could get back there, to the necessary level of fitness, and I'll be working on that in the coming years.”