Making The Last Wild Mountain

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Filmed over the past three years and incorporating interviews from more than 50 influential climbers—including Royal Robbins, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, and Tommy Caldwell—The Last Wild Mountain attempts to tell the story of American rock climbing as a social movement.

To make the film, director Oakley Anderson-Moore and three crew members spent months criss-crossing the country in true dirtbag style, living with their equipment in an old Volkswagen van. I spoke to Anderson-Moore about the journey and what she learned along the way.
Adam Roy

What was the impetus for making this movie?
My father was a climber in the 70s, one of the prototypical, gave-up-the-rest-of-his-life-and-career-to-go-rock-climbing climbers, part of a “move away from established society” kind of thing. I grew up hearing all these stories, this climbing lore, about him and his contemporaries, because he was kind of a fly on the wall. 

Then I got older, and when I studied film in school, I was like “This would be really neat to collect all these oral stories and set them together.” It's an interesting way to look at a subculture; climbing in particular is interesting because there's no real governing body of people that decides how the rules are formed. So how does a group of individuals who come from very different backgrounds, are there for different reasons, and interpret what they do in different ways, how do they come to a consensus and interpret what they do in a collective, cultural way?

So you guys drove around the country in this Volkswagen van?
Yeah, with all our film gear, and we slept in it, kind of like a moving home. On one stretch we were on the road for like 40 days. We broke down in Missouri, but we eventually made it to the East Coast and back. It was three people and myself. Everyone kind of switched jobs, from the sound operator to cook to mechanic. Plenty of breakdowns and stuff.

The farther outside of California you get, the more unusual a Volkswagen van is, evidently. It's a neat way to travel for sure.

What's the subject of the movie? What can we expect to see?
The movie basically follows two different generations. It follows the first generation in the 50s and the early 60s–the beat generation of climbers–and the second generation of 70s climbers. The film goes back and forth between the two, drawing sort of parallels and contrasts between them, and trying to figure out why, essentially, all these men and women came out at this particular point in American history, what they were looking for when they came to climbing, and how climbing became their lives and where that took them, whether that society they formed failed or succeeded.

You certainly did a lot of interviews with people who must have had interesting stories. Were there any people in particular who really affected you?
I'm thinking specifically of Joe Kelsey, who was a Vulgarian, well-known for being a funny writer and writing the Vulgarian Digest. He was little uncertain about doing an interview. There were certainly people like him, who were like “I don't want to just regurgitate these anecdotes that people have told about me over and over again.” Joe Kelsey was kind of like that. And then we had such a good time during the interview.

A lot of those Vulgarian stories have so much shock value when you hear them, but then when I talked to Joe Kelsey, he would tell these stories and I'd really start to understand where people were coming from 46 years ago, influenced by all these factors of the beat generation. It was a really profound interview.

So where were they coming from?
In the film, I try to piece together what a lot of people say: basically, that climbing was an organic part of what was going on in America at the time, it wasn't isolated. It was a combination of things, influenced by the beats and getting rid of established societal mores, combined with, in some cases for that early generation, a search for masculinity. There's a popular concept with academics about modernity, like cities and suburbs, having an effeminizing effect. And for some people like women, who weren't necessarily searching for masculinity, it was a way to express themselves outside of an otherwise rigid society.

It's a lot of interviews, some with people, like John Bachar, who unfortunately aren't with us anymore.
Definitely. We were just so lucky, because that was only like a month-and-a-half before John's accident. We were lucky, because we almost didn't make the interview too, we were like “Well, he's in California, we could always come back to him,” and then…knocking on wood that we made it.

You also talked to more modern climbers like Tommy Caldwell. Do you get a sense that climbing has really changed, or that climbers are doing what they do for different reasons nowadays?
That's one of the things that the film's trying to figure out. As far as a lot of the old climbers are concerned, climbing kind of ended in their generation, and it's hard for them to see how there can be the same mindset. 

The reason we interviewed guys like Tommy Caldwell was to see if that was really true. And I think that what people are really lamenting are the changes in their generation: people talk about “the last great problem,” or “the last big wall route,” like at some point there was some sort of mark that ended their physical world. But in the film I think what becomes more apparent is that it's really more of a mental state, or a feeling, not necessarily a physical “last mountain.”

When you interview young guys like Tommy Caldwell, they say the exact same things about why they're climbing. Not specifically, but the feeling behind what they're saying is exactly the same. Some of the people we interview say they like the concept of seeking out the unknown. And all these are the same things that the guys fifty years earlier said about why they started climbing.

You can learn more about The Last Wild Mountain and its fundraising efforts on its Kickstarter page.