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Valley Uprising

DirectorPeter Mortimer & Nick Rosen
Producer Sender Films
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateTuesday, 13 January 2015
Rating 4 out of 5

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Among the plethora of grey-haired legends that opens this epic sweep of Yosemite’s climbing history, the name of Steve Roper may not be so familiar to British audiences, especially younger ones. But he made the third ascent of the Nose on El Capitan and the first one-day ascent of Half Dome, wrote Yosemite’s first guidebook and is also known for his editorship, with Allen Steck, of the Sierra Club’s Ascent magazine.

Roper, with his bristly moustache and flashing eyes, looks like one of the less wholesome characters from the Wind in the Willows. Having spend his 1950s adolescence bored witless by the march of consumerism, arriving in Yosemite was liberation, a mind-expanding joy in an apparently limitless frontier of the possible that “almost” had Roper believing in God. “We hated authority,” Roper says to camera. “I still hate authority.”
This sentiment is a recurrent theme of Valley Uprising but no one says, “fuck this” with more intelligence than Steve Roper. Kerouac’s demand for a “rucksack revolution”, the rise of the military-industrial complex, the arrival of rock-and-roll – this was the context for the daring achievements of Roper’s contemporaries, Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, pictured above.
Climbing those walls seemed the most elegant and most demanding way to turn your back on the spiralling madness of the television age. I loved the footage of Warren Harding emerging from the Dawn Wall – back in the news at the time of writing – with half the world’s media parked on the summit waiting for his first words. Beneath his crazed demeanour, he had a certain kind of rhetoric.
Caught in a storm, with the rangers threatening to come and get him, he threw down a note for the crowds at the bottom to read: “A rescue is unwanted, unwarranted and will NOT be accepted.” Another way to say: “fuck this”.
The visuals in Valley Uprising are stunning, and the producers have turned over most stones in their search for worthwhile archive material. There’s a wealth to look at here, and on that basis alone, if you’re a climber with a pulse, you have to watch it. There isn’t really anything out there, which captures the scale and perspective of this incredible place. (History of the landscape and its protection don't feature at all, which is a pity.)
The film works best when it tightens the reins on its own self-indulgence and tells the remarkable story of the men and occasionally women who first ventured onto Yosemite’s colossal granite walls, tiny human particles in a vertical universe. There are some excellent interviews that recapture those glory days with Robbins – Harding died in 2002 – and his contemporaries and this confident start continues more or less into the era of the Stonemasters, that “cocky little tribe”, with Jim Bridwell at their head.
I wanted to hear (slightly) less about Bridwell’s drug habits and more about his actual climbs. Yosemite’s counter-culture has been one of its biggest draws over the years, but Bridwell comes out of this looking less than the climbing visionary he was. The other omission was the scant attention Lynn Hill’s free ascent of the Nose received, barely more than a minute in a film of over a hundred. The impact of her climb around the world can’t be overestimated and deserved more.
The hallmark of modern Yosemite, with its four million visitors each year, is the kind of consumerism Steve Roper was running away from in the 1950s and 1960s. Yvon Chouinard puts it best, observing that rangers used to have biology degrees, whereas now they’re trained in keeping order. Climbing itself seems to have been swept along by that as money was washed into the sport like the tide over a sandcastle.
For that reason, I’d have liked a bit more thought – maybe from someone like Peter Croft – and less raw looning around in the last half an hour. (Alex Honnold sort of did this. He is an articulate advocate for the unusual. His eyes are amazing. Every so often they pop open, like he’s just seen something interesting in the ninth dimension.) But overall Valley Uprising absolutely deserves the attention it’s been getting. Yosemite climbers can sometimes look immensely pleased with themselves, as though it’s the only show in town. I recall Lynn Hill telling me it was all a bit Peyton Place, self-admiring and gossipy.
Then again, it’s quite a story.


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