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‘Valley Uprising’

‘YOU CAN’T JUSTIFY rock climbing,’ someone says during the preamble to Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s Valley Uprising. ‘It doesn’t pretend to be anything useful.’ This, you feel, is probably quite true of all sports before they turn professional. But rock climbing, for various reasons, still hasn’t taken that step completely, and as a result it remains a uniquely fascinating activity for study. And of course, there’s also the small fact that you might die doing it.

The subject of Valley Uprising is rock climbing, but more accurately the rock climbing tradition of Yosemite Park, with which the sport’s recent history is inextricably connected. The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world. Along the way, Mortimer and Rosen introduce the most important figures in the sport, from straight-laced climbing purist Royal Robbins and his arch-rival, the carefree Warren Harding, to the inimitable Jim ‘The Bird’ Bridwell, who was known for scaling the El Capitan rock formation while high as a kite on acid.


The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world.


Valley Uprising places its attention on personality and image rather than, say, the technical aspects of rock climbing, which widens the film’s appeal without alienating its main audience. The filmmakers repeatedly call attention to the early climbers’ tastes for drugs, alcohol and ‘dirtbag’ living, and paint the modern rock climbing tradition as having been born out of opposition to the risk-averse culture of post-World War Two America, which manifests itself in the overzealous Yosemite Park authorities; later, Mortimer and Rosen set rock climbing against the increasing commercialisation of the park.

In place of footage, Mortimer and Rosen use a mixture of photos, graphics, understated sepia-coloured reconstructions and the accounts of various talking heads during the early part of the film, which deals with the birth of the Yosemite rock climbing tradition in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. In those first scenes the directors make their subjects admirably vivid given how little they had to work with, and in the second half of the film they take advantage of the footage available to inspire enough vertigo to make your head spin.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes. It’s this nostalgic and perhaps rose-tinted remembering of days gone by that leads the final half an hour of the film to feel underwhelming by contrast. The characters Mortimer and Rosen highlight necessarily seem more ordinary and more straight-laced––though just as technically able, if not more so thanks to advancements in equipment and conditioning methods––than the pioneers of thirty and forty years ago. Nevertheless, the superhuman skills of free solo climber Alex Honnold are enough to keep a watcher interested.

Valley Uprising’s greatest achievements are in using computer graphics to bring a largely unrecorded period in the history of modern rock climbing to life, and in making a sport that to this day remains on the fringes of the mainstream an absorbing subject even to the most convinced couch potato. It’s a comprehensive look at the culture and history of modern rock climbing and as quirky and entertaining as the colourful characters at its centre.

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