By D. Dion
When Sender Films brings their superior brand of climbing flicks to Mountainfilm in Telluride, they know they are getting an appreciative audience—often one full of climbers and adventurers who have been through the ascetic conditioning of sleeping in the cold at high elevations, burdened with just enough food and water to make the journey possible, or who have scars on their hands from jamming them into a crack as they ascend a wall. Sender has managed to dazzle these likeminded folks at past festivals, winning awards for films like “King Lines,” “Return to Sender” and “The Sharp End.”
But the mountaineering world isn’t the only one sitting up and taking notice of Sender: National Geographic International contracted Sender to produce a television series based on the film company’s popular work “First Ascent.” The film company has finished the six-part series and will show four of the programs at Mountainfilm in Telluride this weekend. “In the past we’ve done a lot of television stuff, but we’ve never produced our own series. It was different working for National Geo, but also similar, in that a lot of our films are sort of episodic. But it was a much bigger budget, more storyline, and we were creating a product that wasn’t just for mountain film enthusiasts and the climbing community,” says Nicholas Rosen, who co-produced the series with his partner Peter Mortimer.
The four episodes that will screen in Telluride include:
-Climbing phenom Dean Potter’s latest adrenaline buzz: He is mixing his free solo climbing (sans rope or partner) with his penchant for B.A.S.E. jumping. In his “First Ascent” show he tackles the Eiger, the nemesis of many climbers who tackle it by traditional means, with just his parachute to protect him if he peels away from the rock wall. “It’s extremely dramatic, this kind of James Bond craziness,” says Rosen.
-Former Tellurider Timmy O’Neill, an expert in both comedy and climbing, takes his paraplegic brother on climbing adventures, classic routes such as the “nose” of El Capitan and a beautiful Alaskan gorge. His brother uses adaptive techniques to ascend, using just his arms. “Climbing El Cap is something like 3,000 pull-ups,” Rosen adds.
-Young Alex Honnold is “perhaps the greatest free solo climber alive,” says Rosen. A confident force on the rock, Honnold takes on Yosemite’s Half Dome and Zion’s Moonlight Buttress, but on the ground, he is just a “goofy guy who is afraid to talk to girls. This episode has had a great response,” says Rosen.
-The last of the four adds a tragic element to the series: The story is about an avalanche that killed members of the Sender team on a mountaineering trip in China. The last few weeks of the lives of climbers Johnny Copp and Micah Eash, and Sender cameraman Wade Johnson are chronicled with footage leading up to the accident. “It’s about what they stood for, the last weeks of their lives, and the aftermath. It’s pretty intense,” says Rosen.
It’s hard to imagine the athletes in “First Ascent” reaching such precarious heights and remote destinations; it must be an equal feat to get camera crews surrounding the scene, capturing the action from various angles. Rosen says that this kind of cinematography, however, isn’t the only focus of the program. After years of wowing audiences with “crazy, drawn-out action,” Rosen says this National Geo series is also showcasing the stories Sender is trying to tell. “For years, we’ve been trying to bring the stories about climbing to a broader audience. This series is the apotheosis of that.”