Chris Sharma, Forbidden Fruit, Arkansas
© Josh Lowell, Jan 2006
There's nothing worse than watching a bunch of beanie-clad pad-people screaming whilst they drop off small rocks and usually it's worse, you'll have to put up with some headache-inducing hardcore acid soundtrack. That was so 90's. Affordable camcorders and editing software meant that virtually anyone could make a climbing, usually a bouldering video, and they did so in great numbers and for public consumption not private laughs. Prior to that there was Eric Perlman's Masters Of Stone series that reflected an era of bolts, tights, competitions, more shouting heads and lots of cocaine-driven adrenalin junkies running up cliffs to the big big guitar sound of Bon Jovi, either that or it was delicate prima-donnas having meltdowns in climbing competitions accompanied by some aggressive hip-hop track. “He gave me tight, he gave me tight.” I'll give you tight dude. Average for the time but now dated.
Hard Grit was one of the first grown-up hard-core climbing vids that brought international acclaim and critical praise. I can remember feeding two young American bouldering grommets much wine as we sat and watched Hard Grit for the first time. Our jaws dropped at the antics of Grieve and co, soon all across America people started head pointing. Because of videos like Hard Grit people have come to expect not only high quality climbing footage, sophisticated editing and a decent soundtrack but some insight into the personalities of the climbers they are watching, emotional drama, some environmental angle and also that perennial seller, a story. No longer can you display sheer athleticism set to decibel-busting knob-twiddling musak and expect the climbing community to exchange their hard-earned cash for your video.
Josh Lowell has always been different; he's been good from the get-go. His company, Big Up Productions, like most climbing businesses grew organically out of his passion for climbing. His first effort, Big Up documented the explosion of bouldering in the Gunks of New York. He moved on from there with Free Hueco and the start of an ongoing professional and personal relationship with Chris Sharma. Rampage, featured Chris Sharma and the other dark meat, Obe Carrion on a bouldering road trip across the western USA. Pilgrimage featured, Sharma and friends Nate Gold and Katie Brown on the pathless path in Hampi, India.
All of these are beautifully shot and edited; the soundtracks are very palatable whether you are 19 or 59. The production is always excellent broadcast quality and the editing always very creative.
Josh Lowell's Dosage series are DVD's that contain small stories (doses) of climbing shot over a year and document rising stars, cutting edge ascents, trends, new areas, climbing philosophy and ideas. With many climbing videos, you watch and may enjoy and that's it, with many of Lowell's dosages not only do you get a real insight into the climbers he films but more often than not you will have a pleasant emotional response to what you have watched. For me this happened when I watched Chris Sharma climb Realisation at Ceuse in Dosage 1. The story was so engaging it was almost as if you were there. I felt it again when I watched Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Mallorca in the dose, Psicobloc, in Dosage 2. In fact Realisation, Psicobloc and Slackjaw's Splinter, a portrait of Malcom Smith in his climbing attic, are the only three videos I keep on my hard drive for occasional viewing when I need some inspiration and relaxation.
Lowell's latest is Dosage 3 and it kicks off with Tim Emmett and Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Emmett's enthusiasm is infectious contrasting with Loskot's more peaceful and thoughtful commentary and climbing. Lowell has a habit of documenting the zeitgeist of the moment and with deep-water soloing he has hit bulls-eye. As Emmet says,“For me there is no other style that comes close: new routes, onsight, ground-up, with no ropes and no rack. You are just climbing.” Watch this segment and I'm sure you will agree. More, if you are like me will have a burning desire to try this type of climbing.
Then we have the stick-thin David Graham at his bouldering nirvana, Ticino in Switzerland. This skeletal chap, like Emmett, defines the word enthusiastic and is a true energizer bunny who just doesn't know when to stop. Worn skin doesn't stop him, nor tired muscles (he's all skin and tendons anyway). He's a pure climbing machine. See him dispatch countless boulder problems and enthuse about his latest project which he red pointed just before he left for the USA. Coup de Grace, which has a proposed grade of 9a+, may be the hardest route in the world. You'll have to wait until Dosage 4 to see the red point.
Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell are the climbing couple of the moment, and just prior to their free climbing blitz on El Capitan they went to Smith Rock and tried a couple of new routes.
Beth and Tommy will knock out of you any misconceptions you have of American climbers; they are humble and funny as well as superbly dedicated. In this dose, the eponymously named Optimist, Rodden red points a new route, a savage pin-scarred overhanging crack. You get to see her working the route, talk about it and you feel the eventual relief when she red points it, at a staggeringly hard 8c. “I've never worked on something this hard and gone through all those emotions”. Yes, emotions all you trad climbers sniggering at the back there, there's more to sport climbing than meets the eye. Yes you do get see Caldwell's finger-stub from a DIY accident as he red points the incredibly exposed Spank The Monkey a run out 8b aręte.
Fellow videographer Mike Call gives as update on bouldering in Utah that features Ben Moon on a new V12, James Litz on the first ascent of Spike 8c+, and some gripping footage of Tim Kemple doing 5.13 solos (headpoints) at Ibex.
Now for the non-commercial break.
There's a short dosage by Sterling Johnson called “Return To Balance”. This will make you vomit and you will happily fast-forward past it on subsequent viewings unless you have friends around and want a bit of a laugh at Ron Kauk's impression of a Native American mystic (don't worry he is deadly serious). Now Ron's a good guy and his heart and mind is in the right place, he cares for climbing and the environment. In this dose he shares 'lessons learned during a lifetime of climbing in this soulful; meditation on life, nature....” Please! Cut the bullshit. My 11-year-old son has a better grasp of ecological principles and spirituality. It reminded me of one of those really bad American nature films from the early 80's full of waterfalls, melting snow in the spring and beavers. The soundtrack sounded as if it was from one of those cheap tapes of Native American flutes that you can pick up from a truck stop when you are driving through Ohio on your first trip to the Wild West. The climbing footage is good however and if you were stoned you might get something out of it.
You know scrub that. Delete what I have written from your memory. We need Ron Kauk. This dose is a small prayer to what we have been given, words of thanks to the spiritual, thanksgiving for a time when man lived in harmony with the world, before the ego grew and asserted itself upon the natural world. When we communed with earth angels and natural spirits before the Great Seperation.
Too often we take the environment that we climb in for granted. Sometimes we need to press the pause button and spend some time just giving thanks for what we have. Some of us do get lost in the all-consuming move and forget. The obsessed sometimes climb just for climbing's sake, the nice places seeming like an incidental backdrop to the rock gymnastics. Now where have I heard that before?
Then the grand finale.
It comes as no surprise that Chris Sharma has so captured the psyche of the American climbing youth, he's everywhere: in adverts, articles, news reports, videos and on websites. Over-hyped some might say. But with good reason, like Graham, Sharma is the real deal, a true climbing enthusiast. I can always spot a fake, someone whose love for themselves completely over shadows their love for climbing, where climbing is just a vehicle for their ego. Chris Sharma and David Graham are not like this. Their love for climbing and themselves have equal billing and are intricately entwined, and that is perhaps the secret of their success on rock.
Josh Lowell has been filming Sharma since 1997. First in Free Hueco, then Rampage, on the Mandala and Realisation in Dosage One, deep water soloing in Dosage Two and now at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch on the sublime sandstone of Arkansas. I hope this documentary of one the World's best climbers continues and we end up with something similar to the Granada TV Up Series where a cross-section of children at age 7 where interviewed and filmed, and then every seven years the director, Michael Apted returns to film them and ask them about their hopes for the future and reflections on the past.
Anyway back to Arkansas. Don't believe the West coast hype, the best bouldering in America is on the East coast. It's just that the climate is abysmal (it's snowing and raining as I write) and the window of opportunity to good climbing conditions is small and unpredictable. It isn't hype to say that this is one of the most action-packed bouldering doses Lowell has filmed and it is a joy to watch. You get to see Sharma complete three of his hardest problems, the Full Package, King Lion and his hardest boulder problem to date the beautiful ceiling complete with waterfall, Witness The Fitness. Of course you don't get to learn the grades of these problems but Chris does say, “I can't tell you how hard these problems are. But I'd say that they are some of the hardest I've ever done, because I feel stronger than I have ever been. It's a good feeling." Which of course, either intentionally, in complete innocence or somewhere in between adds to the Sharma mystique. His reflection of off-the-deck highballing was interesting, "Turn your mind off. Just send it. Think about it later. What was I doing up there?", some wise words there.
The soundtrack to the whole Dosage is class; hip-hop, soul, folk, experimental electronic and includes Roots Manuva, Quantic and Slow Train Soul. There is a track listing for all of Lowell's films at his website, some available as downloadable MP3's and all linked to the artists websites, Check them out, I've already bought a couple of albums on the strength of it.
Don't let the youthful pad people claim this one for their own. Lowell's films explore universal climbing themes; unbridled enthusiasm, focused dedication, the pain, the fear, the eccentricity of climbers. Dosage 3 is one of Lowell's best, I highly recommend it (two thumbs up) and maybe we'll learn something from the ramblings of Ron Kauk.
An Interview with Josh Lowell by Mick Ryan
Have you any plans to include a UK section in a future Dosage?
I do have tentative plans right now to do some filming on the grit this Spring for Dosage Volume IV. I'm still working out the timing and the details, but I'm excited to check out the climbing and the scene over there. I'm interested in filming some scary stuff, but for my own climbing I'll stick to the safer boulders.
What kit would you recommend for someone who wants to start making films. Not top of the range stuff but affordable. What camera, computer set up and software?
Making your own videos is getting easy and affordable these days. You can get a decent digital video camera for $500. If you were just starting to experiment, I'd recommend getting a small camera that you can always have handy and not be too stressed about. I'm not really up on the latest low-end models, but stuff by Sony, Canon, and Panasonic tends to be good. I edit with Final Cut Pro on Mac G5s. The software costs about $1000, but there are features being cut on it. All new Macs also come with I-movie built in. That's a fun, free way to start playing around with editing. Adobe Premier is the most widely used mid-level editing program for PCs.
What camera do you use at the moment?
Dosage III was shot on 2 Panasonic DVX100a's. This is a really popular camera for low-budget film and TV projects because it has a 24 frame, progressive mode that gives the footage a nice film look. Right now in the process of a major upgrade to High Definition.
Which non-Big Up climbing films do you rate?
It's hard for me to watch climbing movies (or any movies for that matter) because I can't get past my own hang-ups with production issues. I'm always noticing flaws, analyzing decisions, wondering how good shots were achieved, etc... and I don't get swept up as a normal viewer might. That being said, I respect Hard Grit for having great content, The Real Thing for good imagery and production value, Mike Call's work for originating the hard-core, insider-climber's-eye view, and Peter Mortimer's work for humor and storytelling.
Is it possible to make a living off of making climbing videos?
It's possible, but difficult. I know I'm one of the very few people who are actually pulling it off right now. It took me years of hard work to build the business up to the point where I can afford to spend most of my time on the climbing films. I still do freelance work as a shooter and editor to earn money and experiment with different styles and techniques.
What's it like filming all those rock stars? Are they runaway prima donnas and egomaniacs?
Yes, they are horrible. All they care about is their make-up, the size of their trailers, and what's for lunch... Actually, I have great friendships with all the climbers I work with. They enjoy collaborating to create something we can all be proud of. Everybody's pretty chill.
You have great taste in music. How do you chose the music for your films and will you be releasing another music CD?
I think having great music has been key to the success of our films. I spend a lot of time searching for exciting, progressive music to feature, and I enjoy introducing new artists and new sounds to our audience. Dosage III has a very strong UK influence, thanks to our music supervisor, London-based Dan Cross of Record-Play (www.record-play.com). He sent me stacks of CDs from various indie labels and unsigned artists. I also gather CDs and MP3s from all the friends and friends-of-friends I can find who are musicians. First I think about the type of vibe I think will fit with a certain video segment, then I listen through everything until I hear something that has the right energy. Once the track is selected and licensed, I edit the footage around the structure and timing of the song to hopefully create a synergy between the images and sounds that evokes an emotional reaction.
The licensing details are getting more complicated and expensive as we grow our audience and pull tracks from a wider pool, so I'm not sure if we'll be able to pull off another soundtrack CD, but I hope so... We'll see.
What have we got to look forward in Dosage 4?
At this point we have three Doses shot for Volume IV. The first shows
Chris Sharma's first ascent of Dreamcatcher (5.14d) in Squamish, BC. In October we went to Yosemite and filmed Tommy Caldwell's marathon day on El Cap, freeing both The Nose and Freerider in under 24 hours. This was one of the most inspiring climbing feats I've witnessed. We had five cameras documenting this historic accomplishment, and it should make an incredible and unusual Dose. From Yosemite we went straight to Switzerland, and shot Dave Graham, Chris Sharma, Randy Puro, and Courtney Hemphill opening tons of boulders at a new zone in Ticino. We also filmed Dave on the first ascent of Coup De Grace (5.15a), his hardest route. Right now we're planning the rest of the shoots for this spring - should be more cool stuff coming soon./p>
You can read more about Josh's work, view clips and purchase all his DVD's at his website, Big Up Productions.
Dosage 3, presented by Prana, Climbing magazine and Entreprises is available in the UK at most climbing shops and online at:
Mick Ryan is articles editor at UKClimbing.com and is just completing two climbing guidebooks to the Eastern Sierra (California), a bouldering one to Bishop and a general guidebook to the alpine, ice, bouldering, sport and traditional climbing of the Sierra Nevada.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Mick Ryan: