You may not know this about me; but as a child I was really into climbing. I would climb every tree I came across, zooming up it so quickly that my parents barely had time to blink. It would drive them mad, because often it would be left to my dad to climb up and get me when I would get stuck (to be fair, this really didn’t happen that often).
I don’t know how I ended up rock climbing, but I suspect it was because my parents thought it would be a lot safer for me to climb indoors in a rock climbing gym then up a tree without any instructors or ropes. Sadly, my family just didn’t have the money to keep paying for sessions and when we moved away from the area where the gym was located, I stopped rock climbing.
Watching the well crafted documentary The Dawn Wall, has refueled my interest in rock climbing. So much so that I have requested vouchers towards an induction session at a new rock climbing gym that has opened in my city.
The Dawn Wall (directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer), follows two world-class climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeso, as they tackle an especially difficult rock face in Yosemite, known as ‘The Dawn Wall.’ The documentary opens with wide shots capturing the sheer vastness of this rock, seeing it for the first time on the big screen is quite a shock, so one can only imagine how the two climbers felt when they came across the rock in person.
The main person of focus is Tommy, who has built a reputation as a fearless and inventive rock climber over the years. Tommy started competing professionally at the age of 16, winning his first competition at the Snowbird Sport Climbing Championship, where he not only defeated every other climber but was the only one to finish the entire course.
During an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Tommy and his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden were taken hostage by insurgents, an incident that had a lasting impact on their lives. We are only twenty or so minutes into the documentary, and so much has been covered.
The hostage incident seems like a Hollywood film, and it’s astonishing to hear how Tommy had to make an impossible decision to save the lives of his companions. To consider what challenges Tommy has encountered (the bullying at school, the hostage situation, losing his index finger), and to see him take on this situation, shows us the strength of the human spirit.
After a painful divorce from Beth, Tommy fixates on free-climbing the Dawn Wall, a 3,000-foot route with 32 pitches, many of them rated highly difficult. Alone for the first time without a climbing partner, Tommy wondered just how he was going to make this climb. Then, Kevin Jorgeson, sent an email to him begging to be involved, the two began spending months at a time in Yosemite practicing the Dawn Wall route.
At times, the amount of interviews with climbing experts, journalists and family members, feels a little overwhelming and the documentary works best when we are out on the rock face with Tommy and Kevin. The film has excellent cinematography, thanks to director of photography Brett Lowell and cinematographer Corey Rich. It captures the vast scale of the mountain and the claustrophobic life of being stuck in tent on the rock face as the two men try to rest before continuing with their journey. The close-up shots of every finger clinging onto a rock as these men does their best to climb up this impossible wall is extremely impactful, especially as we watch the climber lose their grip.
This is true edge-of-your-seat stuff; with moments where the viewer believes that it is all over, and that the climbers surely can’t go on. The sound-design on the film is extremely effective, capturing every gust of wind, and gasp for air, which make the very hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Adam Crystal’s score helps to reinforce the epic vast mountain landscape and the isolation that these men have to endure while they take on their climb, Knowing that they are dozens and dozens of feet above the ground, depending on each other for help.
Overall, The Dawn Wall is a very strong documentary; when we are up there on the wall with the two climbers, but it does take a while to find its footing. It is a powerful and inspiring story about the power of friendship and overcoming the odds, and this is a film that needs to be seen in order to be believed.
Another climbing documentary, Free Solo has also opened, and one hopes that impressive The Dawn Wall doesn’t get overshadowed. There’s plenty of room at the top for both documentaries.
The Dawn Wall is out now and available to rent from Google Play, Amazon, Itunes and YouTube.