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"Ascent", An Accidental Film

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

Sometimes an artist just has to fess up. Things don’t always go as planned and we don’t always know what we are doing. That’s just the way it is. You may finish a work that doesn’t remotely resemble the plan. Sometimes it’s best for the artist to keep silent on completion of one of these pieces while they come to terms with it. In this silent stage, leaving the interpretation of a particular artwork to the viewer has its advantages. Often, the viewers come up with interpretations that never entered the artist’s mind. The viewer may come up with hidden meanings in the piece, or how a huge mistake was actually inspired brushwork and they may even let the artist know how he felt that day. When presented with these interpretations, the artist may stare and rub their chin and say “your close”, while thinking, “that’s not a bad idea!” Indeed, sometimes artists find the meaning of their artwork by listening to the interpretations of others. This applies to paintings, film, drawing etc. A filmmaker who has a vision in his head goes out and gets the footage and returns to find that he has utterly failed to get anything useful. After the despair, then disgust stages the film maker may move on to another project, or wonder what sort of monster they can make out of what they have. This scenario was the case with my experimental short film “Ascent”. I went monster hunting.

Steve and I set off to climb the North East Ridge of Lone Pine Peak in the eastern Sierras near mount Whitney in California. I had a small digital movie camera someone had given me. A piece of junk a little bigger than a smart Phone. I planned to film the ascent and make something serious. The North East ridge is no easy romp. While technically not too difficult at Grade III 5.7, the ridge is 3 miles long and has an elevation gain of 6,900 feet with the summit being 51 feet short of 13,000 feet in elevation. Much of the route is along a knife edge ridge where the technical bits are. But besides the technical difficulties it is still not an easy stroll carrying a pack full of ropes, climbing gear and water up nearly 7,000 feet of mountain.

The first part of the climb is a brutal steep hike over sandy slopes that seem to never end. With every step forward you seem to slide a half step back in the sand. Eventually an easy rock ridge is reached where the climbing becomes more fun and less brutal. I thought about getting the camera out here but new it would be much more dramatic higher up.

When we reached the real climbing the rope came out. Things were taking a turn to the dramatic. A near vertical wall of rock was before us and we needed to climb it to get onto the ridge proper. I was going to be the lead climber on the route so I tied in and threw the gear over my shoulder. Steve reminded me what a good and fast climber I used to be when I was young and then sent me off. With the words “good climber, fast climber, when I was young! You don’t see him up here! I’ll show him!” rolling around in my head I climbed up and got to the top in good time. I caught my breath before I shouted down to Steve “see I still have it”. He said ‘not bad but not like the old Tom.” “Not like the old Tom! I’ll show him!”

The view was spectacular on the ridge with the desert floor thousands of feet below. This was what I came to film. After Steve arrived, I took the gear and headed up the ridge. It didn’t take me long to remember that climbing took two hands and I just couldn’t just stop and get the camera out since my speed was apparently under scrutiny. On top of that the drag on the rope from weaving around rocks on the ridge was so bad I had to stop and pull with all my strength just to get enough slack to proceed. Then when I was belaying Steve, I had to pull the rope through the same rocks with the same drag. It was exhausting! I tried to get Steve to abandon the rope and solo the climb but he was not comfortable with that.

Filming was not going much better. I realized I could only film while I was belaying, but every time I picked up the camera to film, Steve would start climbing. I had to drop the camera in the coils of rope and pull on the rope which felt like I was reeling in an elephant. After gasping for air from pulling the elephant I would pick up the camera again and try to film. Then Steve would begin climbing and the process repeated. I began to think he was doing it on purpose.

This went on for hours and late in the day I called for a halt. We were going to spend the night there. Steve said he felt pretty good and could go on but I was spent from hauling elephants around a mountain most of the day.

We had brought enough to spend a reasonably comfortable night out on the mountain which we did. It was a fantastic place to spend the night. We were very high on the mountain; the weather was good and the view phenomenal.

In the morning I was still a wreck from the previous day. It looked like we were at around 11,000 feet and had about 2,000 feet to go. The climbing didn’t look as hard so I didn’t think we would need the rope as much, but I began having thoughts of bailing. I knew we could make it to the top, but the descent was down the other side of the mountain. After getting down the mountain we would have to hike around the mountain to get back to the car. A very long hike. I began looking for ways down before I mentioned it to Steve. Going back down the ridge was out of the question. The same elephants would be there waiting.

I found that we could rappel down some cliffs to the east and end up in a high valley of sorts that headed back to the car. It would be long and brutal, but not as bad as going up. After first trying to reason with Steve that bailing made sense I gave up on the strategy. Steve felt strongly we had to go up. I explained what a wreck I was from the rope drag but he thought I was just being a wimp. Finally, I just had to put my foot down and say no! I wasn’t doing it. Thus began an 8-hour brutal descent into the unknown. We eventually made it back to the cars and were still happy with what we accomplished. Failure on climbs is a common outcome and nothing to be to upset about.

On returning from the trip, I put the camera away intending to look at the footage later. A few months passed and I was home alone and decided to look at what I had. It was virtually nothing! Very short snippets of this and that with the camera moving around, my foot, a couple panoramas and about 5 minutes of me belaying. I was devastated and fell into despair, then I got disgusted and decided to move on to another project. Later I began to wonder what I could do with what I had.

I couldn’t figure out the belaying footage at first, but then realized I had turned the camera on to film Steve on the ridge but he started climbing so I threw the camera down in the coils of rope so I could belay him. I thought I had turned it off. The very end of the film is when I realized the camera was still on. “Ascent” is what bloomed from the rubble of another catastrophe.

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