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Films show climbing's soft side

Local filmmaker adds depth to stories as told from behind his lens

Published January 13, 2007 at midnight

In the world of adrenaline sports, rock climbing is somewhat akin to golf. It's just not that interesting to watch if you aren't a passionate follower.

In making climbing movies intended to appeal to a broad audience, Boulder native Peter Mortimer has his work cut out for him. Winning awards, acclaim and coveted sponsorships, all signs indicate he's meeting the challenge.

Mortimer's films go deep inside the cult of hard-core climbing, often focusing on climbers driven to obscure accomplishments, receiving little fanfare outside his films.

And yet he delivers the human side of the story in such a way that even nonclimbers can relate to the hopes, struggles and determination of the people involved.

"You can't just stare at someone climbing up a rock," Mortimer said. "You have to have a story."

And with Mortimer's films, it's typically multiple stories strung together in a common theme.

His latest film, First Ascent, is the second from Sender Films, which he formed with friends Nick Rosen and Timmy O'Neill and girlfriend Jocelyn Corkin.

In the lead story line of First Ascent, viewers follow Didier Berthod in his attempt to be the first to climb Cobra, an overhanging crack route in Squamish, British Columbia.

For one move, Berthod must hang his body weight from his right middle finger, which is wedged in the crack.

Every element of the story typifies Mortimer's approach. Berthod is a phenomenal athlete yet unheralded because he prefers traditional climbing to the more fashionable sport climbing.

We see him cleaning toilets and making beds in exchange for lodging in a Squamish youth hostel, and in a particularly poignant shot, alone at his truck in the trailhead parking lot.

While Berthod is fiercely driven to achieve a first ascent of Cobra, the goal is personal and unlikely to improve his fame or fortune. Perhaps this is what makes his quest so compelling, as does Berthod's unexpected philosophical epiphany that comes at the end.

Collin Wells, an editor for England's Climb magazine, is a self-described "big fan."

"Mortimer's films can allow outsiders an insight into what makes climbing so addictive," Wells wrote in an e-mail. "Unlike the faux-cool 'dude-ist' school which projects a macho exclusivity, Sender films maintain a refreshing honesty and sense of proportion about their subject. Everyone's welcome to enjoy them whether climber or not."

Seana Strain of the Banff Mountain Film Festival said that's why Mortimer's past three films repeatedly draw in audiences and awards.

Mortimer's second film, Front Range Freaks, made it into the festival - it's the outdoor film equivalent of Cannes - in bits and pieces. The "Urban Ape" segment, featuring O'Neill climbing building exteriors, won Best Short Film and was featured in the festival's global tour.

The next year, Sender Films' Return2Sender won Best Climbing Film at Banff, as well as a Special Jury Award at MountainFilm in Telluride and a handful of other accolades. Rock & Ice magazine called it "one of the best climbing films ever made."

"Peter finds engaging people to film and tells a story about them or about climbing, or both," said Strain, who manages the Banff festival's world tour. "Repeatedly on the tour, we hear from our audience that people want to see more than extreme sport or stunts, they want a story. There is a warmth and a sense of humor in the Sender films that appeals to people."

Not bad for an avid climber fresh out of the master's program at the University of Southern California School of Cinema and Television.

Mortimer said as long as he has wanted to be in film, he has known he wanted to have his own production company instead of being a cinematographer for hire or working at a major studio. He prefers having control and ownership of his work, even if it means part of his job description includes packing and shipping DVDs.

The disparate responsibilities - filming, editing, fundraising, research, promotion, etc. - "fit my attention span," he said. "Once you get burnt out shooting, you go home and do something else."

Operations are based in Mortimer's and Corkin's rented Boulder home. Voice-overs are recorded in the guest bedroom and there's a "screening room" off the kitchen. The computer editing bay is in a second-floor office, and DVDs sold on www.Sender are stored in a closet down the hall.

Sponsorships cover costs of making the films, leaving Sender to generate income through international film tours and DVD sales.

Just looking at the credits is evidence of Sender's evolution in status. Support for Mortimer's second film, Front Range Freaks, came primarily from local businesses, including Vic's Coffee, the Boulder Rock Club and La Sportiva, and was filmed locally, as the name suggests.

First Ascent took Mortimer and his crew around the world, from Yosemite to Thailand, with financing from Windstopper, which also was the title sponsor of Sender's Reel Rock Film Tour.

Kevin King, who does strategic marketing for W.L. Gore (makers of Gore-Tex and Windstopper), said his company was drawn to Sender Films because of its credibility in the climbing world and Mortimer's reputation as a filmmaker.

"Personally, I've always enjoyed his films," King said.

Recently, Patagonia hired Sender Films to make a short film promoting its polypropylene recycling program, encouraging people to send in their used base layers instead of throwing them away. Given complete creative autonomy, Mortimer, O'Neill and Rosen had a heyday, dressing up O'Neill as a superhero, climbing Tokyo office buildings.

"When someone asks you to make a video about recycling underwear . . ." Rosen said, without finishing his sentence.

They've also contributed to broadcasts for NBC and the Weather Channel.

There's no new film in the works now. Instead, Mortimer and clan are putting their energies toward getting support for making a mainstream climbing documentary, along the lines of the Riding Giants surfing film.

Films by Peter Mortimer

Scary Faces

One climber's quest to ascend Jules Verne, a classic Eldorado Canyon climb, spins into an examination of the climbing past and present of the legendary Colorado climbing hot spot. With humor and admiration, viewers join Zac Barr's psychological journey en route to the top of one of Eldo's toughest climbs.

Front Range Freaks

In his second film, Mortimer dispenses with climbing's ultrahip veneer and lovingly brings out the freakish side of this obsessive sport with profiles of Boulder-area climbers. It leaves viewers questioning whether those featured are truly the paradigm of cool or in desperate need of therapy. Or both. Highlights include Timmy O'Neill "buildering" as the Urban Ape, and Biscuit, the climbing Jack Russell terrier.


Part 60 Minutes, part adrenaline rush, the first official offering from Sender Films combines education, intrigue and emotion in phenomenal settings from Utah to California. In the "Parallelojams" segment, elite climbers explain the physics behind some of their gravity- defying moves, like magicians sharing their secrets. O'Neill stars once again by walking a slack-line (think tightrope) between two desert towers, with spectacular footage shot from the air.

First Ascent

Released on DVD in the fall, First Ascent explores the psychology behind being the first person to climb a route. Mortimer focuses on the whole story: the falls, the swearing, the fears, the scraped hands, even poison ivy, to demonstrate the determination of those in pursuit of pioneering glory.

The film includes a hilarious brief history of climbing, explaining any technical terms necessary for appreciating the stories.

Dvds Are Available At Climbing Stores And Through Www. Senderfilms.Com.

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