Reel Rock 11 Review

After stopping at the Southern Sun to get some pre-film libations, one of our party of climbers/filmgoers asked, ‘Are they going to show the Dawn Wall extended footage?’

Good question, it’s been like 2 years since that event, you would think that would be enough time to piece together the multiple hours of footage into yet another compelling documentary.

But alas, that was not to be.

What was shown was a varied selection of films featuring the new generation of climbers (Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner),  Goofball crushers (Will Stanhope, Matt Segal), introduced a new free soloist, bad ass (Brette Harrington), an adventurer/dad, (Mike Libecki), and a ship of happy fools (Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Ben Ditto, and brothers Nico and Oliver Favresse).

One of the criticisms I’ve heard of previous Reel Rock films is their lack of diversity – mostly white guy films.  Seen through that lens you could cynically imagine them ticking off a list: Asian girl, check, Black guy (who is not a stereotype), check! Female crusher, check! Old guy adventurer, check! Okay, bring in the white guys, it’s safe now!

Well, that would be cynical, wouldn’t it? The test I think is that: in the films that featured minorities were they just included because they represented diversity? Or did they stand on their own as quality films? I think it’s safe to say that all the films were entertaining in their own way.

The first film “Young Guns” features a 15 year old Ashima Shiraishi and a 16 year old Kai Lightner. In regards to diversity, these 2 were not just chosen at random because of their ethnicities, they are legitimately the best of the new generation of climbers. If climbing had weight classes like MMA, Ashima could arguably be the best pound for pound climber.  And Kai Lightner is no slouch, winning 1st place against the likes of Daniel Woods at the Ring of Fire comp (there was plenty of laughter in the theater at Daniel Woods’ expression when Kai was handed his trophy).

The thing about this new generation is that they almost seem unreal. Kai climbs hard, but also had a 4.85 grade point average. Ashima floats across the ceiling of a boulder as if she weighed nothing, and that the physics of gravity didn’t apply. But, set against an objective that challenges the best adult climbers we can see they too have limits – but much  less so than the adult climber who shows them the route.

Boys in the Bugs
While I liked the first film, it was more just interesting to me, rather than a fun film I would watch. The film with Will Stanhope and Matt Segal was that fun film. There’s sort of a formula now: get 2 climber crushers who are a little weird, put them together on a hard climb – hilarity ensues. It’s was the formula for “Horseshoe Hell” and an argument can be made to include “A Line Across the Sky” with Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold.

I kind of wanted less outside commentary, and just more of Will Stanhope and Matt Segal joking. Having other folks explain that they both look like the unlikeliest set of crushers, then showing them as unlikely crushers, was too much explication for me. Not everyone looks like Chris Sharma in his prime. Hardly any of the current top male climbers do – look at Ondra, Kai Lightner, Mason Earle. Not even present day Chris Sharma looks like Chris Sharma in his prime!  Will looks sorta, well, undeveloped, but Matt Segal looks like he could feasibly be a top climber dude.

just think if the same criteria was placed on female climbers, like: Hazel Findlay  doesn’t look like a top climber. Really? What’s a top female climber supposed to look like? A Sports Illustrated supermodel? I can imagine the uproar…

I notice this is some of the climber films – too many outside commentators to explain what’s about to happen – then showing what happens. It’s like they want us to feel a certain way about these guys rather than letting the footage speak for itself, God forbid letting us make our own determination.

These guys were entertaining all on their own. When they are just sitting and describing in their own words what it’s like to have a whole group of observers watch them fail, and fail and fail (before one succeeding) let me in to their mental process of working a hard route with all the obstacles – physical and mental – that it would involve. To me, that was more interesting hearing about it in their own words than being filtered through a third party talking head.

But, overall I enjoyed watching the 2 of them work this project – much like a funny Dawn Wall. Except, in this case, one of the climbers (Matt Segal) sacrifices his first ascent in order to support his partner’s.

Will Stanhope, Matt Segal, Ashima Shiraishi, Brette Harrington, Kai Lightner, Conrad Anker at Reel Rock 11. (Photo by Marissa Killeen Mason of <a href=

Will Stanhope, Matt Segal, Ashima Shiraishi, Brette Harrington, Kai Lightner, Conrad Anker at Reel Rock 11. (Photo by Marissa Killeen Mason of Wandering Ink)

At a talk a few weeks ago, Matt Segal was asked something about trying to make the climb again, and he described it kind of like this other climber (can’t recall who it was now) who was working a problem with Chris Sharma. Chris made the 1st ascent and so he kind of lost interest afterwards. It was several years before that climber went back (after recovering from injury) and did the second ascent. Matt said he kind of felt the same way – Will already made the first ascent, and so the obsession for his ascent faded.

In the film, Will did describe it as a partner ascent, and I agree with that – if Matt didn’t spend the time for both of them to work the route Will would not have been able to complete the climb. A partner, especially for a multi-year project, is important.


Like those single name celebrities: DiCaprio, Cruise, Kanye, Swift – we are introduced to a previously (at least to me) lady crusher by one name: Brette. A free soloist, trad climber. Except for her free soloing, which they only briefly touched upon, I felt this film was the weakest of the bunch. The drama of grasping for a first ascent, or the amazement of watching Ashima in motion – was missing for me. It simply followed this girl climber and her life, with the only distinction of being a free soloist. Free soloing is quite a distinction – don’t get me wrong, but the film failed to show the drama of her free-soloing, or the majestic (read: terrifying) expanse of El Capitan I feel.

Luckily, her personality shown through as bubbly and fun, but when compared against a film like “Spice Girl“, I think “Spice Girl” gave me more of a sense of Hazel Findlay’s personality, determination and backstory than this eponymous film.

If you’re going to name a film after someone you need more than “I like climbing, I happen to be good at it, come watch me!” Just my .02, (which is about how much it’s worth).

Rad Dad
Mike Libecki asked the audience before the film to remember that while this film featured him, this film was really about women.

Not so sure of that.

While they mention the sad feelings of his daughter when he was away adventuring, they don’t really go into his (now ex) wife’s feelings. Only that he couldn’t do what he does without her. He repeats this several times, and she’s shown in a happy clip with Mike back home, but they also say late in the film that they eventually separated.

There’s a happy ending with Mike and his daughter adventuring together, but the unspoken subtext is that his adventuring made his wife and daughter suffer. That this suffering was (presumably) part of his wife and his breakup. But now he has someone (his daughter) who he can adventure with, so that at least that relationship was salvaged.

So…what? Is all forgiven?  Is it all really the quality of the time spent, and not the actual time? What if it’s a lot of quality time?

It’s a view into an uncompromising adventurer’s life when unexpected responsibility is thrust upon him. It’s not that he’s not devoted, or doesn’t care for (at least) his daughter, it’s that since, as a part of him, adventuring can never be separated from him. He hears that call and in spite of all else – he must go.

Dodo’ Delight
The last film was the most entertaining. It was one of those films that just let the subjects speak for themselves – and what a weird happy bunch it was! Imagine being cooped up with 4 other guys, from different nationalities, and journeying in the Artic Circle to climb in the frozen Baffin Islands – fun, or horrible idea? I would personally think it might err on the side of “horrible,” but these guys are irrepressible. What for some of us would be a horrifyingly painful experience of cold and suffering they seem to take in stride. As if it were all a bunch of fun with every night a drinking singing jam! It reminded me of a Monty Python group of pirates at sea.

The eldest of them, although he said the least – was the most entertaining one for me to watch. He just took everything – the singing, the drinking, the mayhem – without blinking an eye. I thought he might get cross at these fools, but in the end he takes center stage with rifle in hand, stepping up and yelling “I am the captain of this ship!” then clumsily places a round in the chamber and shoots it into the distance with his merry band behind him dancing and singing.

It was a nice way to end the films.
Get it here!


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