Review of Rocky Mountain Highball

by Tom Markiewicz on April 28, 2009

Rocky Mountain Highball reviewWhen I saw the premier of Pure back in February, I mentioned in the notes about the trailer for Rocky Mountain Highball. At the time, I was really disappointed since the premier was scheduled for April 27, the due date for my daughter.

Well, it turns out one of the side benefits of her being born 10 days early was my ability to attend the premier of Rocky Mountain Highball last night at the Boulder Theater.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent climbing movie and I really only found a few minor flaws. The following are my impressions of Rocky Mountain Highball.

Before the show, the filmmakers mentioned that it took them over two years to make. That care and dedication for delivering this product was unmistakable throughout.

The title may lead the viewer to think this is just for Colorado boulderers. Rocky Mountain Highball was set in Colorado, but not specifically about Colorado. This is an important distinction. The film was more about the essence of bouldering and how highballs fit into the equation. How we as boulderers attempt to push our limits within the pursuit of bouldering. Rocky Mountain Highball appeals to all climbers regardless of style or geographic preferences.

That said, it depicted a nice overview of Colorado bouldering, really showing the breadth of rock type and quality here.

Rocky Mountain Highball had a great story line. Simply having a story, let alone an interesting one, is a major accomplishment for any climbing film. They started with examining the past, looking at the history of bouldering (not just highballs) and then progressed from the present to the future of highball bouldering.

The movie balanced between amazing footage of highball bouldering problems and short clips of commentary from boulderers both old and new.

The interviews with John Sherman, Pat Ament and John Gill were fantastic and likely worth the price of admission by themselves. Their insights and commentary on bouldering contrasted with the newer generation of climbers was striking.

During Rocky Mountain Highball I didn’t think much about the music until I started thinking about what I would say about the music! So I’ll take that to mean the score was unobtrusive and fit well with the climbing.

An often discussed topic, Rocky Mountain Highball took great care to dive into what highballs actually are and how climbers define them. Jason Kehl had one of my favorite quotes where he defined highball bouldering as when you personally feel like you’re too high off the ground (paraphrased). A highball for one person may not be highball for others. That’s really the essence of the experience, right?

It was also nice to watch a climbing film that wasn’t exclusively focused on the hardest boulder problems in the world. There were numerous problems shown that mere mortals could aspire to climb. Unfortunately, they were still scary and tall as hell.

There was also an all-star cast. From their web site:

Director/Filmmaker Scott Neel, and Yama Studio have brought in a huge cast of world renowned climbers, like Paul Robinson, Mark Wilford, Kevin Jorgeson, Lynn Hill, Daniel Woods, John Sherman, John Gill, Steve Mammen, and Jason Kehl. Having filmed more than 70 climbs with more than 35 athletes, this film proves to be an exciting journey through the world of highball bouldering.

Now for a couple negatives.

The film only showed names of climbers during their interviews, not during actual climbs. More frustrating though was the film only displayed the names of individual problems, but not the areas where they were located. As a new local to Colorado, there were many problems where I could place the area or specific boulder, but many I had no idea where they were located.

I spoke with @boulderdiaries after the show and he hinted at researching and publishing a list of the problems and their locations from the film. Or at least that was what I think I heard…

The only reason I can think of why they didn’t explicitly add the areas to the titles was the fact I mentioned above about Rocky Mountain Highball not really being a film about Colorado. Maybe by not highlighting the areas, the filmmakers were attempting to focus on highballing itself. Possibly true to their vision of the movie, but annoying nonetheless.

I know this sounds a bit of schadenfreude, but I think some more footage of failures or falling during some of the problems would have added to the movie. I say this because some of the more dramatic scenes were when a climber topped out of a highball. Watching well-known, pro climbers literally shaking from the fear and anxiety of doing the highball really made the viewer relate in ways you don’t normally see in a climbing film. Especially noticeable was hearing Lynn Hill stress out near the top of one problem. You immediately start to think “if Lynn Hill is freaking out a bit on this highball, how really scary is this?”

Overall, Rocky Mountain Highball delivers on its promise of exploring the world of highball bouldering and more interestingly why climbers push themselves on these types of problems.

My Dad is in town this week and I took him with me to see the premier. As this was a much more climber oriented film compared to the recent releases of The Sharp End and Pure and since he isn’t a climber, I wasn’t sure he would enjoy it. Afterward, he said he loved it. That in itself should say a lot about the quality of the film. Creating a work that is climber-focused yet still delivers an impressive and powerful story line is quite an achievement.

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