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IN 1982, two young climbers, Richard Jensen and Mark Smith, showed up at El Capitan, the spectacular 3,000 foot high granite wall in California’s Yosemite Valley, the heartland of rock climbing in America.  They spent the next 39 days pioneering a new route up the face, which they would eventually name Wings of Steel.  Along the way they would be subject to verbal and physical harassment so severe as to be considered threatening to their lives.  Their route, or rather the manner in which they were alleged to have climbed it, is the stuff of climbing lore, and sparked a controversy that has persisted for 30 years. Jeff Vargen’s Assault on El Capitan tells the story of the route, and of the long-awaited attempt at a second ascent by renowned and respected climber Ammon McNeely.

A note of explanation for non-climbers is perhaps appropriate.  When a climber succeeds in ascending a previously unclimbed line on a rock face, in a manner governed by a particular code of ethics, he or she is said to have “put up” the route.  These ethics differ from place to place, from rock type to rock type, and from one style of climbing to another (for example, the ethics governing free climbing, where only hands and feet are used to propel oneself up the rock face, are different from those in aid climbing, where the climber uses artificial aids such as rope ladders hooked onto the rock to gain height).  In essence they are an unwritten code of conduct for climbers, and have been developed during the history of the sport in the interest of preserving its integrity.  Climbers fall out, sometimes badly, over real or imagined breaches in ethics.  For example, it is considered a grave breach of ethics to chip a hold into a rock face where there was none before in order to be able to climb that which is considered otherwise unclimbable.  One day there will be another, the logic goes, who will be able to claim the line “as is”; and if not, just leave it be.

The “first ascensionist” of a new route earns the right to name it and grade it for difficulty. Again, grading systems differ from place to place and between types of climbing.  Some new routes attract particular attention from the climbing community for their level of difficulty, daring or both; often they are “problems” that have previously repelled other skilled climbers.  For such routes the second ascent is almost as important is the first, in that it will validate (or not) the grading from the first ascent, and sometimes might also “put right” certain ethical considerations.  It’s the climbing world’s peer review system.  It is not unusual for particularly difficult routes to go many years without a second ascent.  

So it was with Jensen and Smith’s Wings of Steel, which after three decades had yet to see a second ascent.  Assault on El Capitan is effectively two films in one, in that it tells the story of the first ascent by Jensen and Smith, and the attempt at the second ascent by McNeely and his girlfriend Kait Barber 30 years later.  After some nicely framed scene-setting shots of the spectacular Yosemite scenery accompanied by musings on this “crucible of American climbing” by various as-yet-unidentified climbers, it's straight down to business.

The first ascent of Wings of Steel is largely retold by the best means available, that is to-camera interviews with the main players in the story and other observers with varying degrees of neutrality on the subject.  There is no film footage of the 1982 climb, though we do see photographs taken by the young climbers during the first ascent.  The appeal of the line that was to become Wings, explains the now fifty-something Jensen, was simply its apparent difficulty.  While not an aesthetically attractive line or one that had been subject to the attentions of local climbers, it ascended a geologically “unusual formation”, a notably bare slab (a section of rock face that is steep rather than vertical).  In his recollection of events, he and climbing partner Smith arrived in the Valley, kept themselves to themselves and got on with the job of tackling the climb as best they could. Unfortunately, they ruffled the feathers of some of “the locals”.

Step forward Steve Grossman, climber of some repute, Yosemite climbing historian and lead detractor of Jensen and Smith and their alleged methods.  He is candid from the off about his feelings for the pair: “[It is] the lack of honest and forthright disclosure on preparation, execution, methods... [that] has gotten them into trouble… I don't have anything good to say about them.”

What Jensen and Smith stood accused of is this: while the drilling of holes to enable them to climb through unclimbable terrain was not unusual in aid climbing at the time, they are alleged to have lied about the number of these interventions.  In the eyes of their critics, the route had been reduced to a so-called “bolt ladder” where they had simply drilled their way to the top.  This, of course, was a retrospective denunciation, in that it could only have been made after the route had been completed; not that anybody had any evidence to back the claim up.  But these two apparently inexperienced interlopers were perceived to have disrespected the local climbing fraternity, not to mention Yosemite tradition.  What else could they have been doing up there for all that time, other than getting up to good?

Their difficulties started from the moment they left the ground.  As well as verbal harassment and physical intimidation from local climbers, they found their equipment to have been defecated on and had bags containing human faeces thrown at them from neighbouring lines.  While the Yosemite climbing scene of the late seventies and early eighties had more than a little anarchy about it, this is pretty appalling behaviour by any civilised standard.   

During the film, Richard Jensen acknowledges that he was probably naïve at the time, but still seems quite bewildered at what he and Smith had to put up with three decades ago: “We just never would have imagined that it would have mattered to people this much.” The pair say they thought they were doing the right thing by keeping themselves to themselves, not meeting and greeting the locals (a “big mistake” according to Grossman), not proving themselves worthy of virgin Yosemite granite.  Steve Grossman darkly reveals there was talk that in the event that Jensen and Smith found themselves in difficulties and called for rescue, none would be forthcoming.  “That's pretty harsh,” he says.  Two human beings are considered deserving of death over a perceived misdemeanour in sport.  Harsh?  It’s more than that.  It’s obscene.

AMMON McNeely is known as the Yosemite Pirate, a nickname he acquired in his younger days when he would salvage climbing gear left behind on the Valley’s big walls. Now in his early forties, he is a climber with a formidable reputation.  He has climbed “El Cap” 75 times by 62 different routes, including 11 one-day ascents.  In to-camera interviews, he and his brother Gabe recall their Utah childhood and their first adventures on the local sandstone crags.  He acknowledges that “fear is… a part of the big wall equation,” but doesn't seem to be troubled by it too much.  According to Gabe, he doesn’t have a pain threshold either (which isn’t too difficult to believe - as I write, McNeely is recovering after a recent BASE jumping accident.  Incredibly, despite an appalling injury he calmly talked to his own camera as he awaited rescue.)  When it becomes known that, with the assistance of his girlfriend Kait Barber, he is to attempt a second ascent of Wings of Steel (a previous attempt by another team in 2006 had failed), as a neutral party of impeccable standing and integrity he is widely acknowledged to be the man for the job. For Jensen and Smith, this goes beyond the validation a second ascent is normally expected to provide.  It's more like vindication.

The climbing segments of Assault on El Capitan, a video diary of the second ascent, come from raw hand-held footage taken by McNeely and Barber.  They offer an interesting insight into day-to-day life on a big wall.  Climbers say that above about 50 feet it doesn’t get any scarier, as any ground fall is likely to be fatal, but hundreds, even thousands, of feet above the deck, nerves are subject to a special kind of shredding.  While McNeely appears pretty much impervious to fear (even pausing at one point to whack a dislocated shoulder back in place), Barber clearly isn't enjoying the experience so much, in part because it is she who has to take the impact of her partner’s frequent “whippers”, or falls (as the slab is at an 80º angle, McNeely doesn't so much fall as slide at great speed - he calls them “cheesegraters”).  There is a palpable tension in some scenes where McNeely is cajoling Barber into action; in McNeely’s own account he reveals that as well as dealing with the anxieties of the climb, she was under considerable stress due to family problems. If anything, there is too little time devoted to interplay between the couple on the wall, which is a pity.  Whole films have been made out of individual ascents, of course, but here McNeely and Barber’s climb is part of another, bigger story.

“IT'S COMMON for an outsider to be treated with a little disrespect” says Yosemite aid climbing maestro Eric Kohl to camera.  Respect, and the lack thereof, are a constant theme in Assault on El Capitan.  Jensen and Smith disrespected the locals and Yosemite tradition; for their part they were disrespected simply because they weren't locals, and as Gabe McNeely reasonably points out were mightily disrespected when they had shit thrown at them.  More than once, the comparison is made with that most territorial of sports, surfing.  To the outsider looking in, it might seem like little more than a monumental lack of perspective on the part of all involved.  Even within climbing there are those who see it all as a little over the top.  On one of the numerous (often heated) internet discussions devoted to the Wings of Steel saga, one climber pithily observes “Who feckin’ cares?  It’s rockclimbin’.”  That particular thread runs to over 3,500 posts, which is indicative of how Wings continues to fascinate the climbing community. So does the Yosemite Pirate top out on Wings of Steel and bring vindication to Jensen and Smith? At the end of the film, do we find Steve Grossman shaking hands and having a beer with his erstwhile nemeses?  Those with an interest in the story will know the answers to those questions, but you won't find any spoilers here.

Assault on El Capitan is no adrenaline-fest.  There is no place here for helicopter shots, time-lapse or GoPro.  But in its simple and measured way it tells a story, a fairly epic story at that; and in the space of a little over an hour it tells it exceptionally well.  Special mention must be made of the skilful editing of the interviews to develop the narrative.  Is it a climber’s film?  Well, given the subject matter and the opacity of much of the jargon used, yes, but surely that was always the intention.  For the aficionado, it's an essential slab of climbing history.  Non-climbers will find it a curiosity piece, a strange tale of egos bruised and grudges nurtured.  They might find it interesting, even entertaining in its absurdity, but they won’t “get it”.  But Assault on El Capitan wasn’t made for them. Really, it was made for Yosemite.  The film’s protagonists are now men in late middle age, and Assault might serve to reopen old wounds (certainly, online discussion of the affair has been stimulated by the film’s release); but equally, it may prove to be an important part of a healing process.  As climbing legend Ron Kauk observes to camera, “Controversy comes into it, competitiveness comes into it, ego comes into it… these are all things that as human beings we’re challenged with.  Maybe a film like this can be a good thing, because what we’re really trying to look at is, what have we learned?”

Copyright © 2013 The Outdoor Times Ltd.






Assault on El Capitan

Produced by Accidental Productions, written and directed by Jeff Vargen

USA 2013, 68 minutes

Reviewed by Tony O’Donnell


November 10th 2013