In new documentary ‘The Sanctity of Space’, two world-renowned mountaineers attempt to overcome an obsession with rock climbing in the Alaska Range and delve into the legacy of pioneering explorer and mapmaker Bradford Washburn.
Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson, who are also the film’s co-directors, embarked on ‘The Tooth Traverse’ – spanning the Moose’s Tooth massif from side to side – after Wilkinson saw an unclimbed route in a photograph by Washburn.
The duo will premiere the film in Alaska over the next few days, with screenings in Talkeetna this weekend and in Anchorage beginning early next week.
Washburn, who has climbed and mapped regions of Alaska during the first half of the 20th century, is also billed as “the Ansel Adams of the skies” for his mountain aerial photography. His wife, Barbara Washburn, was also a pioneer climber, and in 1947 she became the first woman to climb Denali.
Ozturk spoke to the Daily News about the inspiration for the route, the rock climbing movie boom and the “fiercely independent, pioneering and brilliant local souls of AK” who keep bringing him back to the mountain ranges of the state.
The following conversation has been slightly edited.
ADN: What made the crossing of the Moose’s Tooth massif a passion for you and Wilkinson as mountaineers, as well as an essential subject for the film? What separates it from other notable peaks or regions in Alaska?
Ozturk: These days it’s really hard to find great lines that haven’t been done, so when Freddie showed me this one in a photo of Washburn I was blown away, especially on such an iconic skyline from Alaska. We called it “The Tooth Traverse”. I’m such a visual person, and this jagged skyline with so many sections that hadn’t been climbed was the ultimate canvas to draw a line and experience first hand. It was like falling in love.
We wanted to do it as a continuous dormant chain along the way up the climb, which required years of strategy and scouting for the different types of rock, ice and snow climbing involved. Throughout the various attempts, we were not only obsessed with the ascent but with capturing it, in the spirit of Washburn.
In the end, we pulled out all the stops to bring in a helicopter with the help of Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick, which was a big creative step for us and some rock climbing cinematography in the greatest range. Normally these types of shoots are “posed” and set up after the first ascent, but this was all happening in real time at great risk, not knowing if we could even make the climb.
DNA: Washburn’s works established a kind of visual template for the film and also a bit of a roadmap for the journey. How important is his work and his legacy (as an explorer, photographer and cartographer) to the modern mountaineer?
Ozturk: Brad’s philosophy of photography and how you can use the human form to give a sense of scale to the massive features of the Alaska Range was our driving force for the film’s cinematography. His photo library is still the gold standard in what many climbers look to for new routes, much like we did for The Tooth Traverse, but his legacy is so much more than that.
Although we don’t say it literally in the film, we hope people will understand that the true spirit of Washburn is the endless pursuit and search for knowledge in these wild landscapes and sharing it with others. We believe that in this process, humanity will connect emotionally with such places, and this will be crucial for conservation in these crucial times of change.
DNA: In this film, you and Wilkinson are both responsible for driving the story and, in turn, the narration. What was it like wearing those two hats and how tangled were those relationships during production?
Ozturk: It was often awkward trying to make a film about ourselves, so we worked with very talented editors, Erin Barnett and Chad Ervin, who did a good job of “laying down the law” when it was about representing our characters. I’ll be honest, there were some pretty tricky hurdles and nights of tears as it all fell into place, but that’s how you know everyone is deeply invested and committed.
DNA: There are a lot of appearances in the film of Alaskans (pilots, guides, etc.) and people who have spent a lot of time in the state and its mountains. What do you think is the defining trait of the Alaskan mountaineering culture and the people who participate in it? Did that shape the film in any way?
Ozturk: We often joked that Alaska was a “misfit’s paradise”, which is why we seemed to fit in with the gritty subculture of the bush pilots and guides in Talkeetna. But in all honesty, it was these relationships with fiercely independent, pioneering, brilliant local AK souls that kept us coming back even more than the mountains themselves.
DNA: There have been a series of popular (and generally very good) rock climbing movies in recent years. What differentiates this film from some of its predecessors and what do you think is the appeal to audiences of these films?
Ozturk: We thought about it a lot because we are good friends with the other filmmakers and have contributed to these other recent climbing documentaries.
Overall, we wanted to make a basic climbing movie that would appeal to a wider audience as long as it didn’t overdo the death and suffering aspect of high mountain climbing. Of course, these elements are ubiquitous in our world and in our film, but our “idea of control” was based more on the pure pleasure of climbing. If we could transport audiences to the Alaska Range with never-before-seen perspectives of the Range, make them fall in love with Washburn like we did, and take them on our climb in a lighter way, then maybe we could -to be helping people understand the big, inexplicable “why” of this risky lifestyle. “If they could only see it, they would understand why,” we would often say.
Washburn taught us that focusing on the pure sharing of adventure and visual technologies was a way to transcend words and express that fun in new and exciting ways.
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“The Sacredness of Space”
• Sheldon Community Arts Shed in Talkeetna
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday
General admission: $30
Admission for Denali Arts Council members: $24
• Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage
5:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday
General admission: $7 for individual tickets, variable pricing for booths
Note: There will be a brief Q&A with Freddie Wilkinson following the Tuesday broadcast.