Alastair Lee’s new film, which premieres today in Sheffield, is the most eagerly awaited climbing movie since the release of King Lines by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer last year. On Sight is the fruition of an idea that many considered impossible: a film capturing the blood, sweat and mystery of onsight climbing as it happens. After over a year of concentrated work, the final result of Lee’s ambitious project is a masterpiece of adventure filmmaking. On Sight is a tense, profound, and often hilariously funny portrait of climbing’s most elusive realm, and a penetrating insight into what drives the climbers who explore it.
The film opens with a gripping sequence of Pete Robins on Master’s Edge (E7), Ron Fawcett’s epoch-making arête at Millstone Edge. The camera is eerily still as Robins eyeballs the finishing jug, swapping feet and breathing hard. We soon discover he holds the jug - just - as both feet simultaneously fly off the rock, but not before we’ve been given a clear indication that On Sight is going to be a very different kind of film to the pseudo-documentaries which have regularly appeared on the shelves of climbing stores over recent years. There is no montage of well-rehearsed sequences on over-chalked holds here, set to soundtracks of relentless techno, nor B-movie tribute footage of the rock star behind the wheel of his gleaming gas-guzzler as he speeds to the next mega-project.
Instead, we are quickly spellbound as Lee’s camera pans out across the vast, wild coast of northern Iceland in late winter. In the left hand side of the frame, the low sun catches streaks of water-ice clinging to a huge cliff. A slow, heavy surf breaks on the empty beach as Ian Parnell swings his way up an unclimbed ice-fall. His partner, Neil Gresham, then takes on a thin, free-standing cigar to the left. The radio-microphone picks up the cracking of the ice as Gresham places a screw on the most dangerous section, and we feel the urgent concentration of the moment as the camera zooms in on his face, a few centimetres from fragile ice-chandeliers.
Ian Parnell, WI6 (first ascent), Kalkadinn, Iceland. Copyright Alastair Lee
The film then moves effortlessly from ice to rock, and we are given a front-seat ride with Leo Houlding on the technical arête of Balance It Is (E7) at Burbage South in the Peak District. Houlding falls on his first attempt, then manages to claw his way to the top on his second try. We are soon left in little doubt of the veracity of his statement that “onsight climbing is the ultimate form of ascent” as he presses on for the unchalked, sloping finishing holds, his left arm rapidly cramping up, above a hastily-placed, solitary microwire.
Some of the central highlights of the film take place in the traditional forcing ground of North Wales. There is an extended episode shot over two days in the Llanberis Pass, in which Jack Geldard, Pete Robins, James McHaffie and Neil Dickson all attempt, fall off, and eventually succeed on Gravediggers (E8 6c). There is also some superb footage of Robins and Belgian ace Nico Favarese on the legendary finger-crack of Strawberries (E6 6b) at Tremadog. One of the most mesmerising scenes in the whole film takes place on North Stack Wall, where Neil Dickson’s astonishingly bold onsight flash of The Hollow Man (E8) is captured as a near-gale blows huge eddies in the green water of Gogarth Bay below. Lee’s cinematography here is full of strong intuition into the mood of his subject, as it is throughout the entire film. The screen swaps seamlessly between several camera angles, and Dickson’s quick breathing is just discernable above the wind as he makes steady progress up the virtually protectionless headwall. Watching this scene, I felt an urgent need to chalk up in order to retain grip on my cup of tea.
Another major sea-cliff scene in the film takes place at Fair Head in Northern Ireland, where Irish pioneer Ricky Bell is seen attempting a new route requiring an outrageous sideways dyno at the end of a big runout. This climb is not a true onsight (it had been minimally inspected on abseil) but the adventurous spirit of Bell’s ascent highlights the wide gap between defined ethics and raw experience. This dichotomy exists at every level of climbing, and On Sight acknowledges it with playful zest and irony.
Ricky Bell caught in mid-flight on the ridiculous crux move of his new route at Fair Head. Copyright Alastair Lee
Beyond its continuous visual drama, the film also offers a fascinating parallel account of the real experience of climbing, as it happens, through the words of climbers themselves. From Nico Favarese’s spontaneous humour on Me (E6) at Gogarth’s Red Walls as he searches for a piece of unavailable gear “I wish I had certain things that I don’t have anymore”, to Ian Parnell’s understanding that “it’s really about adventures”, and to John Redhead’s conviction that “climbing isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life”, On Sight weaves a rich personal narrative around its astounding footage of some of Britain’s most talented climbers on our island’s most challenging routes. This is not just a film climbers will want to see; it’s one they must see.
Neil Dickson, belayed by first ascensionist John Redhead, on the crux of Margins Of The Mind (E8 6c) Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, Snowdonia, Wales. Copyright Alastair Lee
On Sight: The Other Side Of The Lens
- by Jack Geldard, editor, UKClimbing.com
Some climbing films have awkward similarities to snuff TV. Take the opening scene of Hard Grit; the heart beat, the tension, the fall, and then the crunch. Awesome. Unless it's you doing the crunching!
I first got in touch with Al Lee after watching his film Set in Stone, the wonderful biopic of Cumbrian legend, Dave Birkett. I spoke to Al about my plans to go to Madagascar and asked him if he was interested in lending us some cameras for the trip.
A couple of years on and I've been in front of Al's camera - and dangling from his ab rope after being rescued - quite a few times. But I'll never forget the first day out filming with Al. I was climbing with James 'Caff' McHaffie in Wales and Al drove down from Lancashire to meet us. We set off in to the Llanberis Pass on a cold October day, both James and I had an E7 in mind.
I cruised my choice – Surgical Lust on Scimitar Ridge, (well as much as anyone can cruise an E7 onsight – that is to say, I got up it and didn't die) then we moved on to James' choice of route, Rumblefish on Dinas Cromlech. It was cold and windy, and the route was hard and scary. I gave James some offensive encouragement in response to earlier in the day, when he had pre-built a gravestone underneath Surgical Lust, “To save me carrying you far when you fall off” he'd said.
“You've no hope on this Caff.” I told him, just as he stepped on to the lonely arête. I think he told me where I could stick my belay device. Al looked bemused at our snuff humour, and not knowing us that well, he wasn't sure what to make of it all. However he soon settled in to our way of dealing with dangerous routes, even managing to dish out a bit of abuse from his ab rope at appropriately scary moments.
Anyway, after around forty minutes, James was committed high on the route, above a terrible RP and a skyhook and looked set to blast to the top. Then disaster struck; James got chalk in his eye, and wiping it out he lost a contact lens.
“Everything's gone a bit psychedelic” he shouted.
Struggling to see and with a terminal fall quite possible, Caff still refused to give up and hung on the arête for around an hour, shuffling around and squinting as hard as he could, trying in vain to see some holds.
Occasionally I shouted up an abusive comment about him looking like Penfold, or complained about being cold. Eventually Caff reversed the hard 6b moves all the way to the ground and we left the crag.
I skipped down the scree back to the car. My spirits were high, and I was rubbing my hands together with glee. The only day of my life when I had managed to burn-off James McHaffie had been captured on film. You can't imagine my despair when Al later informed me that the footage wasn't good enough to make the final cut!
James McHaffie, Unridable Donkey (E7), Wen Zawn, Gogarth, Wales. Copyright Alastair Lee
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