Matthew Phillips was clinging on the solid granite ledge for dear life.
Thousands of feet below him stretched Yosemite Valley, drenched in the mid-June rays of the summer sun. It was a beautiful day for climbing, the day the second-year CU electrical engineering Ph.D. student had been waiting for and working toward for five months.
Right now, he wasn’t so sure he was enjoying himself.
Phillips was stuck on El Capitan, Yosemite Valley’s trademark rock – a thing-to-do-before-I-die sort of climb for every aficionado of the vertical ascent.
The ledge, called the Texas Flake in honor of its Lone Star State-shape, was towering over him. Between the narrow piece of rock the 25-year-old was so anxiously holding onto and the wall was a three-feet-wide, 30-foot-deep crevice. One wrong move, one minor slip, and a few bruised bones could have easily been the best-case scenario. No rope would have stopped his ricocheting down to the bottom of the crevice.
Phillips and his dad, Scott, 53, had given in to the magic of El Capitan. Over the years, they had built up their climbing portfolio just to climax here in the iconic California valley. They had come to conquer the 2,900-foot route, the shining star of bigwall-climbs.
This, right here, was the big leagues.
“I realized if I can’t do this, my dad can’t do this,” Phillips said when he sat down with CUIndependent.com earlier this week to tell his story.
There was only one way: up.
Bear-hugging the flake, Matthew made his way up the stretch to the safety of the next clip for his rope. His dad followed, and after six-and-a-half days, the duo summited.
The unlikely father-and-son combo followed in the footsteps of some of their guild’s most rugged trailblazers, like Warren Harding – the first to ever climb the Nose – and Royal Robbins, the bigwall virtuoso who was the first human to conquer El Capitan’s brother, Half Dome.
Both Harding and Robbins and their legendary race to new heights kicks off the new feature-length documentary “Valley Uprising,” which premiered Thursday night in front of a sold-out crowd of many of the sport’s current luminaries at Chautauqua Theater.
The film, produced by Boulder-based Sender Films, tells the wild history of rock climbing in Yosemite – all the way from the days of Harding and Robbins, when climbers embraced their identities as society dropouts, to the modern age of rock climbing, with Alex Honnold.
Honnold, a native of Sacramento, Calif., grew up hearing the stories of his climbing ancestors, idolizing the kings of the bigwall who were living on simple but free terms in Yosemite’s legendary Camp 4.
He started climbing at age 11 in a gym. Eight years later, he moved outside and would soon push the limits of his profession. In 2012, Honnold and his partner Hans Florine climbed the Nose in two hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds, setting a new record. In 1958, Harding and his crew needed 45 days to break ground on the Nose.
To this day, Yosemite Valley remains Honnold’s home turf, its walls the closest thing to heaven for the lanky, mellow next-generation climber.
“I want to play,” he told CUIndependent.com during the world premiere of “Valley Uprising” Thursday. Even at a movie premiere, his giant hands are covered in a light, chalky white dust. “To me, climbing is like playing. It’s just seeing what you can do.”
“Just seeing what you can do” out of Honnold’s mouth can sound borderline ridiculous, as the 29-year-old is probably the world’s most famous free-solo climber. Armed with only a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag, he scrabbles up giant faces of sheer rock, spider-like, without a rope, always just the twist of a finger away from death.
Is he ever afraid?
“I go up on walls because I want the experience,” Honnold said. “If it was really scary, there would be no fun in that.”
This June, just a week before CU student Matthew Phillips and his father, Scott, had their moment of glory on the Nose, Honnold and his partners David Allfrey had “a fun little challenge,” as Honnold put it. The duo climbed seven routes up El Capitan in seven days, setting four speed-records along the way.
“Each route we climbed typically takes three to five days for the average party,” Honnold said. “So we basically did a month and a half worth of climbing in a week.”
Just a fun little challenge.
A guiding principle uniting many of the climbing greats featured in “Valley Uprising” is this: It’s not if, but how you reach the summit.
Matthew Phillips has found his own interpretation of that rule.
“True happiness is shared,” he said. “Climbing alone can be fun, but climbing with other people is a shared experience that you can always go back to.”
In 1991, Scott Phillips, stuck in a midlife crisis, took his son on their first rock-climbing trip. Thirteen years later, the two –after a midnight push to the summit – woke up to a historic valley rising up to their feet.
“Valley Uprising” will be screened at Oriental Theater in Denver this Saturday, Sept. 13, at 7.30 p.m.
Contact CU Independent Managing Editor Lars Gesing at email@example.com