The Shallow Abyss

The progression of adventure films generally, and for today of climbing films in particular, has nothing to do with harder, faster, or higher.  It has to do with saying things, with better bringing into focus the import such pursuits have on our lives, and by extension, the world at large.

This being the case, Abyss is the bleeding edge of climbing film progression.

There’s a lot to dislike, or at least ridicule, so let us be charitable and stay not too far off topic.  Is cleaning alpine granite difficult?  No.  Certainly not if you’ve gardened out a new crack in Appalachia.  Nor for that matter is developing any new boulder problems under any circumstances, when the process is held to any larger standard.  Does slapping massive amounts of chalk on holds while brushing on rap make them easier to grab?  Only in your mind.  Obe Carrion needs to personally apologize to the world climbing community for making absurd verbal encouragement from your spotter acceptable, and what the hell is up with those massive tic marks?  At least the rarified scarf/beanie/tank combo seen in Park Life didn’t make an appearance.

Abyss asks serious questions about the internal and community processes surrounding discovery and “first ascents,” and should therefore absolutely be taken seriously.  The camera and editing work is gorgeous, and the mix of rock porn and narrative holds immense promise for more substantive films to come.  Unfortunately after asking such good questions, the answers presented degenerate in coherence and quality as the film goes on.  As Jon Glassberg concludes after Ben Spannuth’s climactic sport route ascent, “What’s important is contributing something to the community that will last forever.”


In the aforementioned case of the heavily vegetated southeastern US, such delusions might be forgiven.  Uninitiated climbers rarely realize how much cleaning went into routes like Roadside Attraction at the Red.  In areas with that much moisture, anything not very steep will be heavily vegetated.  For the dirt-encrusted new router first-hand knowledge of this process should bring about something akin to that gleaned from placing your first bolt.  Neither bolt holes nor a hand crack stripped of dirt and vines are permanent in any larger sense, but both acts are large enough on a human scale to command respect.  In contrast, alpine granite covered only by lichen, and subject to the heavy weathering of an 8 month winter, are more like slot canyons.  Evidence of past climbers is all but totally erased season to season, which paradoxically makes Spannuth’s bolts all the more egregiously egotistical.

In the first 15 minutes of the film the auteurs seem to hint that all evidence points towards them being far from the first climbers at Abyss Lake, but as the minutes march forward the chest-pounding rhetoric becomes more elevated, and the phrase “first ascent” flashes continually in the upper right corner.  Spannuth’s route might be hard and steep enough to think that no past climber had ever top-roped it, but claiming first ascents on small boulders in the face of reasonable evidence to the contrary seems self-deluded.  As I’ve written before such an attitude is less a matter of factual absurdity than it is a problematic view of the world.  The necessary reach of any individual vision, which the film rightly identifies as the limiting factor in discovery, is small.  Recognizing your vision as included there is the first and best step towards broadening it.

In the final analysis, Abyss misses the mark.  As several climbers hint at, and Chris Shulte makes most clear, the best thing about climbing undiscovered-to-you problems is the potential for unalloyed personal growth.  With no chalk and beta to point the way, and no number to tell you beforehand whether you can or cannot do it, great things are not just possible, but probable.  In a world increasingly defined in great detail, online and on video, having such an experience in a five star location will only become more rare.  Why not then embrace the process, and in the film more fully celebrate the joy of such moments?  Dispense with the grades and let viewers decide on difficulty by watching climbers struggle.  Dispense with claims of first, middle, or last, and let viewers decide whether the place is worth visiting.  Stop updating, and share with the world stoke, rather than a one-dimensional resume.

LT11 is a young company, and it shows.  I hope they stick around long enough to age well.  I’d like to watch.

2 responses to “The Shallow Abyss”

  1. Thanks for the review. the first ascent conversation is definitely a tricky one. A climbing film makers biggest challenge maybe?? I got a little lost in your comparisons with colorado alpine bouldering at 13,000 and southeast gardens… maybe you can clarify? I think it is more the geology that is important?? I also think we’d all like to “depense with the grades and let the viewers decide on difficulty by watching climbers struggle” . Especially being the moderate climber that I am. I dont give two shits about v15. That being said, history has told us the vast majority of viewers, at least our viewers, want to know how hard problems are and are very vocal about that. _ Rich Crowder

    1. Thanks for stopping by Rich, and keep up the good work.

      I have no doubt the majority of your viewer want to see numbers, but you might have to lead from out front, or at least experiment with backloading them as the climber tops out.

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