On sight by Alastair Lee
Filmmaker Alastair Lee gives exclusive insight into his latest climbing film, On sight, which examines the unpredictable, exciting and at times dangerous game of on-sighting trad routes, regardless of the grade of the climb.
Rock climbing in the UK has many facets, but it can broadly be divided into two categories, namely sports climbing and traditional climbing. Although sports climbing is extremely popular, it is traditional climbing which the majority of people go out to do on warm, sunny, windy, cold or even wet days. It seems to have lost none of its original appeal; people delight in climbing routes of all grades, placing their own gear, feeling scared, and fighting their way to the top unscathed. It is this psychological factor, and the accompanying adrenaline rush, which makes "trad" climbing so particular and each outing so memorable. Routes are held in awe, aspired to, climbed with great respect, and then talked about in the pub for many an evening afterwards.
Alastair Lee's latest offering "On sight" explores the unpredictable, exciting and at times dangerous game of on sighting, underlining the physical, psychological and historical value of this form of ascent which 99% of British climbers practice regularly. The documentary promises to be a landmark in British climbing films and emphasises how difficult, intense and memorable on sight climbing is, regardless of the final grade.
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On Sight by Alastair Lee
"The idea to make a film about On Sight climbing was inspired by the fact that pretty much every climbing film was centred around hard pre-practiced headpointing with a large grade attached. There are good reasons for this, its got a large grade so people automatically swoon over it and its a calculated and organised affair where arranging for photographers and film makers to be there on the day of the ascent is possible. Whilst there's no denying its dangers and athletic merits, I was becoming a little bored with the predictability of the final ascent. That's the whole point of a headpoint: that by the time you come to lead it, it goes smoothly, granted not always.
Also 99% of climbers in the UK climb On sight, i.e. they walk to the bottom of a route with nothing but their gear and a guidebook description and have a go. So a few things all happened at once, like an alignment of the planets that suddenly made the On Sight film possible. I'd decided I wanted a fresh challenge; many climbers who I initially suggested the idea to deemed it impossible or would respond in a very sceptical manner, saying it would be very difficult. As unlike headpointing, hard onsight climbing is a much more spontaneous affair; you're going well at a crag feeling good and you decide to have a crack at something you had no intention of getting on when you arrived at the crag. But you're not going to stop and wait for a cameraman to turn up before you get on it... also who's actually on sighting at a top level? We see endless names headpointing in the big numbers, but once you start asking around who's actually on sighting E7's (or attempting them) week in week out, well the numbers drop off very rapidly. More people have headpointed E9 than have On sighted 20 or more E7's.
Another big factor was Jack Geldard, who is based down in North Walesa nd right at the centre of a strong on sighting scene. He got in touch about a trip to Madagascar, asking if I'd like to film it. I mentioned the On Sight idea and he was very enthusiastic and told me about some of his friends who were very committed to the onsight ethic and who weren't impressed by the surge of headpointing and over inflation of grades at the top end. They also climbed at a very high standard and as it transpired they happened to be some of the best on-sight trad climbers in the UK (Pete Robins, James McHaffie, Neil Dickson). 'Head pointing is great, but it is just sport climbing' a Pete Robins comments, will help identify their standpoint.
Although the film is based around the strict style of on sight climbing, its actually about adventures, what an adventure actually is and the importance of doubt and stepping into the unknown. A true contest between the route and the climber where the outcome is totally uncertain.
On Sight climbing by its nature is of course very slow, El Cap has just been climbed in 2 hours and a bit, I've spent over 4 hours filming somebody climb 35m of rock, slowly inching their way upward, constantly assessing their position, weighing up the odds, looking at the gear, figuring out the moves. Its so far beyond just a physical activity, its a massive mental challenge - 'the ultimate form of ascent', as Leo Houlding points out during the film.
It was always going to be difficult making a film about what is in effect such a slow sport, but when things do get exciting its about as gripping and raw experience as you are likely to see. My approach to the film was that, for it to work, I would have to spend a lot of time filming, I had to become one of the gang! I filmed about 150 hours for this project, most days coming home after the long drive to North Wales and back with no usable footage. But I also had some amazing luck: I went to Iceland on my own to meet some climbers on the north coast (Ian Parnell and Neil Gresham) and out of a week's trip we had one good day, but as you'll see in the film, we nailed it! I also captured just about the craziest thing you're ever going to see at Fairhead in Northern Ireland, thanks to the superb Ricky Bell. I guess one of the reasons the film's been so anticipated is that climbers of all levels can relate to it, whether I pulled it off or you can be the judge."