Climbers are accustomed to suffering, sure. But a certain kind of suffering is more common — a brief sprint through pain like climbing on body parts shoved into splitter cracks in the desert, or a two-day push through agony to get up a big wall climb.
But when Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold spandexed up and hopped in the saddle of two bikes to spend three weeks bicycling to 15 peaks over 14,000 feet tall in California and free-soloing technical routes up them, they signed up for 22 days of suffering.
“It was a lot less fun. It was a lot more suffering,” Wright says. “Basically, it was just this long, slow protracted kind of grind.”
Their trip, chronicled in the film made by Wright, “Sufferfest,” is touring with the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, which makes its stop in Boulder on Tuesday, Feb. 25, and Wednesday, Feb. 26.
Wright and Honnold, both professional climbers, have traveled the world together, undertaking climbing projects that put both to their limits. Most recently, they were together climbing at El Potrero Chico in Mexico, where Honnold free-soloed the 5.12, 1,500- foot “El Sendero Luminoso,” and Wright went back to do the route at night before leaving.
In the course of those travels, they’ve built a solid relationship and discovered a shared interest in environmental issues and clean energy. They took the messages from books they were passing back and forth in Patagonia, The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World and The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health — And How We Can Make It Better, to look for a project with a smaller fossil fuel footprint and a minimalist ethic.
Like a bike trip. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that would be super fun. We could bike around and climb a bunch of stuff, do something closer to home instead of flying halfway around the world to have an adventure,’” Wright recounts. In the three weeks each of them could find free, they rode 80 to 90 miles a day, hiked 15 or 20 miles up 4,000-5,000 feet of elevation gain and then on-sight free-soloed technical routes of grades up to 5.10 (completed a technical climb they’d never before touched without gear to protect a fall), then hiked out and biked back to “base camp” at a hotel room nearby.
In total, they biked more than 700 miles, hiked at least 100 miles and climbed more than 100,000 vertical feet.
“You’re just kind of in this perpetual state of being really fucking tired, basically,” says Wright.
“The two of us have never done a bike tour and we thought it would be pretty cool to do a bike tour, we’re pretty good friends, we’ve traveled a lot, and, you know, it’s all culminated in the worst trip of our lives,” Honnold says in the film trailer.
At the very end of the tour, as they approached Mt. Langley, they considered biking a road that leads most of the way up to the summit and then hiking the final stretch. Instead, they on-sight soloed the third ascent of “Rest and Be Thankful” on the peak’s 1,000-foot north face.
“A lot of what we do is more like one- or two-day pushes, or 24-hour pushes, and this was just a bunch of those, with no rest in between,” Wright says. “It seemed like it was never going to end, and I think that was one of the things that made it so heinous and then maybe later on really gave us a sense of accomplishment because we had suffered through it.”
That sense of accomplishment, and the way the film about their trip has been received, has fueled the unexpected — “Sufferfest 2.0.” They’ve selected more than 30 desert towers in the Four Corners region to bike to and climb. It’s “bad judgment, part two,” Wright jokes.
“There’s not too many people that I’d want to spend three or four weeks just, like, in the dirt, on the bike, suffering every day with, but Alex is one of them,” Wright says. “Hopefully we’re still friends after the next Sufferfest.”
Logistically, it’s even more epic than the 14ers mission, Wright says, and will require more gear and more planning — and more biking.
“The vote is out, but I think it’s going to be heinous,” he says.
They’re capping it off with a mission of a different kind: installing $40,000 in solar panels on a Navajo reservation, an area that Wright says has about 18,000 people living without electricity.
“It’s a good project, it’s a good service, it’s a really unique opportunity because of our visibility to do something for someone besides ourselves and still have this awesome adventure,” he says. “We obviously are not perfect with what we do — we both fly a lot and we both travel a lot, but we both are making an effort to minimize our footprint how we can, and we’re just both huge fans of alternative energy.”
Wright, who runs his own production company and did most of his own camera work for “Sufferfest,” says the next film, visually speaking, should be even better, pulling in professional cinematography and hiring folks to help shoot, instead of relying on Wright and Honnold to use a light-weight camera to shoot what they could.
“I hope that, A, we entertain people, and then even, if we’re lucky, maybe even inspire people to whatever, have their own sufferfest, do something that takes them out of their comfort zone and puts them in a situation where they’re going after a goal or dream that they’re not sure they’ll be able to achieve but that would have value if it did,” Wright says. “We’re going to do this cool little solar project, that’ll hopefully make a really small difference — but we’re not kidding ourselves, it’s a very small difference. But a small difference is better than no difference. … We still want to have fun and go out and goof around and do what we love to do, but if we can do that and still make a little tiny difference, that’s pretty bitchin’.”
In many ways, their “sufferfests” are very much in line with what the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival looks to promote. Almost 40 years ago, a group of Canadian climbers conceived of an idea to get a few buddies together in the off season and share some films. The resulting event, the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, is now in its 38th festival, spans nine days and includes climbers, photographers, adventurers, authors, writers and explorers from all over the world, before departing for a film tour with 800 screenings in 40 countries. Of 360-some films submitted, about 35 of them take part on that tour.
Climbing is still central to the festival’s foundation, but the event now reflects the diverse array of outdoor sports, the cultures those athletes traverse and the environmental issues facing the landscapes on which they play.
“People who come to Banff, they want to see something rad and they want something that’s going to make their palms sweat. … But I also think people come for the cultural side of things — I think one of the great things that Banff does is highlight the culture of the mountains and people that live in the mountains,” says Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, which will host the Banff stop in Boulder for the second time this year. The nationwide organization, which advocates for rock climbers’ access to climbing areas, has its headquarters here in Boulder.
“Even though the Access Fund is a national organization I think it’s also important for us to participate in some local events, too,” Robinson says. “And it’s a nice opportunity to come out and celebrate our collective love of the outdoors and the mountains with the community that we all live in. … There’s just such a long tradition of great films, some of them are climbing films, some of them are mountain culture, and we feel lucky to be able to associate with it.”
Access Fund staff and friends come together to select films from Banff ’s options that are tailored to the Boulder community based on interests and what’s already come through on other film tours.
“It’s a thoughtful film tour and a thoughtful line-up,” Robinson says.
Among those thoughtful pieces is “I Am Red,” a four-minute homage to the Colorado River from photojournalist Peter McBride, who has followed the river from its source in the Rocky Mountains to the Sea of Cortez.
“I just wanted a succinct visual poem that tells the story in a very simplistic but profound way and emphasizes the river,” McBride says. “Very often the river doesn’t have a voice, and I wanted to do an artistic take on that and give the river a voice of what I thought it might be.”
He literally gave the river a voice, a monologue split between male and female readers that begins with the claim of having run the red canyons of the Southwest for six million years to a delta now in Mexico — a destination the river has not reached since 1998.
“Water is extremely scarce right now. It’s a limited resource, and when you ask too much of a limited resource, it disappears, and Colorado River’s a perfect symbol of exactly that,” McBride says. “So this is just a poetic, short taste of a very big issue.”
Increased awareness has led to some remarkable work, he says, including an upcoming release of water in March —perhaps even enough to reach the sea.
“I just want people to walk away with an awareness,” McBride says. “To my amazement, most people have no idea of this situation. … If more people were aware of this, if the river ended in San Diego, not in a delta in Mexico, I pretty much would guarantee that this river would not have run dry.”
As it is, the river trickles into dust with very few people there to see it and therefore fight for its return.
Among films on the tour Robinson is keeping an eye out for is “Sensory Overload,” which features Eric Weihenmayer, the blind paraglider, biker, skier and Mt. Everest climber. This time, Weihenmayer turns his outdoor expeditions to whitewater kayaking.
“Everybody says this, but it’s true —he’s amazing,” Robinson says, “And kayaking blind is the hardest thing he’s done, and this is a guy who has paraglided blind. Apparently kayaking blind is harder than paragliding blind.”
The trick is the noise — the constant white noise of the water drowns out much of what someone without sight for a guide would use as a point of reference. And the other thing is, it can be tough to tell if you’re drifting or stationary in an eddy.
“These normal planes of reference — motion, sound — are largely drowned out, so I think it’s just a lot harder to keep his proverbial shit together in a boat,” Robinson says. “With skiing, with climbing, with mountain biking — also, incidentally, he road bikes, not on a tandem, like single — but you can put your foot down. On all those you can stop the action at some point. In a kayak, in a river, you can’t. So I think that’s just unbelievable.”
It should be the kind of palm sweat-generating action the Banff film tour has come to promise.
The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour has stops at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, on Feb. 25 and 26.
Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are at www.bouldertheater.com.
The complete line-up of films:
Tuesday, Feb. 25
Split of a Second Sensory Overload Ready to Fly The Burn Flow: Elements of Freeride Keeper of the Mountains Poor Man’s Heli I AM RED Spice Girl 35 Valhalla
Wednesday, Feb. 26
Cascada Into the Mind North of the Sun Sufferfest Sea of Rock Return to the Tepuis The Questions We Ask Push It Valhalla