Film revisits epic climb 

In the Shadow of the Chief world premiere close to home

What: In the Shadow of the Chief

Where: Village 8 Cinema

When: Friday, Dec. 5, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $8.50

Canadian history. It’s likely the preceding words have conjured a familiar faded textbook portrait of a wigged Sir John A. Macdonald or one of his immediate successors.

But a locally-produced documentary, making its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival on Friday, Dec. 5, presents a very different type of Canadian history.

In place of wigged Whigs are two young UBC student adventurers, a bespectacled idea man, and his dashing accomplice. Their mark: the first ascent straight up the face of the Stawamus Chief, a climb known since to the climbing community as the Grand Wall.

More than four decades later, progression and innovation have rendered the climb an entry-level advanced route. But someone had to do it first, and that team was Jim Baldwin and Ed Cooper, who took on the Chief in 1961 after hearing that similar routes were being attempted in Europe and the U.S.

At the time, the ascent was considered one of the top 10 hardest climbs in the world.

It took Baldwin and Cooper 40 days and multiple attempts to finally scale the bald rock face. During that period the adventurers entranced the local community and national media, and documentary filmmaker Ivan Hughes is convinced the climbing pioneers’ story still has the same power today.

A climber himself, Hughes said he learned of Baldwin and Cooper’s historic climb via A Climber’s Guide to Squamish, Kevin McLane’s bible of local climbing routes, which briefly describes the people and situation behind each first ascent. Intrigued by the length and date listed under the Grand Wall, Hughes pursued the story through newspaper archives at the Vancouver Public Library and news footage archives at the CBC. He says his first intentions were to write a magazine article revisiting the historic ascent. However, the CBC footage was so visually compelling he felt it belonged in a cinematic retelling.

The result is In the Shadow of the Chief.

The film blends the grainy 1961 TV footage with current segments showing modern climbers scaling the route, interviews with Squamish locals that remember the event and interview footage of Cooper from his current home in California. (Baldwin died in a rappelling accident in 1964.)

For Hughes, the film was a tribute to those who have broken trail for the dynamic Howe Sound climbing community. Like any community where the young and the daring are celebrated, he felt the need for a reminder that they should all tip their hats to their elders every once in a while.

"I kind of thought a lot of people climbing up in Squamish today have completely forgotten about what these guys did and the amount of work," says Hughes.

"Not just Jim and Ed, but a lot of the other early climbers. They were braving new lines, trying out new techniques.

"The idea behind making this film was to pay respect to all these guys that did so much work, the pioneers of the sport. A lot of them have been forgotten."

It’s not easy making the simplest of independent films, let alone one that requires a melding of old and new footage and dizzying shots of modern climbers high above Howe Sound. That the film is making its international debut on home turf is the icing on the cake.

"I think that’s absolutely fantastic," says Hughes, "because it makes it accessible to some of the people who were participants in the original event back in 1961, and also to people in Squamish today who might not have been aware of it."

In the Shadow of the Chief screens on Friday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. at the Village 8 Cinema as part of the Whistler Film Festival. Tickets are available through the Whistler Film Festival box office, open Dec. 1-7 in the Blackcomb Lodge, by calling 604-938-3323. Tickets are also available at Tourism Whistler’s Information and Activity Centre, and at Nesters Market. Check out www.whistlerfilmfestival.com for more information.

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