National Park Adventure: An Extreme Sports Epic

Crack-climbing Devils Tower

It is called “El Matador” and is a five-pitch route, with the most difficult pitch rated at 5.10d. Conrad Anker, world-renowned climber and Bozeman resident, led a crew up the side of the volcanic rock formation known today as Devils Tower, in the Black Hills of Wyoming.

“It’s a crack that you stem your legs up – so it’s very interesting visually,” Anker commented. “It’s one of the most continuously challenging routes at Devils Tower and the nature of the crack is that you’re using all the features on it.”

Anker, a climber, environmental activist and captain of the North Face Athlete Team, is involved in a wide variety of extreme sports and advocacy with various national and international organizations. He still finds the time to serve with local groups including the MSU Leadership Institute, Protect Our Winters, Bozeman Ice Tower Foundation, Gallatin County Fair Board and the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

Made of igneous rock, Devils Tower contrasts sharply with the surrounding sedimentary rock. The formation reaches 5,114 feet above sea level, with a prominence of 1,267 feet: about the same as an 86-story building.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower as the first national monument in 1906. Over the next decade, six national monuments were created across the West in Utah, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

These national monuments were combined with existing national parks under the same banner in 1916 when the National Park Service was born.

A Giant-screen Opportunity

Anker was approached by Greg MacGillivray, an academy award-winning director who specializes in documentaries and Imax films. He is credited with helping to pioneer three types of cameras for Imax filming: hi-speed, lightweight and “all-weather” for expanding the medium’s capacity.

MacGillivray works closely with his wife, Barbara, son, Shaun, and his whole team at MacGillivray Freeman Films to provide “visual storytelling, innovative cinematography and the latest advancements in digital technology.”

With the centennial of the National Park Service approaching,  MacGillivray was compelled to explore the narrative of the formative years, as well as the “never-ending power and mystery” that people from around the world feel today.

“In the making of this film, we visited more than 30 national parks, looking for things we’d never
seen before and images that blew us away,” MacGillivray explained. “The parks give us a sense of awe, a sense of wonder and in return I think we understand what a tremendous gift they will be for future generations of Americans.”

MacGillivray Freeman Films teamed up with several sponsors, including Expedia, Subaru, BrandUSA, and REI, to adventure through various destinations including Yosemite, Arches and Yellowstone.

“I really wanted this film to be much more than a tour,” MacGillivray said, “and to inviteaudiences to engage with the parks in a fun and immersive way. I wanted to make a freewheeling film that captures the way the parks speak to adventurers, artists, athletes, and anyone who wants to challenge themselves physically, artistically and spiritually within. This is what led me to think of Conrad Anker, who I’ve admired for decades and who is a terrific ambassador for the parks.”

And it was Anker who suggested two fellow Bozemanites, Rachel Pohl and Max Lowe, tag along for the adventure.

Uphill Battles

Pohl graduated from MSU in December, 2015 with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art with Art History Minor. Pohl has been painting since she was five, and does not plan on stopping anytime soon. Her work includes a Montana License plate for American Rivers, various pieces for Bomb Snow Magazine and an impressive collection of originals on her website

In tandem with her art, Pohl participates in a surfeit of expeditions, odd-jobs and promotional work. This includes “National Parks Adventure,” part of which she completed while she was still taking classes for her degree.

“This movie really speaks to me, and to any adventurer, artist and person who thrives off of perspective-altering experiences,” Pohl said.

Since graduating, Pohl has travelled the country for promotional events for the film, which included the world-premiere at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and spi repelling off the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, but still found the time to be a ski-bum in Japan.

“Japan-uary,” she smiled. “We were there the whole month and it snowed 20 feet in that time. It was an absurd amount of snow,” Pohl made a sweeping motion with her hands. “We had to shovel it off the top of the camper every morning. Sometimes we were skiing in chest-deep pow.”

With her brother Adam and friend Olivia Kesterson, Pohl rented a camper on the island of Hokkaido. Japan-uary included such ski-bummery as visiting seven 7-11’s in one day, sending more cliffs with snow blades than with skis and waking up at 3:30am to skin up to the summit of the volcano Yotei.

She pointed to her forehead, “I would sit in the back of the camper with my headlamp and paint.”

Pohl features the wilderness with her art, and often paints in locations that are impractical, even impossible. She is featured in the film painting across the many locations, including the frigid banks of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“It was minus 20 F or colder the whole time, and really humid,” Pohl explained, “I couldn’t even paint though because my watercolors froze!”

According to Pohl, the ice climbing around Pictured Rocks were some of the most challenging she has ever done, “I couldn’t feel my hands at a certain point, and my body pretty much shut down. But despite all that, I found solace in the ice caves of Pictured Rocks,” Pohl said,  “It was truly magical and I spent so many hours looking at ice and marveling at it all.”

The crew journeyed across the states: in Pictured Rocks, Devils Tower, Moab, Redwood, Everglades, and Arches. Whether studying “The Evergreen Giant” with botanists in the redwoods or mountain biking with Moab local and brown-pow expert Eric Porter, the filmmakers and athletes encountered numerous challenges from weather to terrain to mental roadblocks.

“I was a bit intimidated when I heard Eric was going to be riding with us,” Pohl admitted, “but he was very cool and an example of someone like Conrad who’s a pro athlete but also an incredible human being. The ride was amazing. I’m used to a trail but this was like being in a giant natural playground.”

One of the main features of the film is the uphill, or vertical, struggles faced along with the physical and mental strength needed to overcome those obstacles.

At Devils Tower, Pohl struggled to scale the massive monolith, and the film crew struggled to get the quality shots they needed. The crew wrapped the Imax camera in foam and created a one-of-a-kind modified tripod they nicknamed the “wall-pod.”

“It was exciting to capture Rachel really pressing herself to achieve this climb on Devils Tower,” MacGillivray said. “It’s something most people will never experience, hanging off a sheer rock face hundreds of feet in the air, but it’s a wonderful way to see how special this place is.”

Stephen Judson, Vice President of Film Production and Post Production for MacGillivray Freeman, explained Pohl’s place in the film by saying, “It’s not so much that we chose Rachel as the main character. Rather, it’s that, when we first saw the dailies, she simply jumped off the screen. She’s a force of nature.”

Because of the cultural significance of Devils Tower, the filmers agreed not to take aerial shots of the formation, or climb to the top. Anker and others met with National Park Service officials and tribal elders to ensure that the production of the film would not harm the natural and spiritual significance of the space. The various tribes who live in the region know it as “Bear Lodge,” “Bear Mountain” or “Tree Rock,”  depending on who you ask. It is often regarded as a cherished space, and Anker recognized “that has a real power to it, because you’re surrounded by sacred Native American history.”

Value of the Wild

“It’s been said the parks are America’s best idea and I’m confident in saying we have the best parks in the world,” said Anker. “I think the wonderful message of this film is that the wonders of our parks are approachable by anyone.”

Together, Pohl, Anker and his step-son, Lowe, each bring a different value to the story. Lowe is a freelance writer and photographer who has written pieces on topics ranging from Sasquatch Music Festival to learning how to surf in Indonesia.

“I was always drawn to exploring the amazing places my parents introduced to me to — but I didn’t spark to becoming a professional climber,” Lowe said, “I found my own path as a photographer.”

According to Lowe, being a part of the film has been an enormous honor. “Artists interpreting the national parks in a romantic way helped people see them as far more than just as resources to be used,” he said. “It’s cool to be someone continuing that legacy today.”

“National Parks Adventure” is premiering on May 1 at the Yellowstone Giant Screen in West Yellowstone. Narrated by Robert Redford the movie is likely one of the last to be done on 70mm celluloid film, as the industry has largely shifted to digital production.

The soundtrack features a range of artists, from Bruce Springsteen to The Lumineers, and music by Little Feat, John Denver, Brandi Carlile and Jason Mraz. Composer Steve Wood helped the filmmakers tell the story with sound, a key element to any Imax production.

While the film contains epic features, unbelievable cinematography and famous athletes, MacGillivray hopes to inspire the value of wilderness for the everyday person.

Pohl agreed, “Being in the wild has taught me how to find tranquility in everyday life. To see beauty where others might overlook it. I encourage all people to not only visit a park and snap some photos, but to just look at and admire it. To let its beauty fill you up and make you feel like a kid again.”


Trailer to the Film: National Parks Adventure

Link to Rachel Pohl repelling off a building in Cincinnati

Link to the crew mountain biking in Moab and climbing the Three Penguins in Arches NP