Mountain Climbing in the 23rd Century

By Carmichael, Robert | American Cinematographer, July 1989 | Go to article overview

Mountain Climbing in the 23rd Century


Carmichael, Robert, American Cinematographer


The countdown went: five, four, three, two, one and suddenly I was rushing skyward up the sheer 3,400 foot face of El Capitan. Out of sight, some 500 yards down the talus slope, was a 3-horsepower generator that was winding in the eighth inch military spec steel cable that was clipped into my climbing harness. The higher I got, the thinner that cable looked. A shackle at chest level whirled out the twists in the cable as I sped upward. My eyes were fixed on my gloved hand, which held open a climbing rachet that would engage on a safety rope if the cable broke.

This bit of technology is high on the list of the most nervewracking operations I have ever been a part of. As director/cameraman for the Star Trek V mountain climbing second unit, along with producer Steve Ross, I was in Yosemite Valley to capture its scenic beauty and produce the stunts for Captain Kirk's free solo of El Capitan. That meant no ropes. The script placed us in the 23rd Century, and supposedly by then people will be climbing the vertical walls of El Capitan without ropes. Our job was to show how it would look then, today.

Even being aware that the screeching cable tested at 1,800 pounds, I wasn't perfectly confident of the loop I was tied into. Nevertheless, I was hanging in space some 50' away from the face of the rock as I rocketed upward toward the "air station." The air station was a 4'x6' metal frame with a corrugated floor, designed and fabricated to act as our camera platform. The "air station" was equipped with wheels so it could be hauled up the vertical flanks of the cliffs and then suspended by bolts. It was most appropriately named because standing on its see-through floor gave one a distinct impression of standing on air. But it was a perfect platform from which to shoot and stage our climbing stunts. Given the size of the equipment, the "air station" provided us with a stable ledge wherever we decided to shoot.

Our first decision was to do the most difficult stunt first. The idea was simple: stage the longest stunt fall ever filmed, and do it on the side of El Capitan. We contacted a master of cabling, stuntman Kenny Bates and his rigging team of John McCloud and Bernie Pock. Kenny's longest fall at that point had been a 300-footer for Die Hard. We knew Kenny was the man for our fall and he brought a number of innovations to the project. Using standard climbing techniques, we'd probably still be inching our way up El Capitan, but Bates took one look at the air station perched some 560 feet off the deck on an overhanging section of the wall and he began to explain his concept to me.

El Capitan, being in a wilderness area, meant no internal combustion engines could be used. When we asked our assigned ranger where we could station the winch, he indicated we were in for one hell of a lot of rigging. Despite the obstacles, we installed our winch at the veritable edge of the wilderness, then ran the cable back to the face and straight down to the ground. To everyone's amazement our human elevator actually worked. With it, people and camera equipment were hoisted up the cliff in minutes as opposed to several hours.

El Capitan was first climbed in 1958, and some 30 years later here we were, bringing mechanization to the wall. In one respect, it was a somewhat troubling experience as El Capitan is one of nature's most magnificent creations, and for all of the climbers on the shoot a highly revered place. Silently we hoped "The Captain," as it is sometimes called would let us go about our business without harm.

Once we had the winch functioning, Bates started concentrating on rigging for the fall. This would feature a man falling down the face of El Capitan, not in cuts, but in a single master shot, an undeniable fall.

Above the air station our riggers, headed by Mike Weis, installed a five-foot arm. A 1/8'' cable was then run through a pulley and down to the ground and connected to the descender rig. …

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