Taylor Rees and Renan Ozturk are professional filmmakers and mountain climbers, though to leave it at that considerably undersells them. It’s like calling Copernicus a Polish stargazer. There’s just no common or formal usage that encompasses everything they do. It entails a lot of disappearing acts into under-discovered, intemperate zones. We all dream of this, of suddenly vanishing, unraveling the derangements of our sunups-to-sundowns, loosening the fissures of lunchtime to discover other worlds. We gaze at the sea and the mountains; mostly, the Discovery Channel has to suffice. But Rees and Ozturk dine out on this kind of stuff for a living.
Example #1: When they met in 2011, set up by a mutual friend in Jackson Hole, they decided to climb the 13,770-foot Grand Teton peak. It was a 24-hour first date in the heady tiller of rockfall and lupine sworl that wasn’t a big deal, really, until it was. The attraction was gravitational.
“By the end of the day, I think we were both committed,” says Rees, 30, who in addition to her alpinist chops (her given middle name is “Freesolo” — both parents were climbers) is a gifted photographer with a masters degree in environmental studies and film from Yale. They fell in love, no surprise, bought a house, adopted a dog, and started working together, buttressing one another in the kinds of aesthetic overlays that come so rarely in life.
“We realized very early on in our relationship that we clicked professionally,” she says. “And with Renan traveling eight months out of the year, work became a way for us to be together.”
Which is not to say it’s been all milkshakes and balloons.
“Because I’m a little more established in the industry,” says Ozturk, 35, “it’s hard sometimes for Taylor not to feel like I’m overshadowing her. There’s a respect that has to be treated carefully.”
“Having a partner who spends a lot of time risking their life,” Rees says, “you’re always sort of gasping, like, is it worth it? There’s jealousy mixed in with protection. We spinout sometimes.”
Last year, Rees and Ozturk took part in a punishing, two-month-long, National Geographic- and The North Face-sponsored, on-the-face-of it categorically insane expedition to Burma.
Climbing is probably the loneliest job in the world. There’s that tough, indifferent wall, an obstacle to be overcome internally and externally, with no real division between the two, and which pays huge dividends in self-reliance. Although, even a gym-rat belayer will tell you it’s also mutually illuminating, that the emotional demands are just so immense that partnering up can allow you to plumb the sport’s purest depths. Like, afterwards, hiking back down, your fingernails and calculations and blood and spit left behind on that storm-washed thing behind you, and here’s wifey/papi and dog to share in your glory.
Example #2: Last year, Rees and Ozturk took part in a punishing, two-month-long, National Geographic- and North Face-sponsored, on-the-face-of-it categorically insane expedition to Burma, where they’d hoped to summit Hkakabo Razi, Southeast Asia’s highest peak at 19,000 feet. It had been climbed once or twice before, but its exact height remained unverified. Ozturk was the expedition’s cinematographer, and he and Rees, who served as base camp manager, planned to make a film about it. As it turned out, nobody had quite anticipated the emotional/physical drainage ditch of a 135-mile jungle mud-slog preamble, piggybacked by a troublesome alpine ascent. Near the summit, relations among the six-person team soured. A 48-hour mountainside shouting match ensued, blood vendettas were sworn, that sort of thing. It didn’t matter. The weather turned them back 800 feet short of the top. For Rees and Ozturk, the debacle eloquently dramatized the hazards of multidimensional relationships on high-stakes expeditions, and they turned it into a 2015 short film, Down to Nothing, which won a cinematography award at the Telluride MountainFilm Fest.
Example #3: That first date back in 2011? It happened not too long after Ozturk, with climbers Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker, made a daring first ascent of the infamous Shark’s Fin, a route in the Garhwal Himalayas that had long bedeviled the world’s best alpinists. They spent 12 harrowing days and nights vertical on a 4,000-foot granite wall in subzero temperatures, during which Ozturk nearly suffered a stroke. The resulting documentary film, Meru, was shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
As a brief but important aside, it’s worth placing the Shark’s Fin and Hkakabo Razi in the context of Mount Everest, by far alpine climbing’s best-known ascent, if only to underscore what exactly Rees and Ozturk are up to. Three years ago, Everest was summited by 658 people during its two-month spring climbing window. The main criteria for climbers is to be in fair walking shape and to fork over $30,000 to $100,000 to an expedition company. It’s the Sherpas who set the ropes and take all of the risks on the Khumbu Icefall, as the 2015 Nepal earthquake made devastatingly clear — 16 climbers, all Sherpas, were killed by an avalanche, the worst tragedy in Everest’s history.
“That’s why blind people can summit Everest these days,” says Ozturk. “It’s just walking at a lower angle. All you have to do is clip into the ropes and take one step after another.”
HIGH MOUNTAIN ART
If you want a view of Renan and Taylor’s world without the technical ascents and inclement weather, Ozturk’s paintings offer beautiful, colorful interpretations of the world’s highest mountains, including Ruth Gorge in Alaska and Meru in the Himalaya. See them all here.
Example #4: That Shark’s Fin ascent? It happened five months after Ozturk almost bought it while skiing in the Tetons — he caught an edge and flew off a cliff smack onto a rock. Cranial fracture, two broken vertebrae, a severed vertebral artery, the latter being perhaps the most serious, as the vertebral artery happens to host a major brainstem nexus, facilitating most of the super-important vital functions, like breathing. A rupture means clotting in the arterial wall, arrested blood-flow, possibly a stroke. On the Shark’s Fin, the vertebrae slivers still bouncing around in Ozturk’s neck transmogrified like an alien parasite. He nearly died. Again. But it passed. All this is in the movie.
Example #5: More recently, Ozturk wanted to make a film about the Syrian refugee crisis, in Syria. Rees put her foot down. The Shark’s Fin is one thing. Jabhat al-Nusra another.
“Renan said, ‘You shouldn’t keep me from doing this,’” Rees says. “And I’m like, ‘You’re right, but this is a really sensitive issue and I don’t know if you can go until you learn more.’ Deep down I’m saying to myself, ‘Please, don’t go to a war zone.’”
Their newest project, Ashes to Ashes, a documentary about lynching victims in the post-Civil War South, feels like a compromise. It’s the first non-adventure film either has made; it’s also, in a quietly disturbing way, their most serious work so far, capturing the story of Shirley Jackson Whitaker, an artist and organizer of a mass funeral in Springfield, Massachusetts for the 4,000 African-Americans who were shot, hung, burned, dismembered and tortured to death in the name of insane racial hatreds, most of whom never received a proper burial. It was Rees, egged on by Ozturk, who disentangled the narrative threads.
“Taylor took the lead on this film,” Ozturk says. “She did the interviews and moved things forward. I was just there to support her.”
Like the best kinds of stories, all three films — Meru, Down to Nothing, and Ashes to Ashes — manage to both frame our world in miniature and enlarge it. They grapple with big events (the psychological fusillade of alpine climbing, our wretched national inheritance) and manage to wrench from them something primal and intimate. They feel like an awakening of sorts, an un-wedging of the puzzles of human bonds, a bandage-rip on all the insensate ramparts we build up around us in the course of our lives, which, in a flash, can splinter and come undone. In some ways, they’re love stories.