Renan Ozturk: On Denali, Cineflex, and Alex Honnold

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After several days camped on the Ruth Glacier at the base of Mount McKinley professional climber and artist Renan Ozturk is at the beginning of a long project. He had the cheerful expression of a kid in a candy store as he sorted his gear still flaked with snow off an Otter turbo-pro cargo plane in the mountain gateway town of Talkeetna, Alaska. Traveling with friends alpinist/writer Freddie Wilkinson and big wall free soloist Alex Honnold, Renan recently made the initial foray into this region first made famous by the great cartographer Bradford Washburn.

Also called Denali at 20,328 feet this peak is the highest physical point in North America. And as it happens this section of the Alaska Range is home to some of tallest big-wall rock faces in the world. Hoping to duplicate and perhaps improve upon the classic Washburn aerial photographs from the middle of the 20th Century Renan is using a high resolution helicopter-mounted Cineflex camera to capture images on a monumental scale.

While providing Honnold with an alternative experience from the warm weather rock climbs he’s used to in the lower 48 Renan aims to illustrate much of the fun and excitement to be found on the far edge of the American wilderness.  “It was Alex’s first alpine climbing trip so we did a little bit of mentoring where we got to teach him how to put on crampons and survive in that type of environment,” Renan told the Clymb at the Talkeetna Air Taxi Base. “It was good to put him to the test. We definitely did some of the biggest pushes that he had ever done and also sat in the tent through bad weather, certainly more than he had ever experienced.”

Despite harsh conditions on the glacier this adventure through the Ruth Gorge is a dramatic departure from the style of storytelling that will be featured in the forthcoming film Meru, a dramatic tale of alpine conquest in the Himalaya by Renan and his partners at Camp4 Collective. This latest production to be conducted over the next few years is a patient meditation on the sweeping landscape of the Alaskan frontier and the visitors whose relatively smaller stature lend a contrasting perspective to the great mountains above.


What motivates you to do these kinds of projects?

Ozturk: For us I think it’s the love of the mountains and the beauty. We get asked that question a lot and hopefully by the time this project is done and by the time we can share the story by way of the film we’re making we won’t have to answer that question. We can kind of just show some of the beauty through that instead of showing the normal suffering and hardship aspect of climbing, which was more like the Meru style which might be a more obvious way to go. But in this we want to show the joy and the beauty and answer that question without giving a long-winded explanation. 


Can you tell us then what inspired this particular mission? What made you decide to pursue a film, a love project based on joy and beauty as opposed to pain and suffering?

For the most part our biggest inspiration is just the place itself, the Alaska Range, which is kind of the last American frontier. It doesn’t have that long history and iconic back story of the Himalayas or Yosemite or any of these other really well known places. It’s the place and the grandeur of the place. But we’re also inspired an old photographer, mapmaker, museum director and pilot Brad Washburn whose photography and life accomplishments documenting the Alaska Range have shown us the way.

He probably did over 50 expeditions to Alaska over the course of his lifetime. He did the first maps of the whole region. It’s a lot to live up to. His photography was incredible, his aerial photography especially in the Ruth Gorge. He was a pilot himself and you can imagine him in an old school flight suit with the door off the airplane hanging out the window yelling at the pilot to get closer to the walls, to bank left so he could shoot out the window with is his old school medium format Fairchild camera. His work is really stunning. Part of the project is we’re recreating some of his images with the Cinelex camera system on a helicopter. So we hope to blend his image and make it into a moving image and to do justice to some of his work.


Speaking of the equipment, you’re using a RED camera and a Cineflex. Exactly what is a Cineflex?

Cineflex is a technology that’s been around for a few years. It’s essentially developed by the military. It’s a gyro-stabilized camera system that hangs underneath the helicopter and looks kind of like an R2-D2 type device, like a bubble. The operator is inside the helicopter with a joystick and a monitor. We shot with a Cineflex on our Tooth Traverse climb last year during the first ascent. It was a really lucky occurrence that we were able to work it out because we didn’t know if we were going to make it into the position or not because parts of it had never been climbed before. That was really exciting to be able to blend that perspective with a first ascent. Normally when you shoot with a Cinelfex it’s a really set up thing where it’s a big commercial project or something where the odds are more controllable. So we feel like we got lucky in that. And then this year we were working with Brain Farm Cinema and using their Cineflex Elite, which is the next generation of Cinelfex. It’s a little buggier. Anson Fogel and Tim Kempler have been doing full-time technician work having it in pieces in the dirt in Talkeetna. Taking it apart and putting it back together trying to get it to operate correctly.


How does what you’re doing now compare to what was happening in Washburn’s day?

We’ve got all sorts of historical flight records from Washburn. We’ve got correspondence between him and Ansel Adams where they’re debating the style of photography. Ansel Adams was pretty stout in claiming that all landscape photography shouldn’t have human figures in the landscape, where Washburn felt that they should to give a sense of scale. Especially in Alaska, it makes sense to have figures in a landscape to give scale to these massive walls. But we’ll let the viewer decide in the end. Certainly in my art work it has always been hard to incorporate figures, but for this type of  arial photography having figures on the landscape is the ultimate prizes. It’s really very rare to get climber into this fast wilderness.


This had to be a fantastic trip. Can you describe what was your most memorable or beautiful moment through this recent adventure?

Ozturk: There were a few moments when we were in hour-35 of these non-stop pushes where it’s 3 in the morning. It’s that twilight hour when the sky is a gradient of violent red and orange and deep blues and purples. I think those are special moments that I’ll remember for ever.