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.