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.