by Andrew Becker
Racing up the first pitch of the Nose, Dean Potter is already in the soloing groove. Hands and feet firing as he starts up El Cap, Potter is focused on speed and precision. Off to the side, Eric Perlman is also soloing, focused on speed and precision, but with a different purpose. Following a crack to the side of the route, Perlman sinks a left-hand jam, holding his video camera in his right. Using his left arm as a stabilizer, he zooms in on Potter, following his progress up the wall. In turn, Perlman, a Truckee, California, based, Emmy-Award-winning cinematographer uses, toe hooks, smears, and crimps to stay out ofPotter’s way. Contorting his body to get the shot, holding the camera rock steady, Perlman will be exhausted by day’s end, breathing hard, lactic acid building up in his muscles. “I turn into a tripod of muscle and bone when I shoot,” says Perlman. “I get a pump doing this stuff.” For the past fifteen years, climbing video junkies have also been getting pumped from Perlman’s ground-breaking work.
Ask Eric Perlman how he responds to being called “the Warren Miller of climbing videos” and his answer is pretty clear. “I would threaten with a beating anyone that would accuse me of being that,” says Perlman. “The Warren Miller people make the same movie over and over and over again.”
There are similarities in the movie-making recipes of Perlman, fifty-four, and the juggernaut operating behind retired skimovie impresario Miller’s identity: travel the world, get amazing footage of some of the best athletes, add the occasional goofy antic or gimmick, set it to music. But in a career spanning over three decades and more than a dozen climbing, skiing, and motivational videos, Perlman’s focus has always been on innovation and the cutting edge. Known as intense to some but abrasive to others for his directness and determination, he has left his imprint all over climbing media with his images of some of the most impressive — and dangerous — feats on rock.
Widely recognized for his Masters of Stone series, Perlman has filmed, edited, and even recorded soundtrack music in his efforts to document top climbers. In doing so, he has raised the bar on how climbing is documented and changed how people look at climbing videos. But it isn’t just getting good shots that Perlman has down pat. His business savvy, his ability to produce and package his films, and distribute them widely have also ventured into new territory for climbing. “He created the genre of quick-cut, actionover-plot videos,” says photographer Corey Rich. “He established the foundation for climbing videos, and I think now what we’re seeing is guys building on what Eric is doing.”
Before Perlman got into making climbing movies, most such films were classic single-subject documentaries, like Mike Hoover’s Solo and Lito Tejada-Flores’ Fitzroy: Mountain of Storms. When Perlman’s Masters of Stone I hit in 1990, it struck a stark contrast to its most notable contemporary, Moving Over Stone, Doug Robinson’s folksy, instruction-flavored narrative. Although both had some of the day’s best climbers, Robinson’s film led the viewer on a chatty but staid tour of American climbing, while Perlman’s aimed straight for maximum visual impact, with heavy-metal music providing most of the commentary.
The Masters of Stone series has always been about pushing the envelope, Perlman says. “If we showed somebody jumping off something on a climbing rope, it’s just as much to say ‘Look at what a climbing rope can do. If they can do that, [the rope] can sure as hell hold your dinky little forty-fivefoot fall. Have no fear. Go boldly. Trust your gear. Trust yourself.’”
Not that portraying a “dinky” forty-fivefooter, or soloing a Yosemite big wall comes without responsibility. Perlman maintains that his first rule of recording climbing is that no one gets hurt. In all his years shooting high-stakes adventure, be it Steph Davis soloing Indian Creek’s Coyne Crack (5.11+) or Dan Osman ropeless on Cave Rock 5.12s, Perlman has had only one person “break” this rule — and that wasn’t climbing footage. BASE jumper Will Oxx broke his tailbone in 1995, after narrowly avoiding death when his experimental pilot chute failed during a Lake Powell jump.
The first rule for me, in shooting outdoor adventure settings — which tend to be dangerous — is that I would rather throw my cameras off the side of the cliff than to have any of the people I work with get hurt,” Perlman says. “Even a mild sprain is a loss. That’s a reduction from perfection, and I don’t like anything less than perfection.”
Still, there are always uncontrolled variables, Perlman acknowledges. But, he says, “those things could occur whether I’m there with my cameras or not."
Rich and other photographers and filmmakers have also wrestled with such issues as well as they document climbing. “For the history of our sport, I think it’s very important,” Rich says. “Eric’s captured moments in time, important events in the history of climbing. He’s not asking Dean to go out and solo something.”
Even when it comes to segments that stretch the definition of climbing and perhaps cross over into the realm of “stunt,” Perlman leaves it to the climber involved to determine the course. When Perlman filmed Dan Osman soloing up a raging waterfall above Lake Tahoe, Osman had already fully sussed out the project’s viability before approaching Perlman to shoot.
Ultimately, it is the climber’s responsibility and his or her decision to climb, Perlman insists. “If climbers cannot be relied upon to be responsible for their own actions and their own judgments, to carefully weigh and consider the options of their decisions, and to act in their own best interest, if climbers can’t do that, then who can? I for one don’t see the need to lower the bar by treating climbers as immature, irresponsible, incapable children.”
It was on his sixteenth birthday that Perlman realized there might be a future for him in climbing. On summer vacation in Europe, he was on his first roped climb, on the 12,461-foot Grossglockner, the highest peak in the Austrian Alps, holding his ropemates, two teenage girls, who had fallen off the ridge. Thinking quickly, Perlman had braced himself by punching his hand through the snow to grab a rock, and held their fall as they were screaming and “flailing like fish” in near blizzard conditions. “I felt so alive,” Perlman says. “I really enjoyed that. Especially when they kissed me afterwards.”
Born in France to American parents and raised in San Francisco, Perlman already had a pretty good beat on being both a storyteller and an adventurer. His mother a poet, his father an esteemed science journalist, Perlman started skiing at the age of five, and began scrambling around the rocks near his parents’ Squaw Valley house when he was eight. Around the same time, he got his first camera — a Polaroid — for Christmas. Asked in the third grade to draw a picture of what, he wanted to be when he grew up, Perlman sketched himself in front of a typewriter, pounding out an article.
|Fifteen-year-old Chris Sharma floaring Surf Safari (5.13c).||Indian Creek maven Steph Davis soloing Scarface (5.11c).|
|Friend inventor Ray Jardine “sport
jumping” off Reed’s Pinnacle Direct
in Yosemite for the first-ever leader
fall on his revolutionary cams.
Jardine judiciously backed himself up
with a second rope running through
several solid nuts.
|The late Dan Osman, a frequent
Perlman collaborator, Hunting
Gators(5.13) at Mayhem Cove,
His plans deviated slightly when he went to college in 1971, intending to study plasma physics. Influenced by his father — the San Francisco Chronicle science editor — Perlman had a strong interest in energy, and particularly the promise of nuclear fusion’s unlimited power. In spite of making the dean’s list his first quarter, however, Perlman realized the walls of academia were too confining. He dropped out of school and briefly worked for a publishing company, freelancing to help support his climbing and skiing. In 1973, with practically no experience, he made his first foray into film, producing an educational movie on consciousness transformation that he eventually distributed to libraries and schools. “It’s pretty much how I’ve done anything,” he says. “I throw myself in and learn to swim.”
Perlman’s climbing during those years helps him to better relate to his subjects. He talked his way past machine-gun-wielding Argentine soldiers to climb and ski Aconcagua on New Year’s Eve 1979, and made the first ski descent of Half Dome in 1980, with Bob Bellman. In 1981, as part of a team including Lou Reichardt, George Lowe, and David Breashears, Perlman was on the first attempt of Everest’s then-unclimbed Kangshung Face, via a daunting 3500-foot-high rock and ice buttress. He made it to high camp just below 23,000 feet, but no one summitted.
Perlman returned to Asia two years later to make the first ascent of Celestial Peak in the Siguniang group of Tibet’s Heng Duan. The team, which included master climbing writer Allen Steck, established All Along the Watchtower (VI 5.10c A0), the first Grade VI rock climb in China. Perlman filmed both the Everest and Celestial climbs, and narrated a substantial part of the Everest climb for ABC Sports’ American Sportsman program.
A few years earlier, Perlman had helped produce a television newsmagazine segment on Friend inventor Ray Jardine, which included Jardine climbing Ron Kauk’s Yosemite testpiece Separate Reality (5.11d). The time Jardine spent on the route while filming was much longer than five minutes, but that’s all the time the show had allotted for the piece. “But in the telling of the route, you could accelerate time,” Perlman says. “You could tell the story of the route in five minutes.”
Having been a magazine writer for over a decade, Perlman began to see how that formula could work for adventure-sports movies. “I realized people wanted more, and they wanted it faster,” he says. “You could create something that was at once a powerful, complete movie in its own right, and yet was also a series of chapters that could stand on their own.”
Perlman’s first notable take on that formula was his successful Extreme Skiing film series, which he started in 1987. Shortly after, Perlman decided to film and produce his own rockclimbing movies while producing a shoot at Lake Tahoe’s Cave Rock for a Discovery Channel program. On location it took about ten people to hoist the 200-plus-pound house cameraman into position.
“I thought how much better it would be to have a real climber who was comfortable and fast to get shots a climber would intuitively understand,” Perlman says. “That was me.”
After the successful release of Masters of Stone I in 1990, Perlman produced, on average, one video every two to three years throughout the 1990s. He showed a young Chris Sharma on Surf Safari (5.14a), Alex Huber working La Rambla (5.14c) at Siurana, Spain, and Fred Nicole cranking Martini Roof (V12) in Hueco Tanks. In between the third and fourth installments, he picked up a Sports Emmy in 1996 for his camera work shooting Oxx and Steve Sutton BASE jumping in Utah, for the Outdoor Life Network show “Adventure Quest.” Along the way, he built the now-widespread audience for fast-paced climbing videos.
Perlman can’t put his finger on what specifically drives him, whether he’s establishing new routes at Donner Summit or working on a film project, but that drive has helped motivate many people with whom he’s worked — and it’s also rubbed others the wrong way. While he describes his father as a mellow, easy-going man, Perlman himself is “not that guy.”
All-around rock ace Steph Davis admits that she initially had reservations about working with Perlman, but her first impression wasn’t a lasting one. When she free soloed Coyne Crack and other Indian Creek routes during their first shoot, he reminded her not to endanger herself for the camera.
“People might wonder if he’s egging people on to do things, but he’s really adamant not to push people,” Davis says. “He can seem very abrasive and just so, so driven — but it turned out I love working with him.” Perlman explains his intensity as “expecting people to be great.” If they’re not, he says, “We start having problems.”
That may have to do with the fact that Perlman doesn’t want to just show people climbing. He sees himself as a storyteller, just as the climbers are telling their own stories, often done in re-creations of events. These climbers aren’t just athletes, then. They’re performers, Perlman says, likening his work with climbers as something like a musical duet — sometimes it’s structured, sometimes there’s more riffing and improvisation, with Perlman responding to their movements.
Potter had just become the second person to solo Astroman, after Peter Croft’s 1987 ascent, when Perlman ventured to Yosemite to shoot him on the route in 2000. The day before Perlman’s cameras rolled, he and Potter climbed the route together so Perlman could string his lines, review his angles, and compose his shots, even planning when to change film.
“Especially on the Enduro Corner, I knew that the clock would be ticking,” Perlman says. “This wasn’t a situation where I could ask anybody to wait while I changed rolls.” There wasn’t much talking between photographer and subject that day or the next, as “a lot of [Potter’s] best performances are when he is in the flow and feeling spontaneous and comfortable,” Perlman says. “The elaborate planning is my job.”
Potter says Perlman keeps a cool head. “On the wall he’s very direct. He doesn’t mess around or beat around the bush. We always talk and plan it out beforehand and stick to the plan. On the wall or when there’s rad shit going on — death sequences — he is really calm, but very aware. He gives a very relaxed feeling.”
It doesn’t hurt that Perlman still climbs 5.12 well into his 50s, Potter says. “He’s a really good climber. He was soloing around on El Cap to get shots. The guy’s pretty bad ass.”
The late Dan Osman was a keystone in Perlman’s climbing films, speed soloing, climbing running waterfalls, crashing his bike, rope jumping, and sending hard sport routes. To Perlman, Osman epitomized the role of performer-climber.
“Dan Osman was a showman. He had one of the most elegant lines of movement, of athleticism, that I’ve ever seen,” Perlman says. “His climbing was more like art than sport. As an artist, the closer his communication would be with me, the better chance his work would be his best. We would talk about movements. He would wait for me to get a set up, take a moment for me to frame up a position and be happy with it, then he’d move.”
In the mid-1990s, Osman started pushing the limits of rope-jumping, leaping from greater and greater heights. He’d experimented with rope-jumping for Perlman’s cameras before, but his Yosemite jumps, many of which Perlman filmed, were a huge step up.
Osman had his biggest rig to date set up on the Leaning Tower in October 1998, when he was arrested in Yosemite on unrelated charges. After Perlman put a lien on his house to help post Osman’s bail, he made Osman promise he’d take down the rigging system. But Osman jumped again, after the rigging had been exposed to weeks of intermittent sun, rain, and snow. He died when a safety knot in his 950-foot jump line broke, plunging him into the rocks and trees below. It wasn’t media attention that drove Osman to take that last record-setting jump; no one was there to record it.
|Dan Osman “wet-tooling” Eagle Falls, an indelible
image from Eric Perlman’s Masters of Stone IV.
It was just too beautiful of a system for Osman to pass up, according to Perlman. In retrospect, he says he’s only angry that his friend is gone, “and the good times you could share — like watching our kids grow up, and doing adventures together, and getting great shots and having a great time — that is gone.” “Eric was like a brother to Dano,” Potter says. “When big things like that happen, one way is to go into a shell and not want to be hurt again. He did the opposite, opening up more.”
Still, Perlman wasn’t able to look at the footage of Osman for nearly two years. When he was finally comfortable enough to look at what he had, Perlman decided that he wanted to put together a tribute in Masters of Stone V to Osman.
“A lot of water had to go under the bridge before I was ready to look at it,” he says. “When you make a movie, you live with the footage. You live the people. You may spend an hour shooting somebody, but then you live with them for many, many hours in the editing room.”
I’ve spent my life looking for signs of the profound human spirit — those rare individuals who demonstrate what’s inside them,” he says. “All the different elements, the media I use, they all contribute, are all part of the synergy of what I’m trying to accomplish.” Perlman isn’t talking about which rare individuals are in the next Masters of Stone or when it might come out. He says he has footage, which he could use to release a movie in the next year or two, but then again he might not. “I have to feel new levels are being achieved,” he says. “That’s happening now.”
Andrew Becker is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. This is his first feature for Climbing.
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