New film documents Lander’s climbing history

By Kelsey Dayton
— July 9, 2013

Amidst the limestone cliffs of Wild Iris, there is a route where the rock bulges away from the wall. Todd Skinner discovered it. His wife Amy Skinner, now Underwood, climbed it and named it after a line in a book where a rancher describes Wyoming as nothing but wind and rattlesnakes.

Todd Skinner would go on to discover dozens of routes in the Lander area before he died in 2006, but Wind and Rattlesnakes remains a classic climb at Wild Iris.

Kelsey Dayton

“Not only is it this iconic route, (the name is) also a short and sweet summarization of Wild Iris,” said Kyle Duba, 28.

It is also the name of Duba’s new film which debuts this week at the International Climber’s Festival. It documents the history of climbing in Lander, the sport’s influence on the community and where the sport is headed.

Lander’s history is tied to miners trying to strike it rich, pioneers moving across the country on the historic trails, ranchers settling the prairie and the railroad bringing people to the West, giving the town the reputation of “where the rails end and the trails begin.”

But in more recent years when people think of Lander they think of climbing. In 1965 Paul Petzoldt started the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander. The community also served as a starting point for mountaineering expeditions into the nearby Wind River Mountains. But it didn’t really become a rock climbing destination until Skinner and a few other climbers like Greg Collins arrived and began developing routes in easily accessible Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris, Duba said. Word spread among the climbing community and soon people were coming to see for themselves the abundance and variety of climbing. Many of them stayed.

Duba wanted to tell that story. He wanted a film that was more than capturing hard moves set to cool music.

“I decided I wanted to tackle the story of Lander,” he said.

***

Talk of a film documenting Lander’s climbing history ruminated for years in the climbing community, said Brian Fabel, executive director of the climber’s festival. But no one took the initiative.

Duba set out to tackle the project in December 2011, aided by grants Fabel helped secure. Duba filmed on the weekends and after work, capturing climbing, but also interviewing current and past Lander climbers.

Kyle Duba, left, films at “Suicide Point” for his film “Wind and Rattlesnakes; the Birth of a Western Climbing Town,” which debuts Thursday during the International Climbers’ Festival. (Photo Courtesy Kyle Duba — click to enlarge)

He unearthed a story deeper and more fascinating than Fabel imagined. He found a story beyond the athletic feats happening on nearby cliffs.

“It’s the story of a culture in a community and how these people shaped that community over time,” Fabel said.

In the grand scheme of history, Lander’s climbing scene is young.

“People say ‘way back in the 90s,’” said Steve Bechtel a local climber and author of a guidebook to the area.

Guide books, like Bechtel’s, only record route names and snippets of the history, like who is credited with the first ascent. The history is passed down in stories in the climbing community, but already many of the area’s pioneers have moved elsewhere taking a little bit of the history with them, Bechtel said.

Duba’s video, especially the interviews, is a way to preserve that history and document the stories from the people who were there and lived it.

“Once it’s captured on video,” Bechtel said, “we have it forever.”

***

Duba first went rock climbing when he was 12 years old in Boy Scouts growing up in Spokane, Wash. He started climbing regularly in college and became obsessed.

BJ TIlden climbs in the film “Wind and Rattlesnakes; the Birth of a Western Climbing Town.” (Photo from the film “Wind and Rattlesnakes; the Birth of a Western Climbing Town” — click to enlarge)

“It takes you to some of the most beautiful places in the world where you are interacting with the landscape in a way that is much more intense and personal than say just hiking,” he said.

As a climber he’d come to know a 40-foot span of rock intimately, learning each crimp and pocket in the stone, perhaps visiting it multiple times before solving its puzzle and reaching the top.

It was in college at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., that Duba also discovered film, taking classes on the side while studying photography and graphic design.

He arrived in Lander for an internship in video production with the National Outdoor Leadership School in 2009. Six months later they hired him full-time.

Outside of work Duba created a couple of short films — one on climbing in Lander, another on bouldering in Utah. They were well received, but Duba wanted to do something bigger than just filming talented athletes climbing hard routes. He wanted to tell a story.

Kyle Duba combines his love of film and climbing with his new movie that documents the history of climbing in Lander. (Photo Courtesy Kyle Duba — click to enlarge)

And as he began filming his newest climbing film, he knew he’d found one to tell.

“All of a sudden it became this archaeological exploration to dig up the information,” he said.

While the film is a history lesson of the area, there’s still plenty of climbing footage. When Skinner died it could have been the end of Lander’s developing climbing scene, Duba said. Instead it continued to grow.

“There was a re-energizing of spirit and psych of the climbers here post Todd’s death,” Duba said.

Duba wanted to capture that renewed enthusiasm featuring new developments in bouldering and new sport climbing routes in the film.

Film was the perfect medium, able to capture the beauty of Lander, Duba said. Climbing comes alive on the screen. And recognizable names from the sport become characters with their own vernacular.

“Hearing their voices and the tone and the way (the people interviewed) speak, adds so much depth to their character in a way a guidebook can’t do,” he said.

The project took hundreds of hours of Duba filming and editing. The result is an oral and visual history of climbing in Lander with a look to the future of the sport and the community.

The film will be screened in Lander again later in the summer and will eventually be available online. Duba also is hoping to enter it into outdoor and adventure film festivals. Duba also plans to share the film with high schools around Wyoming.

While the film’s mission was to record Lander’s climbing history, Duba said, it’s also meant to inspire the next generation of climbers.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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