From a landscape perspective, the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier takes center stage in The Sanctity of Space, a film directed by Freddie Wilkinson and Renan Ozturk. The Great Gorge, incised by the Ruth Glacier in the central Alaska Range, is home to the Tooth Traverse, a multi-peak enchainment the directors lionize. Beginning with the Sugar Tooth, on to the Eye Tooth, Bear Tooth, and iconic Mooses Tooth, the Tooth Traverse is painstakingly documented as Ozturk, Wilkinson, and for a few attempts, Zack Smith, forge a path on the enchainment.
A few minutes into the film, Wilkinson dreamily states, “who knows why some ideas spark into obsessions? But this one took seven years, and it all started with a black and white photograph.”
These words begin a parallel narrative as the filmmakers explore the life of Bradford Washburn, the man who captured the inspirational image referenced by Wilkinson. Washburn, a revered mountaineer, cartographer, and director of the Boston Museum of Science, is also a renowned aerial photographer. Within the climbing community, Washburn’s generosity with his time and route advice, often with his annotated photographs, are legendary. Throughout this 90-minute visual spectacle, I was left satisfied that the film sufficiently distills Washburn’s breadth of curiosity, artistry, and all-around acumen. Washburn died in 2007 at the age of 96.
The directors embrace an ambitious task: weave together their Tooth Traverse attempts, and misgivings with the quest, while illuminating Washburn’s expansive accomplishments. For example, a pilot unceremoniously drops off Washburn and Robert Bates in 1937 as they begin their epic first ascent of Mount Lucania (17,190 ft). Soon after, the narrative cuts away, and we redirect to the Great Gorge, where Ozturk, Wilkinson, and Zack Smith brew up in the dark, moments from ascending step one of the Tooth Traverse, the Sugar Tooth. Such editing creates a cliffhanger to good effect, but also a fleeting sense of heavy handedness as the film interweaves Washburn’s exploits and the lives of Wilkinson, Ozturk, and Smith. Already immersed in Washburn lore and hooked by the film’s storyline and Alaska Range cinematography, I could easily follow the parallel narratives. For those less keen on climbing, or the granularities of Washburn’s cameras, for instance, you might, sometimes, need to refocus. But, Ozturk’s and Wilkinson’s storytelling instincts are deft; they keep the narrative arc relatively tight.
I’ve watched the film three times over a few weeks. Films of this genre, think Meru, Dawn Wall, and Free Solo are an escape for me. Caught up like many of us are in “real life,” I seek the distraction and vicarious solace these films offer. The title alone of this film, The Sanctity of Space, is worth meditating on. I imagine each of us has a place bordering on holy. And I suspect for many readers, those places are remote, snow-filled, and involve ascending and then sliding on snow. As much as anything, the film pays homage to those seeking desolate yet life-affirming spaces.
Wilkinson describes the Tooth Traverse as an obsession. And maybe it was. Obsessions carry with them negative connotations, some of which the film highlights. Ozturk, Wilkinson, Smith, and Washburn all illustrate enviable drive too. Part of what ignites that drive is finding and moving through those reverential spaces. We’re lucky Washburn reimagines many of those spaces with his aerial photography and exquisite maps. And we’re fortunate Ozturk and Wilkinson bring us along on their journey. The Sanctity of Space may be the visual and narrative medicine you need as we hurtle towards next winter.
You can find information about streaming The Sanctity of Space here.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.