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Renan Ozturk climbing in Alaska

Interviews

In Conversation With Renan Ozturk

Following the announcement that Pelorus is teaming up with Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson to provide an epic once-in-a-lifetime experience for guests at Alaska-based Sheldon Chalet, we caught up with Ozturk – celebrated and award-winning mountaineer, photographer, and filmmaker – to hear about his experiences.

Alaska

The Sanctity of Space is a brand-new feature film by Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson debuting in May 2022, having been filmed in the Denali National Park over a period of five years in Alaska. Inspired by the life and legacy of explorer, mountaineer, photographer, and pioneering cartographer Brad Washburn, this film is testament to Washburn, who pushed the boundaries of what was possible.

The Sanctity of Space is a testament to the enduring legacy of Brad’s life and work. Having climbed and explored all over the world, what is it about Alaska that has captivated you and kept you coming back to the Denali National Park?

“I think what’s special about Alaska is that it’s some of the most intact, thickest glaciers in the world. And it just feels huge and alive, and much more so even than Mount Everest in the Himalayas. The Ruth Glacier, especially right below the chalet, is 4000 feet thick. And a lot of our climbing for The Sanctity of Space and what you experience at the chalet is interacting with a glacier that’s thick and vibrant and still just this massive river of ice. You don’t really get that in a lot of other places. Obviously, that’s also combined with some of the largest walls in the world. They’re much larger than things like El Capitan and Yosemite, and that’s just what’s visible above the glacier. There’s also that 4000 feet below making it some of the largest walls in the world.”

You have spoken of the feeling of discovering a new climb as being ‘like falling in love’. Your love affair with The Tooth Traverse stretched over many years, how do you reflect on your relationship with the route and the project?

“I think it’s something that develops over time.

These quote on quote, love affairs with the mountains, with a landscape – and then in the case of The Sanctity of Space, was also extended to telling the story of Brad Washburn and his ethos of exploration. For us, this became part of the love affair, sharing the way that he looked at these places and not only going there to conquer these mountains, but always developing this depth of knowledge, whether it was making maps or chartering first ascents and surveying from the summits, making the Boston Museum of Science. It was all of these things. For us that started to become even more important than telling the story of the climb itself.”

Alaska, credit Renan Ozturk
Sheldon Chalet, Alaska, credit Burkard

Photography

You came to photography relatively late after previously focusing on painting rather than photographing the beautiful landscapes that you were exploring. How has photography changed the way you view the mountains and has it changed the way you approach your adventures?

“I was a landscape artist before I was ever a photographer, so I always had this element of art that was mixed with climbing, and they always went hand in hand. And for me, photography and filmmaking was always just an extension of that. So it’s really just hard to separate photography from climbing and it’s just all part of the same experience.

Climbing

Climbing partners often have a symbiotic relationship with each other that seems to allow for an unspoken understanding between two climbers that know each other well. How has your climbing relationship developed over the years and how does it feel to move through the mountains with a partner that you know so well?

“When you’re climbing, these are some of the deepest relationships you’ll ever have in your life, because it’s true when they say that you’re literally holding the other person’s life in your hands. And especially for the climbing that we did on the Tooth Traverse, often we’re moving together and we’re trusting each other not to fall. We’re essentially free soloing just connected together by a rope, and if any one person were to fall it would be catastrophic. So when you go through those experiences and you give each other that trust, you’re bonded in a way that’s almost like a really intense war experience, and it’s hard to explain how deep that ties you together.

Climbers in Alaska, credit Renan Ozturk

Not to mention the endorphins that you feel after moving for 30 hours through these landscapes and come upon a twilight where some of the largest mountains in the world are poking through the clouds – you know those moments are special. It creates a deep lasting bond that allows us to have more empathy in other parts of our lives as well.”

For so long climbing has been defined by a search for first ascents and new routes. Is that still your focus? What are the potential future adventures and expeditions that are capturing your imaginations at the moment?

“You know, I think deep down I will always want to do first ascents.

Both Freddie and I still have some unfinished business. A first ascent in the Ruth Gorge with Alex Honnold that we’ve been working on together. But I think for both of us, our motivation now is to tell greater stories, things in the realm of social justice and conservation, that also bring this adventure element in. And The Sanctity of Space is just the beginning of that.

It was a film where there is that adventure element and I think some audiences just want to be entertained to see this type of first ascent climbing, but at the same time, you’re able to learn a new perspective on exploration through Washburn and his work.

Local Communities

In The Ghosts Above you spoke about wrestling with the fact that you are both a champion of indigenous communities and a colonialist. Could you tell us more about this struggle and how these two views impact the way you approach your travels?

The Ghosts Above is a film about Everest. And I felt like I was doing the best I could to be a champion for indigenous communities. But at the same time, I mentioned that it’s sort of impossible not to be a colonialist, because of the history that’s there. And I think that’s true in almost all the places we travel, almost all of the expeditions. Explorer: The Last Tepui, a Disney Plus show that also just came out, was another example of that. Where we had 70 Amerindian porters helping us through the jungle to climb these big walls. And for me, I just try to work as hard as I can to document their lives and their perspectives along the way.

Even though the finished product may tell the story of the white Explorer, and it may not go as deep as I would want, all we can do is continue to try to shape our projects around the perspective of indigenous communities. And I think that’s how we need to move the needle as we look at all these projects.”

Sherpa, the brilliant 2015 film that you worked on, provided a visceral insight into the complex relationship between the Sherpa community and the international climbers who rely on the unparalleled skills and knowledge of Sherpa guides in order to reach the summit of Everest. Have you noticed changes or developments in recent years and how would you characterise the current state of the relationship?

“Firstly, Sherpa isn’t a title of a job. It’s not a porter. It’s the name of an ethnicity who lives in the Mount Everest region of Tibetan descendants. There’s a lot of different high-altitude workers that are not just of the Sherpa ethnicity now – Nimsdai Purja from 14 Peaks, a documentary that a lot of people have seen, he’s not of Sherpa ethnicity. All these high-altitude porters, their relationship is changing.

And I think that 14 Peaks is a really good example, where they’re realising that they can climb these peaks, supporting their fellow Nepalis or fellow Tibetans. And through that attention and that media, the western world is also understanding the power that they have to really determine the summits and giving them the credit that they deserve, giving them the same monetary benefit that they deserve, that a lot of Western guides and climbers are getting from climbing these mountains. And I think we’re moving in a really positive direction there.”

You were on Everest in 2019, the year that Nims Purja’s infamous queue photo went viral. What is your view on the popularity and sustainability of climbing the world’s highest peak?

“Of course Everest, and sending more masses of the highest point on Earth, is probably the least sustainable thing I could possibly imagine.

Everest

But at the same time, I think the pull of that adventure is something that will prevail forever, and it’ll change and grow and twist and turn in different ways. I think there’s a way to find beauty in it, even though it’s perceived by most of the world as crowded and trashed. I think there’s a way to flip that narrative and look at it as a way to bring humanity together.

There is a way, at least when I was on the mountain, I saw people of different ethnicities from all around the world. You know, rich and poor and the high-altitude workers, the Tibetans, the yaks, everyone’s kind of suffering these hardships together and smiling and supporting each other along the way. And I hope that this is kind of the part of Everest that people realise exists and learn from rather than just a lot of these pretty standard stories of Western climbers conquering the mountain or people climbing the mountain for other selfish reasons.

And I know there’s bigger and bigger clean up missions that will be mounted. So there is there is potential that the mountain will get cleaner and managed better. I think it can only go in that direction, even though it probably will never lose its appeal. And every year there will be more and more of an influx of people to that special place.”

Many of the images featured in this article courtesy of Renan Ozturk