The upcoming film’s co-director, Renan Ozturk, tells about the journey of conquering one of the world’s iconic ranges.


Making a film, especially a long-term passion project like Sanctity of Space, can take the filmmaker on a journey beyond his wildest dreams.

It was just a few years ago that Renan Ozturk first saw a simple photograph of a little-known ridgeline in the Central Alaska Range. His climbing partner and co-filmmaker Freddie Wilkinson showed it to him.

In the time since, Renan Ozturk has been led down a twisted rabbit hole in pursuit of a mountaineering objective that has revealed stories of history, culture and a kind of joy that only mother nature can provide. Now, after four years of piecing together and accomplishing the first ascent of The Tooth Traverse in May, 2012, Ozturk shares with a little bit of what that journey was like as their film “The Sanctity of Space,” which documented their climb, gets closer to its release.

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Why take the risk?

It turns out a film was never the point. After seeing the photograph of the Moose’s Tooth Massif taken by the legendary Bradford Washburn, Ozturk and Wilkinson set off to figure out one thing: how to piece together a route traversing the skyline depicted in the photograph. It took four years of planning and numerous visits to the range to piece together how this route might work, much like how Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had worked for years on planning their route up the Dawn Wall in Yosemite. Naturally, a number of people were saying this traverse along the famed Ruth Gorge was impossible. Enter the storyline about the unconquerable human spirit.

Once they realized a film of the effort would be possible, Ozturk says they wanted to make a piece that stood out amongst the many climbing and alpine films, which often show the agonizing difficulty and hardships of mountaineering. Instead, they wanted to make a film that showed the joys and thrills of climbing, of being in the mountains and reveling in the beautiful places on earth. They even dared to continue to answer the ever present question from those who don’t make it out into places like this: “Why take the risk?”

Disaster, Mt. Meru and the Tooth Traverse

Then, disaster. Renan suffered a near-fatal ski accident while filming in Jackson, Wyoming. This accident was also amidst the Mt. Meru project Renan was working on with Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin. Nevertheless, Renan made an incredible recovery to return to Mt. Meru as well as The Tooth Traverse. The story goes on.

But the many twists and turns of the filmmaking rabbit hole wouldn’t let the film just be about the traverse. It looks back at the inspiration for the project and delves into the story of the man who inadvertently ignited that inspiration in Ozturk and Wilkinson.

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Henry Bradford Washburn Jr.

Henry Bradford Washburn Jr. was a legend and a pioneer in more ways than even he was willing to admit. He was a mountaineer, photographer and cartographer, and he combined those skills to become among the first to use aerial photography to document and plan his mountaineering routes, many of which established first ascents. He often climbed with his wife, Barbara Washburn, who was a pioneer herself: she was the first woman to summit Denali.

Washburn’s thousands of stunning black-and-white images of Alaskan peaks provided incredible detail, thanks to his willingness to hang out of the side of a plane at 20,000 feet with a 50-pound 8×10 Fairchild aerial camera. As Renan delved deeper into Washburn’s story, he couldn’t keep from including this stunning history in the film. The Camp 4 team received permission to borrow Washburn’s camera amongst other items in the recreation scenes shot for “The Sanctity of Space.”

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Washburn didn’t consider himself an artist, despite sharing how he would wait for just the right light or for the mist in the mountains to be just so or for his insistence of including people in his photos to show the immense scale of the mountains. He saw himself more on the scientific side of the balance. He is credited with providing detailed maps from his aerial photography of well-known landmarks like the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, the Grand Canyon, Denali, Mt. Everest, and more. He also established the Boston Museum of Science in 1939.

Another aspect of the film will tell the story of the budding relationship between the Alaskan bush pilots and the mountaineers who hire them. There has been an incredible collaboration, possibly starting in earnest with Washburn’s work, as mountaineers work with the bush pilots to penetrate into the Alaskan mountains. They explored finding different places to land and figured out they could take off again by gunning the engine and running the plane off massive cliffs of rock, ice, and snow.

Showing the joy of mountaineering without dramatizing the story

Ozturk expects the film will draw a broad range of viewers and will possibly serve to cross-educate and inform diverse groups, from aviators, to explorers, to history buffs. The story of Washburn, he says, is one that has needed to be told for some time.

As a filmmaker, Ozturk admits the film could probably use a bit more conflict to entice the audience. This can be difficult to accomplish, he explains, when trying to show what a joy mountaineering can be instead of relying on dramatizing the story. Granted, there’s the conflict of accomplishing the traverse and the story of Washburn who pioneered his way into the history books. There’s even a melancholy tone surrounding a third climbing partner, Zach Smith, who started this adventure with Ozturk and Wilkinson, who in the end did not make the full traverse with them.

Nevertheless, Renan managed to sneak a rough-cut clip of the film into a private gathering of many of National Geographic’s top photographers only to captivate them.

“If the clip was able to hold the interest of such an experienced group of visual storytellers,” Ozturk said, “I think we’re probably on the right track.”

Sanctity of Space’s release date is tentatively scheduled for later this year. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for updates. 

Photo credit: Sanctity of Space / Brad Washburn Collection