Conrad Anker has climbed Mount Everest three times and has ascended most of the world’s loftiest peaks in remote Patagonia, Antarctica, Alaska and Pakistan. His exploits have been captured on film in "The Wildest Dream," about explorer George Mallory, whose body he discovered on Everest in 1999, and last year in "Meru," chronicling his harrowing expedition to Mount Meru in 2011.
Now Anker is back in front of the camera and on home soil in "National Parks Adventure," from filmmakers Greg and Shawn MacGillivray ("Everest," "Humpback Whales"). Narrated by Robert Redford, it marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was created by an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916.
There are 409 areas in the system, inlcuding parks, monuments, seashores, lakeshores and historic sites, so it would be impossible to include them all in a 45-minute film, but there’s a good balance between iconic places like Yosemite and Yellowstone and the lesser-known, such as Pictured Rocks National Seashore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There are 40 spotlighted locations, and all of them are breathtakingly photographed in IMAX 3-D.
"I love all the parks," says Anker, who grew up taking family trips to Glacier, Yosemite and Yellowstone and has hiked and climbed in many others. "But visiting Pictured Rocks in the middle of winter to do ice climbs was a great experience. It was my first time, and it was really special." Originally, that park wasn't going to be included, but an unusually warm winter and lack of snow in Yellowstone had the filmmakers considering alternatives. They trekked across a frozen lake by snowmobile to shoot the spectacular formations at Pictured Rocks, inside a cave covered in icicles, and enormous pinnacles of ice. Anker led his climbing companions Max Lowe, his stepson, and Rachel Pohl, a family friend, up a frozen waterfall.
"Moving the camera around was great fun," Anker recalls. "Not only did we have to move it around, we had to keep it warm. Cameras don't like cold temperatures." The huge IMAX camera was wrapped in heating pads and warmed in a propane-heated tent. The cold made the shoot extra challenging, "But the best shots are often when the weather is most inclement and everyone teams together," says Anker. "It's the same spirit of teamwork that goes into climbing."
There was one close call, though. "A big chunk of ice fell and missed the camera by about 6 inches," he relates. "There's only two in the world so you can imagine how hard it would be to find parts for it. It would have shut the shoot down."
Another memorable sequence was a climb to the top of the Three Penguins sandstone formation in Arches National Park in Utah. "We climbed it and a helicopter shot images of us up there. It's less than a minute in the movie, but it would take a week to get shots like that," Anker reveals.
On top of that, time was definitely money: the helicopter-mounted camera only held three minutes' worth of film, requiring landing to reload. The cost was about $1,000 per minute.
Shooting at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, made famous in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," presented its own set of problems. The IMAX camera had to be hauled up the formation's face to get the shot looking down at the climbers below. Cinematographer Michael Brown wrapped the camera in foam, attached it to a harness, and secured it to a 12-foot tripod with hardware and ropes.
Conrad's chosen route, El Matador, required tricky moves. "It's a crack that you stem your legs up, so it's very interesting visually. It's one of the most continuously challenging routes at Devils Tower, and the nature of the crack is that you're using all the features on it." He did not climb to the summit, however, and there was no aerial footage, out of respect for the Native Americans who hold Devils Tower sacred.
A specially rigged cable cam was also used to capture the towering sequoias in Yosemite in one continuous shot. For Anker, seeing "how old and majestic those trees are — some of them are 2,000 years old," was a highlight of the expedition. The film was two years in the making, including a year in the field.
Also included is a sequence recreating the camping trip naturalist John Muir took with Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to convince him to protect America's wilderness. Muir "was a man ahead of his time who had a deep vision, and his willingness to speak passionately and honestly with Teddy Roosevelt became a key to preserving the parks for the future," says Anker.
"Much of the best climbing in the United States is in national park sites. As climbers we really appreciate it, and we feel an obligation to be stewards. The wonderful message of this film is the wonders of our parks are approachable by anyone," he adds.
Anker sees the parks as the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life.
"We live an over-subscribed, digitized, hectic lifestyle. We all have smartphones screaming for attention. How do you balance that out? Go to natural places. That's the true benefit that I see in national parks, to get out in the solace of nature and come back rejuvenated."
Of course, he has a unique perspective. "When you're hanging from a cliff, up there with the birds, it's a whole different world," he says. "You feel very much part of nature, and because it's so challenging, you're living fully in the moment."
"National Parks Adventure" will play at museums and science centers with IMAX around the country this year beginning Feb. 12. Visit the movie's official website for more information.