World-class mountain athlete Sam Elias's new film is a lot more than just another reel of climbing and skiing porn. The two-part project, called My City, is about transcendence, about bridging the divide between urban and outdoor culture, and the people who live and thrive in both.
"I wanted to make something that shows how people are inspired by their surroundings," Elias said. "My City, it's just the concept of home."
The films focus on Salt Lake City's urban culture and nearby mountains. Elias, who's lived in Salt Lake intermittently since 1998, teamed up with director and producer Hennie van Jaarsveld to make the films, which they're hoping to release around Sept. 1. Headphone maker Jaybird, which is based in Salt Lake and has worked with other local athletes, sponsored the project.
Elias has first ascents on five continents, among other accomplishments, but he's always searching for more. He wants to find meaning in what he does, and he wants to make connections with people through climbing and skiing. In My City, which he calls a "personal freestyle project," he looks at his experience climbing and its similarities to the pursuits that animate other people's lives.
"It's just about that freedom, how it consumes me," he said. "You don't need to know anything about climbing to understand that thread—something you really care about, something you're willing to sacrifice for but that brings incredible joy."
For Elias, that love spans two worlds: one of concrete skyscrapers, the other of rock spires. The first of the My City films shows Elias training indoors at a Salt Lake gym, and then sport climbing in American Fork Canyon and bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon; there's backcountry skiing and vistas of the Wasatch mountain range. In the second, more urban-focused film, Elias takes to the streets on a longboard and interviews his tattoo artist, Jon Lang, a local painter and muralist. The outdoor-urban connection is a "cool dichotomy," said Lang, who is also a climber and backcountry skier. "Salt Lake is a great environment for that."
Lang, 32, was born and raised in Salt Lake. He lives and works near the city's railroad yards and is working on funding for a large mural in the industrial Granary District. In the film, Lang is interviewed while working on a tattoo of a kapala skull, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist symbol.
"I take the things that I care about seriously," Elias said. "I'm principled and a perfectionist. I'm an idealist. It makes me rigid and uncompromising...I guess it's mostly because I want to do things well in my life. I want to make my life—my relationships and my experiences—worthy."
Elias moved to Salt Lake from Detroit when he was 16 to pursue his career as a ski racer. Eventually his love for in-bounds skiing developed into a greater love for the outdoors, at one point even taking him to a job at Miguel's Pizza, an eatery entwined with the climbing culture of the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
When he returned to Salt Lake, it was as a pro athlete. Elias is now sponsored by outdoor heavyweights Black Diamond, Scarpa, and The North Face, among others.
"I wouldn't have moved there if it didn't have the very best things for me to follow my passion," he said.
Salt Lake's nearby rock and ice climbing and skiing are just as important to Elias as the city's downtown with its rail systems, bars, restaurants, and vibrant film and music scene.
"People in Portland are talking about Salt Lake City; people in New York are talking about Salt Lake City," he said. "It's definitely coming into its own."
Elias envisions making the two My City films into a single cut that he'll submit to film festivals. For producer and director van Jaarsveld, the films are a chance to showcase Salt Lake's underdog vibe to the world. While some people point to Utah's "stupid-ass liquor laws," and that Salt Lake may not have the most epic downtown scene, van Jaarsveld said, "we can hold our own."
Van Jaarsveld describes the films as a soul project. "We just make a thing about what we think is the best place to live," he said.
Of course, the problem with telling people about your favorite crag is that it gets crowded.
Van Jaarsveld says there is some debate locally about whether to tout Salt Lake as an outdoor mecca. He leans toward promoting it, saying that more diversity will make the scene cooler. More diversity, he says, will further blur the lines between outdoor enthusiasts and downtown urbanites. He thinks the films will appeal to people trying to find a balance between outdoor and urban life.
"There's been a lot more tight jeans and flannel and huge beards cropping up in the outdoor world," he said.