Taylor Rees and Renan Ozturk are professional filmmakers and mountain climbers, though to leave it at that considerably undersells them. It’s like calling Copernicus a Polish stargazer. There’s just no common or formal usage that encompasses everything they do. It entails a lot of disappearing acts into under-discovered, intemperate zones. We all dream of this, of suddenly vanishing, unraveling the derangements of our sunups-to-sundowns, loosening the fissures of lunchtime to discover other worlds. We gaze at the sea and the mountains; mostly, the Discovery Channel has to suffice. But Rees and Ozturk dine out on this kind of stuff for a living.
Example #1: When they met in 2011, set up by a mutual friend in Jackson Hole, they decided to climb the 13,770-foot Grand Teton peak. It was a 24-hour first date in the heady tiller of rockfall and lupine sworl that wasn’t a big deal, really, until it was. The attraction was gravitational.
“By the end of the day, I think we were both committed,” says Rees, 30, who in addition to her alpinist chops (her given middle name is “Freesolo” — both parents were climbers) is a gifted photographer with a masters degree in environmental studies and film from Yale. They fell in love, no surprise, bought a house, adopted a dog, and started working together, buttressing one another in the kinds of aesthetic overlays that come so rarely in life.
“We realized very early on in our relationship that we clicked professionally,” she says. “And with Renan traveling eight months out of the year, work became a way for us to be together.”
Which is not to say it’s been all milkshakes and balloons.
“Because I’m a little more established in the industry,” says Ozturk, 35, “it’s hard sometimes for Taylor not to feel like I’m overshadowing her. There’s a respect that has to be treated carefully.”
“Having a partner who spends a lot of time risking their life,” Rees says, “you’re always sort of gasping, like, is it worth it? There’s jealousy mixed in with protection. We spinout sometimes.”
Last year, Rees and Ozturk took part in a punishing, two-month-long, National Geographic- and The North Face-sponsored, on-the-face-of it categorically insane expedition to Burma.
Climbing is probably the loneliest job in the world. There’s that tough, indifferent wall, an obstacle to be overcome internally and externally, with no real division between the two, and which pays huge dividends in self-reliance. Although, even a gym-rat belayer will tell you it’s also mutually illuminating, that the emotional demands are just so immense that partnering up can allow you to plumb the sport’s purest depths. Like, afterwards, hiking back down, your fingernails and calculations and blood and spit left behind on that storm-washed thing behind you, and here’s wifey/papi and dog to share in your glory.
Example #2: Last year, Rees and Ozturk took part in a punishing, two-month-long, National Geographic- and North Face-sponsored, on-the-face-of-it categorically insane expedition to Burma, where they’d hoped to summit Hkakabo Razi, Southeast Asia’s highest peak at 19,000 feet. It had been climbed once or twice before, but its exact height remained unverified. Ozturk was the expedition’s cinematographer, and he and Rees, who served as base camp manager, planned to make a film about it. As it turned out, nobody had quite anticipated the emotional/physical drainage ditch of a 135-mile jungle mud-slog preamble, piggybacked by a troublesome alpine ascent. Near the summit, relations among the six-person team soured. A 48-hour mountainside shouting match ensued, blood vendettas were sworn, that sort of thing. It didn’t matter. The weather turned them back 800 feet short of the top. For Rees and Ozturk, the debacle eloquently dramatized the hazards of multidimensional relationships on high-stakes expeditions, and they turned it into a 2015 short film, Down to Nothing, which won a cinematography award at the Telluride MountainFilm Fest.