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Freedom High School videography teacher Jeff Vargen works the camera during his class at Freedom High School in Oakley, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Vargen is working on a full-length feature film about a controversial climb of Yosemite's El Capitan in 1982. (Dan Rosenstrauch/ Bay Area News Group)

By Rowena Coetsee

rcoetsee@bayareanewsgroup.com

OAKLEY -- Jeff Vargen had produced documentaries on a former Alcatraz inmate, Micronesia's version of the Olympics and the Daytona 500.

He'd worked on a reality TV series and made all kinds of corporate videos.

But the Freedom High School videography teacher had never seriously considered training his camera on the sport that had captivated him well over half his life.

Vargen not only hadn't found a story about rock climbing that was sufficiently compelling, but the outlets for a full-length film on a subject that typically has a niche audience were limited before the advent of Netflix and proliferation of TV channels.

"You make films for an audience -- you want people to see your work," said Vargen, 52.

And then one day he received a text message that changed everything.

A climbing buddy was planning to scale El Capitan with his girlfriend and they'd be taking a route featuring a section of rock so difficult that it had been navigated only once before.

"I just laughed," Vargen recalled. "First of all, nobody climbs El Cap in July because it's too hot and nobody climbs Wings of Steel. It hadn't been done in 29 years."

Then again, Ammon McNeely wasn't just a big wall climber: He's gone up El Capitan 75 times by more different routes than anyone and holds close to two dozen world records for speed climbing to the summit, including the 13 times he was the first to complete a route in one day.


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And he had piqued Vargen's curiosity.

The granite monolith that juts 2,900 feet into the sky from the valley of Yosemite National Park is world-renowned among rock climbers, topographic maps charting dozens of routes to the summit that have names like "Highway to Hell," "Pacemaker" and "Plastic Surgery Disaster."

But few ever had attempted Wings of Steel, an approximately 2,300-foot line up El Capitan's southwest face whose distinguishing characteristic is a 900-foot slab of sharply pitched stone so smooth that it offers no finger or toe holds.

To climb it requires rope ladders suspended by hooks that dig into edges of rock the width of a nickel. The ledges are so flimsy that they can break off under a person's weight, sending him plummeting to the last iron spike or rivet he hammered into the granite.

It's the sheer number and length of those falls -- 60 to 70 feet -- that makes Wings of Steel so unnerving and has discouraged virtually everyone from trying it, Vargen said.

"It's just plain scary," he said. "It's a dangerous climb, and even if I was good enough, I wouldn't want to do it. I wouldn't want to spend days falling."

But in 1982 two climbers did make the ascent, and their success triggered a vitriolic backlash from the tight-knit local rock climbing community that still simmers today. More seasoned athletes considered them upstarts who had intruded on their territory and laid claim to an untested route instead of paying their dues by first making other difficult climbs on El Capitan.

Critics also accused the young men of desecrating their revered rock, wrongly assuming they had "manufactured" a route by drilling lots of holes and using them for inserting temporary hooks instead of installing bolts that could be a permanent aid for others.

They received public tongue lashings and even death threats; several other climbers tried to derail the expedition at its outset by cutting the ropes the pair was using to haul provisions up from the base of the rock and defecating on them.

For nearly three decades no one else successfully navigated Wings of Steel until McNeely and his partner, Kait Barber, triumphed in July 2011. They shot video during the 13 days they were on the rock, and upon seeing it Vargen decided he had the basis for a film.

"They basically documented every inch of their climb," he said of the pair's narrative, which included descriptions of a rock avalanche and pair of peregrine falcons that perched nearby with their prey as well as the fall in which McNeely dislocated his shoulder.

Vargen began shooting that Labor Day weekend, climbing the first two segments of the rock alongside McNeely and Barber with a small Kodak video camera in hand.

Once he had enough footage, Vargen began interviewing other top climbers who knew El Capitan well to get their perspective on the accomplishment.

Over the next approximately 18 months, he traveled to Oakdale, Lodi, San Francisco and Concord to capture dialogue that included the first-person accounts of Richard Jensen and Mark Smith, who had first conquered Wings of Steel.

By February Vargen was ready to start condensing the raw footage, so he contacted a film editor he had known since college.

"I went to L.A. and begged," he said, noting that his friend isn't a rock climbing enthusiast and was initially hesitant about taking on a project that would mean investing hundreds of hours for no pay upfront.

But he, too, was won over.

"I told him the story and showed him some of the footage and he was hooked," Vargen said.

Between his trips to Southern California during school breaks, the two collaborated by exchanging versions of the movie on the Internet.

Vargen's currently on the ninth, and possibly final, iteration, after which he will add a music track and sound effects.

Titled "Assault on El Capitan," the film will have its first public screening in Yosemite later this month.

A handful of distributors have shown an interest in the movie, which Vargen predicts will air on TV's Nat Geo or the Discovery Channel because of theaters' reluctance to book any film that might not fill seats.

But Vargen believes "Assault on El Capitan" holds mass appeal because it transcends the world of rock climbing. It's an adventure movie, he says -- one about overcoming enormous odds that's set against a backdrop of angry debate.

"People can look at this and say, 'Now that's a good story,' " Vargen said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her on Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

'assault' screening
What: East Bay premiere screening of "Assault on El Capitan"
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 4
Where: 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette (library)
Tickets: $7
Information: Email assaultElCap@yahoo.com; or order tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com or www.dopemiller.com