It doesn’t take long for Renan Ozturk to outdistance me on the trail.
I’m hiking up Quandary Peak, a fourteener outside Breckenridge, with the mountaineer and filmmaker as part of a volunteer trail work day with the Colorado 14ers Initiative. Well, actually, I’m not quite hiking with him. I’m a bit behind, huffing and puffing, while he’s trotting goatlike up the mountain.
But he’s tired, too. Not from the exertion of the trail, but from life. He just returned from spearheading the filming of Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s recent bike-to-climb mission to Southeast Alaska’s notorious Devils Thumb for National Geographic. Lasting from May through August, the trip involved 2,300 miles of biking from Colorado to British Columbia, sailing up to Alaska, and then traversing the infamous Devils Thumb skyline. As the project’s director, as well as cinematographer and photographer, Ozturk shadowed them every step of the way.
“The whole plan was to try and document it in real time, with no re-creations,” said Ozturk, whose 1.1 million Instagram followers cling to his posts like he does mountain faces. “Half of the climbing films you see include fake re-creations, set up to mimic the actual ascent, because it’s so hard to capture the actual moment. But we were trying to be totally authentic and got super lucky. We were granted a window to not only see the peak, but for them to climb it. That doesn’t happen too often.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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He’d only just returned home to Ridgway before driving up here with his wife, Taylor, as an ambassador for event sponsor Tincup Whiskey. Not bad for a rest day, trudging up to 12,500 feet to move rocks. “Truthfully, we’re pretty exhausted,” he said between breaths — mine, not his — hauling rocks as if they were packages of dehydrated food. “I’m dialing it back a bit now; things have been a bit out of control. I’ve been on a lot of expeditions over the past couple years.”
As a sought-after filmmaker, that’s par for the course. And, indeed, he has been busy. Last summer he did a trip for National Geographic chronicling the Northwest Passage for its “Lost in the Arctic” film, retracing the footsteps of legendary Arctic explorer John Franklin. To do so, they sailed from Maine to Greenland and then through the Arctic to Alaska. “We even got stuck in the ice for a while, just like they did,” Ozturk said of the Disney film. He’s making another one for Yeti coolers from the perspective of the Inuit people.
He also joined another National Geographic expedition to the South Sandwich Islands near Antarctica to film a documentary in search of the world’s eighth known lava lake, “another pretty long trip that involved a lot of travel.” This followed the 2021 release of “Sanctity of Space,” about a three-attempt climb of Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth with fellow mountaineers Freddie Wilkinson and Zack Smith, while weaving in the history and photography of Brad Washburn. The film tour itself would’ve been tiring for most people. “That was a long passion project and it was pretty tricky,” he said. “But it came out well.” And that film tour came just after the release of “The Ghosts Above,” an attempt to solve the mystery of the first person to climb Mount Everest by searching for the body of mountaineer Sandy Irvine, who disappeared on the mountain in 1924.
If anyone has the chops and energy to pull all of this off, it’s Ozturk.
“Renan to me is a modern age polymath, resembling the greats of history,” said pro skier Cody Townsend, who has worked with Ozturk on several shoots. “His ability to combine art, storytelling, cinematography and athletic feats is nothing short of extraordinary, but to do it at such a high scale in each field feels almost impossible. He’s an extraordinary listener, a person who listens to the land, listens to the stories and listens to inspiration and turns them into art, stories and athleticism.”
Launched from an art class at Colorado College
A longtime member of The North Face’s athlete team, Ozturk was born in Germany and grew up in Rhode Island before moving west to attend Colorado College. His last class there, he said, was an art class, “which kind of stuck with me,” and launched him on a career as an artist. After graduating, he fell into a nomadic climbing life. Friends dropped him off in Utah’s Indian Creek in a rainstorm, where he found climbing partners and began life as a “dirtbag climber,” doing artwork and climbing.
“I dedicated years of my life to living in a tent, be it climbing in our national parks or in the Himalayas,” he said. “Every painting I’ve ever made was born on an expedition; I’d lug large cotton canvases on my back and sometimes even extract natural pigments from the earth to bring these landscapes to life.”
From 2008 to 2011, he joined two expeditions as cinematographer and subject to climb and film India’s Meru, nearly dying in between while skiing in the Tetons during a shoot. After co-directing the ski film “Into the Mind” in 2012 and winning National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year Award in 2013, his work on the “Meru” film, which shares the story of his quest with Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin to summit on of alpinism’s top prizes, the 4,000-foot wall known as the “Shark’s Fin,” helped the film win the 2015 Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The adventures and accolades kept coming.
In 2014, just before “Meru” was released, he joined a team on a butt-kicking, failed attempt to climb 19,140-foot Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain that had been summited only once before. “Meru is much more technical and sustained, but the logistics and jungle on Hkakabo Razi were pretty exhausting,” he said. “It took something out of us in a different way. Both are up there as the two most intense and challenging expeditions of my life.”
Largely that’s because he’s not only participating, but doing so with camera in tow, always with an eye toward the final product. “Renan possesses the rare ability to meld high stakes mountaineering with filmmaking, enabling him to capture imagery most of us can only ever dream of,” said world-class mountaineer Emily Harrington, who joined him on Hkakabo Razi. “It takes an incredibly unique skill set to have the experience to be in the highest, most exposed places on Earth with a camera in hand. He’s one of the most creative and driven individuals in the industry.”
“Meru” and “Sanctity of Space” are similar films, Ozturk added, for their long-form storytelling, yet “Sanctity,” released six years later, shows a settling of the snowpack, so to speak, or level of maturity reached almost like an aged wine. “It’s become so much more of a story about the joy of mountaineering,” he said, “which is why we all do this in the first place.”
Technology has only helped the storytelling get easier, he added. On “Meru” they used bullet cameras and first-generation mirrorless cameras for the first time, making capturing those on-the-spot moments easier. “Later, for ‘Sanctity,’ we used the first full-frame mirrorless camera, which you can use to create a cinematic look,” he said. “That’s always been the Holy Grail for me: Bring back something beautiful and emotional that answers the question of why we climb, which has always been hard to explain. You need to create an emotion.”
Smaller cameras make it easier than ever
Calling today’s era the “golden age of mountaineering and filmmaking,” he added that technology is now making cameras small enough that it’s easier to document expeditions. On his most recent trip with Caldwell and Honnold, Ozturk tried as much as possible to just let them do their thing. “As a director I’ve found that the best thing is to encourage them to do what they do best and just get out of the way.”
The same could be said for the teams he puts together. “He brings a lot to the table,” said 20-year cinematographer Pablo Durana, who worked with Ozturk on Caldwell and Honnold’s expedition this summer as well as an expedition to Mount Vincent in Antarctica two years ago for Netflix’s mini-series “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet.” “He knows how to build a good team and share the stoke and is clearly comfortable in that environment. He’s relentless in his creativity and is always pushing to get that next shot. And there’s no ego involved. He’s very selfless; you don’t feel any of the typical hierarchy with him.”
When filming the world’s best, you don’t want to step on any toes, even if they’re clad with mountaineering boots, Durana explained. “It’s a niche,” he said. “We’re filming with the best climbers in the world so we need to keep up with them but not interfere with what they do. We don’t want to impact their experience, but document it in as fluidly as possible without tarnishing their experience. In Alaska, they did their thing and it was just up to us to keep up with them and document it without slowing them down. Renan was great at that.”
With cameras’ sizing now allowing the subjects to shoot as well, storytelling, Ozturk added, is easier than it’s ever been, even if some of the feats aren’t, as illustrated by Caldwell’s “Dawn Wall” film and Honnold’s “Free Solo.”
“Anyone who’s creative can tell their own story now,” said Ozturk, adding it’s also helped the oft-overlooked Sherpas get heard as well, as evidenced by the Jen Peedom film “Sherpa.” Ozturk served as high altitude director on the film that illuminated the deaths of 16 Sherpas in an avalanche on Everest in 2014. “Now, every professional athlete is a content creator to some extent. Some do more product feedback and R&D for brands, while others do more film work. It’s leveled the playing field for people without as much opportunity. In the past, you needed an entire crew to put together a good film; now you can do it on a much tighter budget.”
All, this, he added, has helped the general public become more aware of climbing than ever. With people like Caldwell and other high-profile climbers based in Colorado, it’s also shined a light on the Centennial State.
“Colorado is a breeding ground for both some if the world’s best climbers, guys like Tommy, as well as outdoor filmmakers,” said Ozturk, rattling off such names as Pete Mortimer and Nick Rosen of Sender Films and Nick Waggoner of Sweetgrass Productions. “And there’s an advantage going on expeditions in places like the Himalayas when you leave from a place at altitude like Colorado. Plus, the whole mountain culture and vibe is great here. And Telluride has the best mountain film festival out there.”
Of course, Ozturk also realizes there are risks to his chosen vocation. He’s had more than a few friends die in the mountains, a reminder of which came last September when Telluride’s Hilaree Nelson, who had been with him on Hkakabo Razi, died while climbing Nepal’s Manaslu. “I think our generation has experienced more deaths than others,” he said. “This rise of outdoor tech has helped fuel this, especially with today’s social media culture. But people are pushing themselves super hard as well.”
While he hasn’t necessarily toned things down — well, his last two expeditions for National Geographic at least involved some boat travel — he’s more deliberate. “I tend to get hired for the type of stuff that no one else wants to do,” he said. “It makes me want to be smart and make good choices. Of course, that’s hard when you’re hanging around with guys like Tommy and Alex.”
Now, when not filming and climbing, he’s settled into his home in Ridgway, where he bases his production company Expedition Studios. And he’s continuing to diversify, wearing multiple hats as well as his helmet as a commercial and documentary filmmaker, and a photojournalist for outlets like Sony and National Geographic. On the commercial front, he’s directed and shot campaigns for such companies as Apple, Google, DJI, Nike, Honda, Corona and West Virginia Tourism. “It’s an extra flight from Denver whenever I travel and have to get back home, but it’s totally worth it,” he said of his home in the San Juans. “But it’s such a privilege to live in a place like this with so much beauty and open space right out your door. It’s pretty inspirational.”
So, you can understand why he’s a bit tired on the trail today. When we’re through with our work, like getting off a peak before weather sets in Ozturk and Taylor quickly hop back on the road and hightail it back to home, trying to beat the September storm that already dusted us and the flanks of Mount Quandary. Then he’ll be on the road again to Denver, this time for a media event for Jason Momoa’s Meili Vodka brand.
Sure, he’s resting and smelling the roses. But he’s still pretty busy.