The first time I encountered Taylor Freesolo Rees, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2011, she was assistant to a local naturalist who worked with tourists, pointing out goldfish that somebody had “liberated” into the area’s geothermal hot springs.
The second time I encountered Taylor Freesolo Rees — her middle name infused with an almost ludicrous promise of nail-biting adventure, like “Indiana” — she was in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic, a member of “one of mountaineering’s most dangerous journeys.” This expedition to the remote 19,000-foot peak of Hkakabo Razi was a bust: “Northern Burma, as it turns out, is no place to try to bring 27 duffle bags,” Rees later wrote on a blog post for the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. But her documentary of the aborted ascent, Down to Nothing, which she co-directed with Renan Ozturk, earned the festival’s 2015 cinematography award.
“Modernity, especially in America … it’s just so easy to fall asleep,” Rees recently told Women in the World from her home in Park City, Utah. “I think that’s why people turn to adventures: to wake themselves up.”
- Putao, Burma, 2015
- “To shorten the 200-mile walk from Putao to Hkakabo, we were able to do the first 80 miles on 2-stroke Chinese dirt bikes driven by a Hells Angels band of teenagers. It took three days, gripping the wooden stakes behind my back till my fingers bled in order not to fly off over the bamboo bridges or mud-slicked hills.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Base camp, Hkakabo Razi, 2015
- “Six Rawang porters and cooks stayed with me at basecamp for the two weeks that the team attempted the summit. We would wake to cold frosty mornings, no sun (thus no solar power for the sat phone), and the constant rumble of avalanches on the south side of the mountain. Joram always cooked breakfast, a corn pancake with honey, and tea. Surviving together with this incredible group of young Burmese was life changing for me, especially since we never once spoke a word of each others language.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Base of Hkakabo Razi, 2015
- “Often it’s not just climbers that go on these expeditions, but storytellers, and perhaps that’s the allure of exploration. To discover bits of who we are, exposed and raw on the fringes of our comfort zones. Solar panels and this satellite modem allowed our team to tell the story ‘as it happened’ for National Geographic and our personal channels.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Northern Burma, 2015
- “Spikey ridge spires of Hkakabo, the features in the mountain that were blurred out on Google Maps when we originally assessed the route from home. In the end, it was this complex matrix of gendarmes and the unrelenting winds that stopped the team short of the summit — its official height which still remains a mystery.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Bagan, Myanmar, 2015
- “We wanted to see the full diversity of the country on our way to Hkakabo, not only the remote regions but also the tourist destinations like Bagan. It was on this morning, while taking photos of the temples, that I met 11 year old Kisala who was selling bamboo bracelets with her mother. Eager to learn how to use the cameras, we ‘hired’ her every day after school to be our camera assistant for a week. We still keep in touch.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
Rees, who is 30, was born in Idaho, where both of her parents worked for the Forest Service. After they divorced, Rees grew up “all over” — Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts — and though she admired their careers as environmental engineers, she also embraced what she calls “the natural rebellious spirit.” This flowered at Pennsylvania State University, where, studying biology, Rees spent two summers with a professor in Greenland, observing how climate change was impacting the flowering period of plants. “I just wanted to hang out at the bar with the Inuits,” Rees recalls. This wasn’t disinterest so much as interest in a different area: “What’s going on with these people? What’s their understanding of the changing environment?”
Rees had noted how the seasonal influx of scientists seemed to sideline the knowledge of native residents. So during her second summer, she brought a video camera. “That was the first time I was interested in documenting the perspective of groups whose voices were generally left out of the conversation. Not always, but often.”
After college, Rees made more amateur films at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, where she worked with the Navajo as a substitute teacher. But she missed rock-climbing, which was, after all, the genesis of her middle name. “I did what everybody does: I bought a $500 pickup truck and drove to Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Bishop. I just climbed for as long as I could on what money I had left.”
Eventually, following a stint in Jackson Hole with the naturalist and a citizen science outfit named TreeFight, Rees took her cumulative experience to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. There, between ethnographic field trips to Alaska, she performed as Director of Programming for the Environmental Film Festival. Rees was also dating Renan Ozturk, the renowned artist, climber and filmmaker, who began helping her hone her storytelling skills as he documented events like Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of El Sendero Luminoso, in Mexico. (Ozturk and Rees are now engaged.) “I knew I wanted to get into humanitarian and environmental stories,” Rees says, and working with Ozturk seemed to offer an immediate opportunity. Plus, she says, “I’ve always loved climbing and getting a little scared.”
- The Great Salt Lake, 2013
- “Renan and I test our grit on the Stansbury Island mountain bike trail in the summer, and then come down to the reflection pools to play around until the sun sets.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Moab, Utah, 2012
- “I learned to climb with women. My friend Kendra in New Mexico, an incredible woman Teresa who I met and joined forces with during the months I lived out of my truck in Joshua Tree and Yosemite. I think there’s a femininity and grace in rock climbing that I can’t feel or experience in other outdoor sports.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Canyonlands, Utah, 2011
- “Indian Creek is one of the most treasured climbing meccas of the West — an endless series of buttresses with vertical splitter cracks to jam hands, feet, elbows, and sometimes your whole body into. It’s like upward dancing, on hot sandstone. The one thing in life that I can’t over complicate.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Taylor Freesolo Rees and Renan Ozturk, Gallery Mar, Park City, 2015.
- When Renan’s film MERU played at Sundance, I knew the hectic nature of all the film events would overwhelm him. He’s shy, and quiet. So I arranged a gallery exhibit of his original paintings to celebrate the softer side of ‘hard gnarly expedition films’ … which is his incredible gift for landscape painting. It was our haven to hide out in and meet other curious people during the Sundance madness.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, 2007.
- “We spent 2 weeks at a time in the hills below the Russel Glacier, conducting ecological surveys on plant emergence and caribou migration. In between the stints, I would wander through the small town of Kanger, usually down to the bank of the fjord where the sled dogs were kept.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
The expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic and North Face began in October 2014. Theoretically, it was supposed to be about five athletes climbing and measuring Hkakabo Razi’s height using GPS, which had never been done before. Just reaching the mountain required a punishing 151-mile trek along an old salt trade route, though, and it only got worse from there. The experience pushed Rees to her limit. While the athletes ascended Hkakabo Razi, she stayed below to manage base camp. “I was there with what started as 20 Rawang people. They usually wouldn’t go up that high [as porters]. They were in flip-flops and shorts. Our translator disappeared, so it was just me and 20 people I couldn’t speak a word with for two weeks. And half of them left. One got pneumonia. One had pre-existing malaria. It was intense.”
Again, Rees found herself drawn to the secondary narratives — not the endurance climb itself, but the people behind it, the plight of the Rawang villagers who were struggling against a government that, having decided their area had tourism value, had begun restricting their traditional practices; and the true cost of sponsored trips that are expected to deliver flashy, press-friendly results. “It was such a raw look at the bigger picture of what happens in mountaineering expeditions.”
This “raw look” is the focus of one of Rees’ current projects, another collaboration with Ozturk. (Other projects in development include a documentary with the actor Jared Leto; a film-and-music performance with Jennifer Peedom and the Australian Chamber Orchestra; and tending to the growing popularity of her Instagram account). This past December, four young British men attempted an unassisted walk across Iceland that would expose them to hurricane-force winds and deadly fluctuations in temperature. The Coldest Crossing, as the expedition was titled, ended in three evacuations by Iceland’s Search and Rescue, followed by highly critical press coverage in the U.K. Rees and Ozturk tagged along to document the crossing, about which Rees says, “We certainly got what we asked for.” She describes their documentary, still being edited, as both “a coming-of-age story” and “a reflection on the state of adventure these days,” with its corporate sponsorship goals and media pressures.
- The Coldest Crossing, Iceland, December, 2015
- “The team and I were dropped off at the starting point, Rifstangi, the most northern point in Iceland. A one month journey lay ahead. It was a chilling -16 degrees, and the northern lights filled the sky in nearly every direction. I could barely breathe for all of these reasons.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- The Coldest Crossing, Northern Iceland
- “What we saw in this young team (and thus our reason for joining them) was an incredible will … not just to try something challenging, but to have the determination to step away from fear and routines that don’t lead to examined full lives. These boys were young, inexperienced, but not unprepared. Renan and I saw a bit of ourselves in their gung-ho ambition. We too saw an opportunity to learn from the adventure. Pictured here, Angus, Archie, Charlie and Stefan set out across the hardened snow on Day 3 of their journey.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
- The Coldest Crossing, Iceland
- “Adventure is not all grit and glory. It’s a privilege full of potential for joy, if you don’t get too bogged down in expectations. I think we feel most alive when we have experiences like these — that force us to use our senses and abilities to survive. Adventure is awakening. Here, Stefan ferries Charlie across the river on Day 24 of the expedition.”
- Taylor Freesolo Rees and Renan Ozturk, Iceland, December 2015
- “An emergency hut in the middle of the Icelandic highlands. Renan and I had two weeks off for the holidays, and decided to spend it doing what we love — documenting adventure. In this case, it was a team of young kids (19 and 20) who were attempting a winter crossing of Iceland, unsupported. With two of the worst storms Iceland has seen in over 50 years, we were head in on an adventure that was a little more than we initially bargained for. Here, checking weather updates and considering our best window to make another day’s advance towards the end.” ~ Taylor Freesolo Rees
“Somebody out there asked me recently, ‘Were you angry when you realized the team wasn’t going to be the first to cross Iceland? Because that’s the reason you came to film.’ And the answer is, not in the least bit. We didn’t go to tell that story; it was really about people.”
Like the expedition in Myanmar, Rees is quick to scratch up the ordeal as a learning experience, part of a series of attempts to reach some kind of enlightened understanding about what she and others are capable of achieving. “One thing that really came through to me on the trip is the idea that, for a certain type of person, being in survival mode can relieve anxiety,” Rees told Women in the World. “When you are trying to survive — boiling water, building a snow wall, checking the weather — you have no time for anxiety. And I think that’s so biologically and psychologically ingrained in us. We’re built with this incredible capacity to innovate solutions. I thrive when I’m confronted with a problem.”