Art at Altitude—Colorado Filmmaker Allen Hill… Moving Mountains to Make a Movie

Filmmaker Allen Hill talks to subject Paul Morrill at a recent shoot in Paonia. Vagabond Club Documentary courtesy photo.

Filmmaker Allen Hill talks to subject Paul Morrill at a recent shoot in Paonia. Vagabond Club Documentary courtesy photo.

By Marcy Neth

Eastern Slope Bureau(July 2, 2013)

Allen Frame Hill would like to stop working on his film and go back to making beer ads.

Hill does not explain why he has taken up smoking again after 15 years, or why he has spent $70,000 of his own money on a documentary about a building.  He just says it outright; “It’s a movie about a building.  But not just a building.”

Because Club Vagabond meant so much more than simply shelter. In 1963 a couple by the name of Allan and Carol Rankin bought and renovated an old TB sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland and moved their hotel, the Club Vagabond, into the building.  Quickly the place became a nexus of activity, with life and loves and a great mix of mountain sports.  Young people took advantage of the inexpensive European travel opportunities of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  From all over the world they flocked to Europe, where the Club Vagabond offered both a place to stay and seasonal employment.  During the winter, women would work in the hotel while men worked mundane ski run jobs.  During the summer, they would go to Greece or drive across Europe.  Life happened, and life-long bonds were forged.   When climber John Harlin founded The International School of Mountaineering (ISM) in Leysin, the “Vag” became the congregation point for the climbers.

In the course of making a relatively simple movie about the ISM, Denver-based filmmaker and Colorado native Allen Hill started to hear more and more about the Club Vagabond.  Everyone he spoke to seemed to be attached to it in some way.  Elite climbers Layton Kor, Dougal Haston and Chris Bonnington were an early part of the club, but there were more.  Other people came just to be near the elite group.  As ISM instructor Gary Gablehouse said, “The women hung on us and the men wanted to be us.”

Researching his film, Hill found himself speaking to one person after another who remembered the climbing, but truly cherished their memories of the Club and the good friends they made and kept.  Suddenly, a movie about climbing turned into a movie about a building.

But not just a building.

Hill has a taut sense of history.  The fact that the building was a former TB sanatorium is key to the tale.  A place where people used to come to take the mountain cure or die was transformed into a hub, buzzing with life.  The connections people build over time and space take on a feeling of greater importance when placed in such context.  In Hill’s award-winning film Jump, a strange and compelling story of rock spire jumpers in the Czech Republic, he juxtaposed the stories of pioneer climbers against the younger generation of jumpers.  Showing the earlier generation of climbers emerging from the ravages of the Second World War gave deeper meaning to their outdoor activities and adventuresome spirit.  The climbing and the jumping become merely a backdrop, highlighting universal truths about human aspirations. Jump has become something of a cult classic, shown in multiple festivals (including MountainFilm), though never given a full theatrical release. It’s still available to watch online:

To Club Vagabond, Hill brings that same historical perspective, drawing on thousands of pictures, home movies, and interviews.   Hollywood had a presence in Leysin at that time.  Filmmakers would hire the climbers for bit parts and stunts.  When making the Eiger Sanction in the 1970’s, Clint Eastwood took a basic mountaineering course from ISM and ended up hiring a number of the climbers as extras.  But the story of the Club Vagabond ends up concerning not just elite climbers, but all of the thousands of people who came and went from Leysin during its heyday.  From the early 60’s through the late 70’s, the flow of people was constant.  They became close, early on because of the death of ISM founder John Harlin on the north face of the Eiger, which disrupted the elite climbing community but cemented friendships.  Later, visitors were brought together through proximity and shared adventure.  Many marriages started at the Club Vagabond, and many international friendships were born.

Hill has shot forty hours of film over the past four years and most of the $70,000 already spent was his own money.  His editor, Denver company Postmodern, will cut the film down to 120 minutes, but the money gathering is not yet done.  A kickstarter campaign is in the works for the film, as he is hoping to raise another $50,000.  Hill wants to travel to New Zealand to interview one of the important former residents of the club.    He did get a grant from the Banff Center of Mountain Culture with the stipulation that the documentary will show first there, but it’s not enough.

Allen Hill has spent his life in the mountains.  He is used to looking at the world from above.  In this case, the movie rises to meet him.  He wants to tell the story of these people, these friendships.  He believes the movie will have universal appeal. Among the history and the adventure and the loves and the deaths, there is something for everyone.  It has become the story not just of a building, but of the dreams, ambitions and the all-too-brief journey of human beings as we climb toward grace. Stay tuned…