“The Sensei”

Yuji Hirayama and Daniel Woods in "The Sensei," part of the 2013 Reel Rock Film Tour

Last week, I went to the Salt Lake City screening of the Reel Rock Film Tour. All the movies were great, interesting in their own unique ways, but the one that stuck with me was “The Sensei,” a story of two exceptional climbers: Yuji Hirayama, of Japan, and Daniel Woods, of the United States. Together, they constitute a sort of yin and yang of climbing personalities: East and West, old and young, patient and eager. Their differences and similarities are the wheel that drives the movie forward.

Hirayama, now 44 years old, is the philosophically minded master who has climbed at the highest levels across disciplines, from trad cracks and big wall speed climbs to sport onsights and World Cup competitions. His words usher us into the video, setting the tone with a shout out to the animistic indigenous belief system of Japan:

“In Japan there is a Shinto idea that all natural objects have a life. For example, when we go climbing, we worship the rock.”

His perspective in this video and earlier ones has the equanimous tone of Zen practitioners, accepting of the natural ups and downs of life as necessary compliments. In a 2010 video called “The Stone Rider,” for example, he explains:

“When I climb difficult things and have failure and problems, it still gives me happiness to have something to work on. I smile about that.”

The 24-year-old Woods, on the other hand, comes off as a quintessential American kid — spacey, a little goofy, but full of stoke and energy. Throughout the video, Hirayama refers to Woods as a gemstone in need of polish. Of course, Woods has also accomplished much in his (comparatively few) years of climbing, including first ascents of several of the world’s most difficult boulder problems, high-end sport redpoints, and success in bouldering competitions.

When Hirayama takes Woods to an unrepeated V15 roof called Hydrangea, the young American is eager for success. But his eagerness undermines his efforts, and Hirayama suggests Woods should slow down and “wait for the right moment.” It’s reminiscent of Chris Sharma’s perspective while he worked on the Biographie extension, in Céüse, a route that would later become the world’s first 9a+ (5.15a). “I think the best attitude for me to have on this thing is just, when it’s the right time to do it, I’ll do it,” Sharma explains in a video documenting the project.

Hirayama invites Woods to the strange, high-altitude granite monoliths of Mount Kinabalu, on Borneo, and the trip serves to further highlight Woods’ “unpolished” nature. He is described as ill-prepared for the journey from sea level to 13,000 feet, for the high winds and mists and intense sun. Close-ups show his face raw and cracked like the surface of a dry creek bed, his hair a wild burst in all directions. Blasted and exhausted by the hard projects and inhospitable conditions, Woods nonetheless wakes up day after day with an undiminished desire to climb, and climb hard.

Throughout “The Sensei,” Hirayama carries the air of a teacher, but like the best teachers, he knows the relationship works in both directions. “I myself have changed again and again,” Hirayama explains. “When I was young I just wanted to climb the hardest routes, but as you get older that becomes more difficult.” Woods brings the fire of youth with him to Japan, and it seems to help Hirayama change once again, to revisit an intensity from his own past. “Daniel doesn’t think at all about daily preparations,” says Hirayama, impressed. “What is he focused on? Only that day’s climbing.”

Woods’ determination and beginner’s mind redouble Hirayama’s inspiration to tackle his own daunting 9a project in Borneo, and both climbers walk away from the experience transformed in their own ways. In watching them, it’s hard for us as audience members to not feel a little of that energy and experience a little of that transformation, too.