The Tooth Traverse is a five-mile alpine route across the skyline of the Mooses Tooth massif in the Central Alaskan Range. Wind-whipped and sun-beaten, its rocky peaks brushed with sheets of ice and snow, the traverse is highly technical and profoundly forbidding. For the filmmaker-mountaineers Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson, it’s also an obsession.
The documentary “The Sanctity of Space” covers how the pair spend the better part of a decade endeavoring to become the first to complete the Tooth Traverse — even in the face of accidents, injuries and the kinds of close calls that could easily have been fatal. At one point, Zack Smith, a friend and climbing companion of Ozturk, explains that his romantic partner has left him because she could no longer stand his dangerous vocation. In the very next scene — a title card reads “One Week Later” — we find Ozturk in a gurney, wrapped head-to-toe in bandages, flitting in and out of consciousness. These are risks, the filmmakers suggest, inherent to the lives they lead.
Ozturk and Wilkinson devote some of the film’s running time to the biography of one of their mountaineering heroes, the explorer and photographer Bradford Washburn. Though Washburn’s life was certainly interesting, these sections feel digressive and not well integrated.
“It is belief as much as anything that allows one to cling to a wall,” James Salter wrote in his mountaineering novel “Solo Faces.” “The Sanctity of Space” is at its best when conveying the power of that belief — when a helmet-mounted GoPro captures the sheer expanse of a pitch mid-ascent, say, or when an aerial shot from a circling helicopter makes a climber appear minuscule against the vast face of a daunting peak. It’s this glory that the climbers were dedicated to pursuing, and through their eyes we can well understand the beauty of the quest.
The Sanctity of Space
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. In theaters.