Climb Every Mountain

The SF State campus may have a few hills, but it isn’t what anyone would call “mountainous.” Yet it was while at the University that Samuel Crossley fell in love with climbing.

“I played sports most of my life,” Crossley says. “When I got to college I wanted to keep up that athletic part of my life somehow. I tried running, and I didn’t like it. I tried lifting weights. It was so repetitious. I didn’t like that either. My friend sent me a link of [famous climber] Alex Honnold climbing in Yosemite. About a week later, I saw some advertisement for a climbing gym, and I was like, ‘I should go try climbing.’ I was instantly hooked.”

A photographer, strapped into a harness, taking a photo of a rock climber beneath him

What Crossley couldn’t have realized at the time was that his new hobby would lead him to become part of an Oscar-winning filmmaking team. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo follows Honnold as he attempts a climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan, scaling 3200 feet of sheer granite without ropes or safety gear of any kind. Crossley was there to help capture the death-defying feat, assisting the film in several capacities and credited with additional cinematography.

“The stories that came out of SF State films
were always so powerful”

By the time the film was being prepped, Crossley had known Honnold for years: The two had met through the close-knit climbing community. So when Chin invited Crossley to join the documentary’s small crew, he was eager to agree. There was a snag, though. He was just weeks away from graduating and hadn’t yet completed his thesis film. Fortunately, the professors in the school of cinema turned out to be more than understanding.

“Every one of them was like, ‘Yes, you have to take this job,’” Crossley says. “The professors at SF State really cater to the students and have a genuine individual relationship with each student. They want you to succeed.”

“I recognized that he had a really great opportunity on his hands,” says associate professor Johnny Symons. “What we train our students to do in the School of Cinema is go out and get jobs in the industry. Here was someone who was landing a gig before he even graduated. I really wanted to encourage that.”

Crossley, a Bay Area native, might have developed an interest in film because it ran in the family: His father and grandfather had both worked as editors in the industry.

“When it came to high school, I took all the video classes and then I started to make films,” Crossley says. “I seemed to be good at, and it was the only thing I seemed to be good at.”

When he came to SF State, he was delighted to find a diverse student community that opened his eyes to new ideas. He joined Delta Kappa Alpha, the university’s professional co-education cinema fraternity, often pooling money with his peers to buy equipment. (He also founded a climbing club during his time on campus.) “The stories that came out of SF State films were always so powerful and socially charged in such an authentic and genuine way,” Crossley says. “People were making stories because they were stories that needed to be told and they were going to tell them however they could.”

Woman bouldering with two spotters
Man with a rainbow blanket, standing on a rock looking out into a barren lake


Now that his first professional project can claim Oscar-winning status, the young filmmaker says he’s weighing other offers, and he’s excited to continue in the non-fiction arena. “That’s where my heart is,” he says. “That’s where the most interesting stories are for me.” Crossley, who is gay, also plans to continue devoting time to his favorite hobby and advocating for diversity within the sport.

“I’m based in a van,” he says with a laugh. “I travel full time following the seasons for climbing and also following jobs. I just drive the van wherever projects are or wherever the climbing is good.”

Article by Gina McIntyre
Samuel Crossley photo (top) by Jimmy Chin
Second photo down by Irene Yee
All other photos by Samuel Crossley