IOWA CITY — For decades, Iowa City was a hub for mountain climbers.
As preposterous as that may sound, the legend of the Iowa Mountaineers is true and the basis for a new documentary being created by Iowa City filmmaker John Richard, 39. Richard gained access to troves of audio and visual recordings, still photographs, journals, letters and other relics, which he plans to use as the basis for a feature-length film about the club that attracted thousands of members while pioneering early outdoor education.
“I think the project can be an inspiration for anyone who wants to use their imagination to make the most of living in Iowa,” said Richard, who also directed photography for the acclaimed 2017 documentary “Saving Brinton.”
Formed at the University of Iowa by S. John and Ede Ebert in 1940 as a way to introduce Midwesterners to the sport of climbing in a safe and supportive way, the club was active until 1996. Over the years they traveled for thousands of expeditions around the country and world, according to an active Facebook page memorializing the club.
“It was one of the most active mountaineering clubs in the world,” according to the club’s Facebook page. “It trained more people annually and was the largest university mountaineering club in the world with over 6,000 members.”
Richard, who is partnering with Aaron Woolf, has launched social media pages to reintroduce the Iowa Mountaineers, and encourage those with ties to get in touch with their stories and share any footage they may have. People can connect directly through Instagram and Facebook.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs in June awarded $40,000 to support the production.
Club members would go on to found Climbing Magazine, start the National Outdoor Leadership School or NOLS, and participate in the first successful American expedition on Mount Everest, according to Richard. Even famed University of Iowa orthopedist Dr. Ignacio Ponseti participated, he said.
Richard, who is a climber himself, had heard of the Iowa Mountaineers in passing but became inspired after a tip that the Ebert family still had an extensive collection. Margie Ebert, 64, who led the club with late husband Jim Ebert for several decades, still lived in Iowa City and was storing the material in her garage.
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Richard wrote letters expressing his interest, and the family agreed to share what they had with him.
“It was very heartfelt,” Margie Ebert said. “It is like having someone go through your trunk and your closet and figure out what stories are in there ... It was a great way to take people, especially Iowans, who wanted to travel and do exciting things.”
Richard discovered 80 reels of 16-millimeter film, tens of thousands of Kodachrome stills, audio recordings and more. Documenting their travels and presenting it on campus was core to their mission, he said.
“I was stunned by the quantity and the quality of what they had,” he said. “They kept everything.”
He moved everything to one side of the garage and has slowly been taking trunks back to his Iowa City studio to go through and catalog each one, including a rough digitization. He even developed a method to capture the inscriptions on old photo plates.
Richard hopes to capture the most memorable stories — stacking dorm mattresses in the back of trucks for their cross-country drives, the inclusive nature of only taking routes everyone could handle, visits to some of the favorite destinations such as the Sawtooth Range in Idaho or the bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin — but also try to learn something new.
“I am interested in what the Iowa Mountaineers thought was interesting at the time, but also seeing if I can find new meaning,” he said.
Richard said he anticipates releasing the documentary in 2021.
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