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‘Climbing Became Cool Because of People Like Maria:’ Q and A With ‘Mentor’ Movie Director

Maria Cranor was many things: Yosemite climber, Black Diamond co-founder, and a physicist. But to director Mike Call and many others, she was 'The Mentor.'

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When Mike Call started his third documentary for Black Diamond, he knew he needed to make a tribute to Maria Cranor.

Though she’s not well-known outside of the climbing community, it’s impossible to understate the impact she made on the sport. For most, Cranor is remembered as the creative genius who helped co-found Black Diamond. When Yvon Chouinard’s climbing hardware company, Chouinard Equipment, declared bankruptcy in 1989, Cranor and Peter Metcalf decided to rebuild it.

What they made became Black Diamond, a company that laid major groundwork for climbing’s eventual break into mainstream consciousness. In fact, Call said, the sport climbing revolution of the 1990s owes a huge debt to Cranor. Her marketing work for the company galvanized many people to give climbing a try.

“Climbing was such a weirdo sport. People today can’t appreciate how weird it was to people back in the ’80s,” he said. “Maria [pronounced like Mariah] was adept at taking the whole picture and giving it dignity, making it something you could be proud of … Climbing became cool because of people like Maria.” 

Here’s our edited Q&A with Call about his newest film about Cranor: The Mentor.

maria cranor
Maria Cranor; (photos/Black Diamond & Russ Clune)

GJ: Why did you decide to make a film about Maria Cranor?

Call: I have already done two other films for Black Diamond, The Lifer and The Artist. Maria was one of the connecting people for all three films. By the time I got to the third one, it became obvious she had to be the subject.

She was my first mentor other than my own parents. We both worked at Black Diamond at the time, where she was already a powerful force, and this was during the transition from Chouinard Equipment. She always seemed to have time for people like me and she always made time for the people around her.

I just couldn’t imagine a tribute to her not existing. She was from a generation that didn’t brag about what they did. It seemed like a tragedy that someone like her would not be recognized for what she did. 

maria cranor
Maria Cranor chilling on a boulder; (photo/Kevin Powell)

GJ: Why was Cranor such a powerful mentor for so many people?

Call: It wasn’t just professional. She ended up being a personal character mentor in a lot of ways. 

Maria had a really strong sense of what was right and wrong. She was an anthropologist by training, so she understood quickly what someone’s capability was. When I was making this film, everybody that I talked to had the same reaction: My life would be completely different had I not met Maria. 

She could look you right in the eye and deliver a really potent phrase that would change their lives forever. Anyone who met her had a similar moment, with something that changed the course of their lives. It was always something about them having more potential than they could see.

A mentor is someone you respect enough to follow their advice without needing to be convinced. That’s exactly who she was.

maria cranor
As a Stonemaster in Yosemite, Maria Cranor also inspired many young climbers, including Lynn Hill; (photos/Randy Vogel)

GJ: What is her significance in the context of the outdoor industry?

Call: The sport climbing revolution was directly impacted by her transitioning Chouinard into Black Diamond. But it’s also bigger than just making gear. It’s the way the whole picture was presented. It made people proud to be climbers. She was a female leader in a space where there weren’t many female leaders. And she was incredibly driven. She wanted to be number one in the climbing marketplace.

Choosing to build the Black Diamond headquarters in Salt Lake also had an impact on the city. It’s an obvious location for outdoor retailers now, but it wasn’t at the time. If you asked anybody during that era who she was, they would know her. 

GJ: What made Maria important to so many climbers at the time?

Call: She was clued into the zeitgeist of what was happening. Maria knew John Bachar. She knew Wolfgang Güllich. One of the first people that Lynn Hill called after freeing the Nose was Maria. She was so adjacent to so many massive moments in the climbing world, yet she was so effacing and humble that you’d never know about her. 

All the people that come after her time don’t have the context for understanding who she was. Today, it seems like everybody is so interested in their own development. She was never about that. Maria had the ability to make you believe in something that she saw in you. That’s the difference between somebody who’s memorable and somebody who’s forgettable. In a world of skepticism and people out to do selfish things, it’s special when you meet someone like that. 

That’s true mentorship.

Runtime: 24 minutes

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