Uphill Climb

A Lower Merion High School graduate takes her life to serious heights—literally.

Climber and filmmaker Jennifer Yee.Like a lot of Main Line teens, Jennifer Yee enjoyed hanging out at Suburban Square during her Lower Merion High School years. But it wasn’t long after heading to the University of Pittsburgh for a degree in English writing that she found herself roped to a team of passionate climbers on Ecuador’s active volcano, Cotopaxi.

And that was just the beginning.

“The first one has the most impact on you as a person. I didn’t know if I would make it to the top,” says Yee. “If one person can’t make it, the whole crew has to stop. We knew we’d never quit on each other, and we all made it to the summit together.”

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Yee has also scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, Oregon’s Mount Hood and New Hampshire’s Mount Washington—which brings us to Yee’s swift climb up the corporate ladder. At just 26, she has directed the documentary feature film 10 Mountains 10 Years. The 19,298-foot ascent of Kilimanjaro in 2009 is the central subject of the work, but all of the mountains are inherent to its success.

In 2006, the project began at the base of Mont Blanc in France. Lead climber Enzo Simone organized the expedition with the goal of climbing 10 mountains in one decade to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, which have both affected his family. A year later, he sought more teammates via the Internet. At the time, Yee was in Los Angeles working at Back Light Productions, her philanthropic film production company. She e-mailed Simone about turning his story into a movie. “I wanted to help their cause,” says Yee.

As of Feb. 1, 10 Mountains 10 Years and the related climbing expeditions had collectively raised more than $100,000 for medical research and caregiver programs. Twelve U.S. cities have hosted sold-out screenings, and the film is set for worldwide distribution this summer.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about climbing the mountains; it’s about honoring the mountains [climbed by] people who are taking care of family members battling these diseases,” says Yee.

Grateful letters have poured in by the thousands. “Each time we stopped at a camp for a night, we would read them on camera,” says Yee. “None of them are alone in eradicating these diseases.”

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Yee and the cast members also make special effort to take their message to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients at hospices, hospitals and senior centers, whether through a screening or just a friendly visit. “We’ve spent afternoons and weekends bringing [the film] to people who might’ve not been able to see it otherwise,” says Yee.

Narrated by Anne Hathaway (whose parents are La Salle University alums), 10 Mountains 10 Years has won six festival awards, including Best Feature Film in Hollywood, Boston, Connecticut and Philadelphia. It was even honored at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The movie’s celebrity lineup also includes an introduction by Leeza Gibbons and a soundtrack contribution by Bruce Springsteen (“Leap of Faith”).

And the mission continues—even after the film finishes its tour in June. In the next five years, the climbers plan to hit a handful of mountains from Russia to Antarctica. By the end, they will have gone 45 vertical miles on six continents.

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Jennifer Yee never intended to climb the peaks in 10 Mountains 10 Years. At first, she and her 75-plus crew members were committed only to presenting the footage taken by the climbers themselves. “[But] as we got further into it, the team urged me to climb with them,” she says.

With primary and supporting climbers, Yee and some of her team took on the extreme conditions of mountain climbing. “My crew in L.A. is used to air-conditioned studios,” she says. “It was rewarding figuring out how to adapt. You need to invent yourself along the way.”

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Partners like PortaBrace donated durable high-tech equipment for the endeavor, but the rest was up to Yee and her team. How would they respond under pressure?

“Unfortunately for her, there aren’t any do-overs,” says Simone, who’s an architect from New York State. “I remember she was on a rope team with myself and another guy, and she couldn’t see because her goggles frosted up. She was brave about the whole thing. The bigger and the harder the project, she just wraps herself around it and holds on tight. She knows that if she’s not at the edge of death’s door, she’s gonna keep on going no matter how rough it is.”

Simone describes Yee as quiet and her directing style as calculated. “She likes to soak up the atmosphere from the vantage points of an observer,” he says. “She’s not apprehensive about taking risks, and I think that’s going to be what moves her ahead of everyone else.”

One such risk was moving ahead of everyone else on Kilimanjaro to gain a 15-minute cushion before shooting their arrival on two different peaks, including the summit. For safety reasons, climbers can only revel in the satisfaction of reaching a mountaintop for a few minutes, according to Simone. “To say she’s up there 15 minutes ahead of us is not the best choice of words,” he says, “because she’s sitting up there hoping not to get altitude sickness waiting for us.”

Meanwhile, an ill crew member (who couldn’t help but trail the group) brought home the shots from behind. Win-win.

Today, Yee is helping young filmmakers reach their full potential by serving on the board of directors for the FirstGlance Philadelphia Film Festival, where 10 Mountains 10 Years premiered last October. It screened at the Franklin Institute, also the site of Yee’s first job as an intern in high school.

In college, she interned with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and later at Warner Bros. Television in New York. The latter helped her land a position working on the script development of blockbusters at Warner Bros. Studios in California. She’s now in the process of relocating back to New York, while also making family visits to Lower Merion.

“It’s kind of a unique moment, because I’ve always been one to climb the next 27 steps ahead of me,” says Yee (pun not intended). “I’m just enjoying the current ride, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

At the top of her to-do list—for 2015, at least: Mount Everest.

“Once you climb one mountain, it really becomes a positive addiction,” she says.

To view the trailer for 10 Mountains 10 Years, visit backlightproductions.com.

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