Jim Thornburg - Photographer, Climber, Belayer to the Stars; Berkeley, California

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Photo by Nicky Dyal

Photo by Nicky Dyal

Whether he’s shooting with his Canon EOS 5D or climbing, the California native Jim Thornburg ( jimthornburg.com), 43, is at home at the crags. Thornburg first hit the rocks at 17 and has since combined stone and photography into his life’s work, traveling the globe. His first feature for Climbing was 1991’s “Steel Wheels” (No. 131), about Western limestone; his most recent was “More Gunky than Funky” (No. 258), about the Shawangunks. And among the many covers he’s shot, one top seller has been No. 218’s image of Rachel Babkirk on Leave it to Jesus, in the New River Gorge. For Thornburg, the easy part is snapping the pictures; the hard part is everything else.

It was raining in Berkeley the day I bought my first pair of EBs. I decided to climb on a university building that was protected from the rain. Officer Freeman, a policeman who used to chase us when we rode our skateboards on campus, caught me traversing the building and arrested me on the spot. I spent the next four hours in jail, refusing to give him my mom’s phone number. On the way home, I accidentally ran over a pedestrian with my VW Bug, bruising her up a bit. It might have been my worst day of climbing ever.

My fifteen minutes happened in 1990, in a Nationals competition at the Berkeley Community Theatre. I was just hoping to make the semifinal cut of 40, but ended up placing third.

The first photo I ever sold was of Jim Karn (the Chris Sharma of the late 1980s) on Kings of Rap, at Smith Rock. I took it paparazzi-style, and I think it was in the 1989 Chouinard catalog.

Stone Dance, by Peter Brown, is a 1990s climbing film that takes a much harder and more thoughtful look at free soloing than the usual glorifications you hear. It’s one of my favorites. I was close with John Yablonski during the two years before his death, and I think the movie told a story about him that needed to be told. Yabo was a hero because he didn’t ignore his pain or try to hide it. He was really honest about his pain and its connection to his soloing. I think that’s something people who solo at least need to ponder.

Climbing Magazine Cover No. 218. Rachel Babkirk on Leave it to Jesus, New River Gorge, WV. Photo by jimthornburg.com.

Climbing Magazine Cover No. 218. Rachel Babkirk on Leave it to Jesus, New River Gorge, WV. Photo by jimthornburg.com.

A couple of Pinnacles locals were interrogating Yabo while he hung on a bolt, working on the first ascent of Hot Lava Lucy. The conversation went like this: Local: “How’d you get those bolts in?” Yabo: “On rappel.” Local: “Sounds pretty chickenshit to me.” Yabo: “Chickenshit? How ‘bout I come down there and show you chickenshit?” I thought that was pretty funny.

I had a clunky Pentax K-1000 I used for many years. I had an intuitive relationship with that camera’s light meter and almost always got the exposure perfect. Of course, that doesn’t matter nowadays with digital. It used to be such a thrill (or disappointment) to get your film back from processing, and still nothing compares to a Velvia transparency under a good loupe — light and life come out of a slide in a way I can’t replicate on a computer screen.

I belayed Chris Sharma on his first attempt on Realization. I also belayed Ron Kauk on a near miss on Magic Line. Belayer to the stars . . . sigh.

The divisions that used to separate trad, sport, and mountain climbing are becoming less and less defined. Today’s climber understands it’s all part of the same pond: a skinny boulderer pushing standards in a gym sends out ripples that eventually make it to the mountains.

The climbing life and my life were one and the same 25 years ago. When you’re young and trying to figure out who you are, it’s easy to fall in love with climbing. Back then, the life was living out of a Toyota pickup and wearing white painter’s pants. Doing runout climbs in Tuolumne and free-soloing cracks were the highest things you could aspire to — it was dangerous, incredibly romantic, and very alluring. I can relate to today’s version of the climbing life — it’s really not that different — but I can’t live it anymore. I guess you could say I’m having the classic midlife postclimbing identity crisis. I want to know who I am outside of climbing.