A day later, en route to our next destination, Joe looked over at me from his side of the van and calmly stated, “We climb for different reasons.”
Our partnership unraveled from there, but a new project began to take shape. I still wanted summits, and the emotions that come with them, but I also wanted to capture those emotions from behind my lens. I decided right then that I would return to the Elephant’s Perch for this purpose. Specifically, I wanted to fully capture the way strong women negotiated this adventurous high-country terrain.
The project took two years and involved several different teams. Each individual had her style and strengths, and each relished the challenges of the alpine environment. None frowned at the thin and runout faces or burly crack systems, and when they fell, they did not scream like little girls. At least not most of the time.
My second trip to the Sawtooths was with Sarah Watson. We drove across Idaho, passing two-bit towns with flat, boring vistas. Sarah’s dog, Charliegirl, sat on my lap as we joggled along the road in the 1995 Chevy conversion van that is Sarah’s home.
If I looked over my shoulder, I could see paints and painted canvases lying on a homemade bed, a hand-painted guitar case, climbing gear stacked everywhere, clothes, a 50-pound bag of dog food in a corner, my camera bag, and pack of climbing gear nestled in the mess. Sarah planned to stay on the road as long as the tires held air and the ATM kept spitting out cash. Through the cracked windshield, I watched as the flat landscape began to rise, and the spines of granite ridgelines jutted out above slopes of evergreens.
We met the rest of the team — filmmaker Chris Alstrin and pro athlete and writer Majka Burhardt — the day before the hike in. Chris and I planned to climb together to fix ropes, then he’d shoot video as I shot stills of the women the following day.
The loads were formidable. Cameras, portable hard drives, two weeks of food, and a whole lot of ropes and gear bulged from our packs. We looked less like experienced climbers than a group of vagrants. With the help of Marc Hensleman and others from Sawtooth Mountain Guides, we prepared to move this production into the backcountry.
During our march in, we traded stories. Majka told of a planned trip back to Africa. Sarah confided that maybe after the tires wore off her chariot she would return to school. Chris spoke of his movie idea, The Continuum Project, which is now a reality — a well-scripted flick of which this trip formed a segment.
We set up camp in the early afternoon. Majka and Sarah went for a skinny dip in the lake while Chris and I headed up to fix lines. We stole peeks over our shoulders as we humped 800 feet of rope to the base of the Direct Beckey, a popular variation to Beckey’s original line. Leave it to Fred Beckey to march into the Sawtooths in 1963, pick the plum line, and in classic “get after it” style, fire off in two days one of the Perch’s most challenging rock climbs. With the sun arcing well past midday, Chris and I had to get busy if we wanted to climb the Direct Beckey that day.
One foot on a smear and another cammed in a pocket, I steadied myself and let the weight of my body fall onto my jumars. My eye fell to the viewfinder, and I saw Heidi looking down quizzically at a tiny nut equalized to an antique Leeper bolt hanger. Would it hold a 15-foot fall? Why wonder? Heidi pushed higher, stemming out, pasting rubber so hard onto the granite I could almost hear it squeak. She stuck the move, only to be rewarded with another small nut in a flaring crack, protection for the next cryptic move.
Documenting these women’s powerful confidence and fluid climbing in that pristine vertical environment, I knew the sacrifices I’d made in my personal climbing had been worth it. Dreams and desires had melded into lasting images, still dreams but also realities.
James Q. Martin — aka “Q” — gets his snailmail in Flagstaff, Arizona, but usually resides in the world at large. His most recent project is trying to save the Patagonian environment, bringing his love of art and adventure together for a greater cause. For more information on “Rios Libres, Keeping Patagonia Wild,” visit RiosLibres.com. To check out more of his photography, go to jamesQmartin.com.