When the shoot hits the fan
When I hang out with other pro climbing photographers, we don’t talk about things like f/stops, shutter speeds, or the newest and lightest camera body. Catching up over drinks by an open f re at Indian Creek or at some lame industry party at the Salt Lake trade show, we talk shit. Sometimes literally. This is not a story about how professional climbing photographers capture the ultimate climbing moment. These are our tales of comedy and peril—and shit.
Andrew Burr smelled it and dealt with it when he served the world a video of Jason Kruk crapping his pants on an offwidth lead at Squamish, British Columbia. (See the video here). “It was Cedar Wright’s video shoot, and I was just poaching some stills and staying out of the way,” says Burr. “Kruk was hammered on the approach. He totally reeked of booze, and kept lamenting on how hungover he was.”
Kruk started out cruising the climb, but then his knee got wedged into the wide crack. Wright rapped out of his perch in a tree to give his mate a hand, while Burr hung out above and watched it all unfold. Climbers on the ground began to form a peanut gallery as Wright tried to help Kruk pull his knee out by force. “I wasn’t getting anything worth a damn with the stills,” says Burr, “so I decided to switch to video mode.”
As is evident in the resulting YouTube sensation, Kruk started freaking out. The exhaustion, the booze—the whole situation had become a witch’s brew. Suddenly, Kruk announced that he’d shit his pants. At first, Burr thought he was joking, but seconds later the video image started shaking as Burr cracked up. The only detail not captured for posterity was the smell of it, which Burr called, “10 times worse than any outhouse experience.”
From big walls to big rocks in a field, each shoot has its challenge. When then-new photographer Andy Mann convinced highball master Kevin Jorgeson to solo a 30-plus-foot line by headlamp and moonlight, he was confronted with a particularly tough version of the challenge all photographers face: getting the action in focus. Jorgeson got to the sweet spot 25 feet off the deck and held the pre-arranged move. Only then did Mann realize his camera wouldn’t focus with so little light. He bantered with Jorgeson, telling him that he was getting the shots and that Jorgeson just needed to “hold that move a little longer.” With the pump clock ticking and Jorgeson getting nervous, it dawned on Mann that if Jorgeson would point his headlamp at him, he could focus. Mann managed a couple of stellar frames before Jorgeson had to top out.
It’s bad enough when a climber gives himself shit, but sometimes the photographer catches an unfair share. John Dickey had worked for a fortnight to capture Jason Pickles and Leo Houlding on their El Cap free route The Prophet. He was in position for a sweet morning-light photo when Leo called up, “Be just a moment longer, this is a bloody emergency!” With no time to pull the poop tube, Houlding let his anxieties fly. After this minor delay, everything clicked: Leo sent the pitch, and Dickey got the epic shot.
With his image in the can, Dickey prepared to head down. Burdened with camera equipment, unruly stilts, and all his rigging gear, he first had to wrestle past Pickles and a tangle of gear at the portaledge. When he emerged, somehow his pants were completely covered in Houlding’s excrement.
There was not much he could do, so for the next two hours Dickey continued rappelling, ripening in the sun. When he finally reached the ground, he removed the foul pants and hiked out wearing only his whitey-tighties, shoes, and the huge haul bag. He managed to remain anonymous as he passed a couple of parties beginning their climbs, but as he reached his car, two carloads of friends rolled up to bear witness.
Documenting climbers in action can be disgusting, or it can be inspiring. Sometimes, it may even be life threatening. Corey Rich recalls the amazing light and the challenges of photographing historic ascents by Tommy Caldwell and others high on El Capitan—and being so caught up in the creative process that he lost track of danger. When Caldwell was working the infamous Changing Corners pitch (5.14a) on the Nose, Rich was poised to capture the action, but his rope, anchored at the belay below, was in the frame, so he called down to Beth Rodden to free it. The rope swung out of the frame, and Rich got some good shots as Caldwell gave his all but fell.
The pressure was on for Caldwell to send, so to help, Rich began cracking jokes. As Caldwell lowered back to the belay, Rich lowered too, chatting away,. Then Caldwell suddenly yelled, “STOP!” Rich’s hand sprang free of the handle on his Grigri. When he looked down, he noticed with horror that he was less than a foot from the end of the unknotted rope, with 2,000 feet of air below him.
Sometimes it’s the climber who helps put the shooter in jeopardy—like the time Keith Ladzinski got wrapped up in finding the perfect angle in Arches National Park and clambered up a huecoed face to catch Cedar Wright free climbing an old aid line. (Most of the photographers I talked to seemed to mention some epic involving Cedar Wright.) After the shoot was over and Wright descended, Ladzinski started down climbing, but soon found himself stuck. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he froze in a large hueco, big enough to stand in, but awkward and insecure. Eventually, Ladzinski yelled for a rescue.
Wright told Ladzinski to go for it solo. “Come on, man,” Ladzinski yelled. “You were on YOSAR! Do something! This is not cool!” Wright laughed and managed to get above Ladzinski—but 20 feet to his left. With a poor cam placement in the junky rock as an anchor, he threw Ladzinski a rope with an ascender attached to it, but gave firm orders not to weight the rope. Ladzinski made some moves but then slipped, beginning an out-of-control pendulum with his full weight on the single, crumbling cam placement. Thankfully, the cam held and Ladzinski did what all of us do: swore he would never again let the creative process lure him into a near-death scenario. Until the next shoot, that is.
Technical challenges are one thing any climbing photographer must deal with, while personal dynamics are another. Once, Dawn Kish was on assignment in Puerto Rico with a writer and the photo editor for National Geographic Adventure. The writer was an outdoorsman, but the photo editor had never worn a backpack except on a college campus or in an REI store.
Kish perched on the side of a slot canyon, getting photos of sport climbers. When she went down into the canyon and got in the water, using an underwater housing to get unique angles, the photo editor really wanted to see the action from the shooter’s point of view. She was lowered into the canyon by the guides, but by the time she reached Kish she was terrifi ed and crying. Kish—six feet tall and a solid athlete and climber—was comfortable treading water and getting her photos, but suddenly she had the frightened photo editor clinging to her neck like a newborn monkey. Kish managed to fi re off a few more images while she consoled her newborn and then swam her to shore.
Ropes and gear can surprise you with some unexpected hazards if you’re careless, as Jim Thornburg found out on Calaveras Dome, California. Thornburg wanted a bird’s-eye view of route developers John Scott and Troy Corliss. From the top of the dome, he tossed down a brandnew, 600-foot, sub-9mm static line, geared up, and started down with a huge pack. About a third of the way down, his Grigri—well out of its recommended rope-diameter range, and also 12 years old and quite worn—would no longer hold him. Grigris are one of the climbing photographer’s best friends, but shooters are notorious for ignoring Petzl’s safety warnings and pushing the limits of the device. This time, Thornburg pushed too far. The weather was hot, the rope way too thin and slippery-new, and Thornburg’s sweaty hands could not hold the rope tight enough to stop him. Zipping down his line, out of control, he instinctively pushed, instead of pulled, on the Grigri’s lever, which slowed him just enough to allow marginal control of the rappel. He made it to the ground, pumped and scared, but alive.
Fifty years ago, it was even more difficult and dangerous to shoot climbing photos, and I have the highest respect for those who paved the way for the modern climbing photographer. Glen Denny was active in Yosemite throughout the 1960s’ Golden Age, doing the hardest climbs as well as documenting them with his unique eye. He got used to having a camera around his neck, and considered it as important as any of his gear. Not only did Denny have to figure out how to shoot safely, but he also had to handle the strong personalities of the luminary climbers. Most of Denny’s partners got used to him asking them to “hold that,” or do it again, but Denny never asked Royal Robbins to repeat moves or pause for a shot. Robbins images needed to be taken on the fly, including the time when Robbins was leading a difficult pitch during a recon of El Capitan’s North America Wall.
Robbins had placed a long line of marginal pitons. “The situation was tense,” says Denny, “but the light on the rock was beautiful. He had been on his last pin for quite a while. It seemed solid, so I raised the camera. Suddenly he got bigger in the viewfinder, and the belay line started zinging out as if I’d hooked a marlin. I dropped the camera and grabbed the rope with both hands. [This was in the days of the hip belay.] It hurt like hell, but there was nothing to do except grab harder. After what seemed like a long time, things stopped moving. I looked up. Royal was a lot closer now. He looked down and said, ‘Nice catch.’ The gradual arrest had pulled out only a few pins; I didn’t tell him why it had been so dynamic. The rope burns made my palms look like raw salmon fillets.”
Robbins was Denny’s muse, and climbers and climbing photographers have a history of doing what’s needed to get the shot, often forming solid personal bonds. Denny and Robbins still talk, 50 years later. I am not sure the same will hold for Tim Kemple and Cedar Wright.
“Some artists have a muse,” says Kemple. “Well, Cedar is kind of the opposite of that for me. He doesn’t make shooting impossible, but he makes things happen that bring you to the point where you think, ‘I’m getting Cedar-ed again—I’m going to kill him.’”
Like the time Kemple followed Wright and Renan Ozturk into the Karakoram. It was Kemple’s first expedition. When he arrived in Islamabad, the climbers were already in the Trango region, and apparently no arrangements had been made for Kemple. He departed the plane into a sea of long-robed people, all of whom seemed to be screaming at him: “Give you a ride, Mister?” “Hotel?” Kemple searched desperately for something familiar: a sign reading “Tim” or “The North Face.” Nothing. With a bag full of camera gear and two huge duffels of expedition supplies, he felt like he had a bull’s eye painted on him. He finally borrowed a cell phone and called a number he’d been given for an outfi tter who was to help him get to base camp. Wrong number. Finally he hired a cab driver who spoke some English, made his way to a hotel with Internet, and, after some research, found the guide outfit. When he called, he was informed that Wright had never mentioned a photographer coming on the trip.
After several days on the Karakoram Highway and a three-day hike into base camp, Kemple finally found his climbers. Their satellite modem no longer worked, and because Kemple hadn’t shown up, they thought they had been kicked off the North Face team. Nevertheless, Kemple was able to get enough good material to secure a position as the North Face’s go-to guy for expedition photography.
Foreign travel is always good for a humorous tale or two, and Kemple quickly related another. He was on assignment in Brazil, and life was good: pretty women, miles of new cliffs, and a sponsor picking up the tab. He was cruising solo through the countryside when he was stopped at a random checkpoint. The police searched the vehicle, and when they opened the trunk they found 2.5 kilos of chalk that another climber (guess who?) had left there. Kemple was soon stripped down to his underwear, and the cops start lining up with big smiles. “They cut the bag open like in the movies and taste it,” says Kemple. “First cop realizes it’s not coke... then the second... then the third. Then they figured out what I was trying to tell them. I laughed, they laughed, and I went on my way.”
As for me, I have been on some wild rides while shooting pictures around the planet. I have been caught in an avalanche, buried deep in debt, lost love, and indulged lust. I have watched climbers lob off vertical faces, breaking bones. I have seen a climber fl oat through a seemingly impossible move, avoiding certain injury. I have laughed so hard that I cried. I’ve watched girls’ eyes sparkle when I mention a photo shoot, and have seen them roll with disdain.
I, too, have fallen victim to weird situations with ropes—once, a jumar popped off when I was jugging horizontally, and another time, a Grigri started slipping when I was rappelling with a huge haul bag on El Capitan. But out of all the blunders I can recall, the worst happened while I was climbing without a rope in South Africa.
I had been in-country for six weeks, shooting Majka Burhardt and Julia Niles on Table Mountain. That day I was climbing with the guidebook author, and as I started to ready a rope, he gave me a bizarre look and said, “Oh, mate, we’ll just solo this first pitch—it’s piss.”
I had been feeling strong, sending when I got the opportunity between shoots, and I had become complacent. But partway up, my heart started pounding as I paused to take everything in: no rope, damp rock, an awkward rope bag full of rigging gear, and my camera on my back. The next moves were sketchy, and just as I decided to retreat, my foot popped off a wet dime edge.
When I woke up, I was lying in the bushes. Everything felt broken and my head was bleeding, but I was alive. A helicopter ride and several X-rays later, I found out that I had broken nine bones. Six broken ribs came from landing on my camera.
Over the course of my long recovery, I had time to think about my chosen occupation. I considered getting a “real job” and leaving the climbing-photog gig behind. But, no, I worked too hard to get where I am now. I am living my dream. No shit.