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In composing the perfect climbing shot, there needs to be a synergy between climber and photographer. Both need to be dialed with their systems and at the right place at the right time, which often involves travel and climbing at odd times—sunrise and sunset—to nail the “golden hour.” As you can see from the myriad amazing shots in our Photo Annual gallery, these images didn’t simply “happen”—research, study, and effort went into every last one.
Photographing a free big wall is more complex yet—the climbing alone can take weeks, months, or even years of scoping, prep, and rehearsal. Sonnie Trotter, the author of “Pineapple Express,” which details his efforts to find an all-free version of the North America Wall, knows this—his new route Pineapple Express (VI 5.13b/c), which he climbed in a day in November 2018, took a small chunk of his life. But the photographer—in this case Austin Siadak—played a big role as well.
Siadak was involved from the route’s inception, when Trotter and Alex Honnold began scoping it. He humped giant, heavy static lines up to El Cap’s summit and helped rig those ropes, both to suss the route and get into position to shoot. And on redpoint day, Siadak was there to document Trotter sending, supported by Tommy Caldwell. Given the complicated logistics of documenting a 26-pitch wall, Siadak himself had to be a competent wall climber (which he is), plus a master photographer. The photos you see on the cover and in the feature were hard earned by both athlete and photographer alike: The two formed a team, each supporting the other, which shines through in the images’ craft and authenticity.
While Trotter had to extend himself physically and mentally on the final, 13-hour push, Siadak not only had to push himself physically, to maneuver quickly along the ropes, but also artistically, synching up with camera angles he’d scoped previously just as Trotter arrived at critical sections. “It’s definitely not as simple as rapping in, pulling out the camera, and clicking away,” says Siadak. “I’d spent a lot of time up on the route swinging around looking for different angles to get the shots I wanted.” In other words, the trick to the best climbing photos is in the preflight work to make something look like it wasn’t planned.
Take the sequence of Trotter sticking the “muffin-top dyno” on the second new pitch of his variation. Siadak had envisioned a shot that showed both the dynamic action and the lower apron of El Cap, but the lack of existing anchors on this part of the wall meant Siadak ended up too far to the right. So he pendulumed “violently” sideways to put directional cams behind a flake that let him then traverse left into position—well, almost. “I lowered down, swung left one more time, and was able to just barely perch myself with one foot smeared for opposition, and one hand grabbing a sidepull to prevent me from barn-dooring,” says Siadak. “I couldn’t hold the position for long, so I waited until Sonnie was set up for the dyno and then swung over, stuck the position, and fired off the shots with one hand.”
There’s a final thing you might not have considered, looking at Siadak’s vertigo-inducing photography: the fact that even El Cap veterans like these two are not immune to the exposure, a shared fear they were able to work through on the wall. “There were times when we were both a little spooked dangling on thin, little cords thousands of feet off the ground,” says Siadak. “It keeps the experience exciting.”
Concludes Siadak, “I’m not sure if Tommy or Alex feel that way, though—they both seem pretty damn comfortable no matter how exposed they are.”
—Matt Samet, Editor
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In this issue…
Sonnie Trotter takes you inside his labor of love on the FA of El Capitan’s newest VI 5.13 testpiece, a variation to El Niño/North America Wall that eliminates the A0 rappel—and adds three pitches of wild, out-there terrain.
2019 Photo Annual
From the boulders of Bishop to the sandstone of China, and from California big walls to Utah ice, we give you a first look at 21 of this year’s most amazing climbing images, from five of the top photographers in the game.
- Top 10
- Re-Gram: Sunrise/sunset photos
- The Big Question: How do you feel about pre-spray?
- Mini Reviews: Three new books
Talk of the Crag
- No Parking: How Squamish regulations may reshape #vanlife
- Learning to Trust: How climbing is helping Maine teens conquer anxiety
- Gear reviews
- SMC Kobah Pro Adze Ice Axe
- Five Ten Grandstone
- Mountain Hardwear Multi-Pitch 20
- Mountain Equipment Switch Pro Hooded Jacket
- Public-Private Partnership: How Reimers Ranch became the model for access in Texas
For the Love of Climbing
- The Problem With Sponsorship
- Brittany Version 2.0: Brittany Goris, the queen of self-reinvention
Grasping at Draws
- Unprofessional: The top 5 (worst) ways to get sponsored
- Point—Counterpoint: Grades don’t matter vs. grades are all that matters
- The top 5 rules for effective goal-setting
- Black-belt crag hacks
- Climb precisely to reach full potential
- Quick Clips: Quick fixes for common climber problems
The Climbing Q&A: Josh Wharton
A new department highlighting climbing artists.
- Finding the Flow: Featuring Rhiannon Klee Williams