Kodak Courage: Are Climbers Taking More Chances for the Camera?

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Michele Caminati Elder Statesmen Curbar Rock Climbing Fall

Michele Caminati an instant from shearing his rope on Elder Statesman, Curbar, England. Photo: Michael Hutton

On March 28, 2017, Italian pro climber Michele Caminati tied in to lead Elder Statesman (HXS 7a, or 5.14 R/X) at Curbar Edge in England. The day before, the 32-year-old had redpointed the route, an arête that in typical gritstone fashion offers technical moves and limited protection. In the five years previous, he’d also sent the notorious grit routes End of the Affair (E8 6c), The New Statesman (E8 7a), and Master’s Edge (E7 6c). Caminati had toproped Elder twice earlier that day before getting on the sharp end.

Caminati reached the crux, where he placed a piece in the crack six feet back from the arête, and then executed the sideways slap required to establish around the arête. His feet swung wildly, and he failed to control the pendulum. As he fell, his 10mm rope ran over the arête; as his weight came onto it, the rope sheared, resulting in a 25-foot groundfall that broke his heel and wrist and concussed his belayer.

After the accident, online discussion focused on why Caminati had chosen a single-rope system instead of the typical Peak District standard of two half ropes. On the first ascent in 2004, British climber Steve McClure had tied into three cords.

But a bigger question wasn’t asked: If Caminati had sent the dangerous route already, why had he returned?

As it turns out, he’d gone back to get video footage.

As pro climbers strive to maintain their spot in the pecking order, they are often forced to seek out harder, bigger, or bolder lines—and sometimes all three. Maintaining “relevancy” has been status quo for decades, but now there’s the added stipulation that it all must be captured on film. This isn’t a recent development, but the demand has grown in the last decade, thanks to a media landscape that requires a constant stream of fresh content for social media feeds, marketing material, blogs, and magazines. In today’s golden age of spray, pro climbers must become photographers or filmmakers themselves, or have someone else there to shoot.

This expectation isn’t just from sponsors, either. The larger climbing community demands it, too. “Photos or it didn’t happen” and “Where’s the uncut footage?” are common refrains. When the late Ueli Steck soloed Annapurna’s South Face in 2013, his ascent was contested by doubters in online forums because he dropped his camera mid-climb and didn’t get any shots of the summit.

As climbers continue to push their boundaries with the added pressure of creating media, one can only wonder how much of their motivation comes from the click of a shutter. “Kodak courage,” the idea of pushing beyond your comfort zone because a camera is there, has long been a concept in many adventure sports. After seeing wingsuiters die in horrendous accidents, sometimes with a blinking helmet cam to capture the grim event, it seems possible that such filmed fatalities might become a part of the climbing world.

it’s a reasonable request that climbers who practice the “safer” disciplines like bouldering or sport climbing document their hardest ascents, but it presents a conundrum for those who have built their reputations on riskier pursuits like headpointing, alpinism, and free soloing.

Brad Gobright, 28, a pro climber in Las Vegas, has gained notoriety for free solos of thin, off-the-deck face climbs like Doub-Griffith (5.11c/d) and Hairstyles and Attitudes (5.12c) in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. In the last few years of being filmed, he’s experienced both sides of the argument. “It’s great if a camera can motivate someone to give it their all, if it’s the extra boost they need to accomplish their goal,” he says. “However, if you add the element of danger, you’d be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ to do it just to look cool for the camera.”

In January 2016, Gobright was trying Viceroy, a 5.14a R in Boulder Canyon. With a winter storm predicted, Gobright knew it was probably his last attempt for awhile. His friend Taylor Keating was there to film for a movie Cedar Wright was making about Gobright.

“I didn’t feel 100 percent ready, but I wanted to do the climb and knew it would make an awesome addition to the film,” Gobright says. As temps dropped, he went for it. He reached the first crux at 20 feet and fell. His only piece popped and he hit the ground, breaking his left ankle and two vertebrae. “That ended my danger season and also made a great addition to the film,” he says. “Almost every ascent that I’m proud of has been done without a camera there. Even my Viceroy attempt was mostly done through personal motivation. However, cameras did play a role and I paid the price for it.”

For the high-risk ascents Gobright has in mind for the future, he says he wants the motivation to be purely his own: “I would certainly not have a camera guy there,” he says.

The title of the upcoming movie about Gobright? Safety Third.

“Some people love to be in front of the camera, and it causes enthusiasm and excitement,” says Dr. Christina Heilman, an Idaho-based coach in sports and exercise psychology (mindset-coach.com) who works with adventure athletes. “For others, the camera creates an expectation that can cause stress, anxiety, and fear”—a distraction from the task at hand.

Still, to climb at an elite level, whether it’s a risky discipline or not, requires an incredible ability to focus and ignore outside factors, so the camera might be no more than a blip on the radar for some.

“I’ve always been up front with videographers and photographers. I will tell them, ‘I might do this thing; I might not. It’s your choice to be out here with me,’” says Nina Williams, a 26-year-old pro boulderer in Boulder, Colorado. “I don’t tell them when I’m going for the send. That’s part of my deal.” With a February 2017 ascent of the 55-foot V11 Ambrosia in Bishop, California, Williams completed the King Line trifecta on Grandpa Peabody, having already sent Footprints (V9) and Evilution Direct (V12). All three ascents were filmed, but Williams says the camera didn’t register thanks to more than a decade of being filmed and photographed. It’s just part of her job, she says.

Others, like Hazel Findlay, a 28-year-old UK trad climber known for hard, dangerous ascents like Once Upon a Time in the Southwest, an E9 in England, and Air Sweden (5.13b R) in Indian Creek, have a different take. “On many shoots, I’m only doing what I’m doing because of the camera,” Findlay admits. “I’m hanging on this chossy face, and at first I feel comfortable, but [then I start to think,] ‘Do I still feel comfortable? Why am I doing this again? Wait, is all this motivated by money or is it art? But, Hazel, you’d do this route anyway…’”

Hazel Findlay Rock Climbing Headpoint Trad Southwest

Hazel Findlay on Once Upon a Time in the Southwest (E9 6c), Devon, England, re-creating her lead of the heady route. Photo: Courtesy Reel Rock Film Tour

In 2011, Findlay became the first woman to climb an E9 with Once Upon a Time, and the next year, she teamed up with REEL ROCK to return for filming. “I said no problem, the route wasn’t that scary,” she says. “I could do it again.” But back on the sharp end, “The route felt nails, and there were sections I chose not to do at all,” she recalls. When the motivation to do the line came from herself, she wasn’t scared; but when the motivation came from being filmed, she became fearful. Findlay found this to be an important lesson: “Courage to do something is intrinsically linked to my desire to do it,” she says.

Clearly, highball bouldering and runout trad are different animals than sport climbing and bouldering, where Kodak courage can be like having friends cheer you on. “That’s using it in a positive way to channel your motivation and help you send,” says Alex Honnold, a 31-year-old pro climber known for free soloing. “But soloing is such a different world, where having a camera around shouldn’t change anything. You should be doing exactly what you normally do.”

Many filmmakers will likewise consider personal motivation before a camera is turned on. Zac Barr, head producer for Sender Films, says their first filter is choosing the right athlete. “We only work with climbers who know themselves and their climbing really well. They should be able to identify and communicate what they are and aren’t comfortable doing for the camera,” he says. “That’s our approach to all climbing shoots, whether there’s a rope or not.” Honnold, for example, doesn’t have a cameraperson there for his hardest ropeless ascents. “[It] changes the experience, not just because there’s a camera there, but because there’s somebody near you with a rope that could help you,” he explains. “Plus, you know that if anything happened, they’d be traumatized.” Many times the filmers are more gripped than the athletes. Barr describes it as the same anxiety viewers might feel when they watch the footage. “It’s natural to feel the true consequences of the sport,” he says. “There’s no denying what the stakes are.”

When Honnold shot a commercial a few years ago, he free-soloed Heaven, a 5.12d crack in Yosemite. Honnold soloed it on his own suggestion, not that of the filmers, and he felt comfortable despite the “hot and gross conditions.” However, when he reached the end on his second lap, the rock felt slippery and his hand was bleeding.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not into this,’” Honnold says, “and I looked up and the crane operator was two meters above me at the lip. I just said, ‘Gimme the rope,’ and a rope came down.” Honnold admits he was “technically rescued,” but he says if the film crew hadn’t been there, he would have just chalked up a bunch and done the last move. “If it’s just me, it’s worth it, but if it’s me and nine dudes watching, it’s not worth it,” he says.

With Honnold, typically only the “easy” free soloing gets filmed, pitches that “feel totally casual.” For the 2010 film Alone on the Wall, most of the movie was shot on the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. The footage was taken from one day when he estimates the hardest pitch climbed was 5.10. “It’s all easy climbing, but with the right music and storytelling, people think it’s outrageous,” he says.

When Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, a 1,750-foot 5.12c in Potrero Chico, Mexico, in 2014, he and Cedar Wright had spent a week sussing the route; during the actual solo, the first time Honnold saw a cameraperson was on top. Honnold celebrated for a minute then switched into work mode to pose on the topout, shot by a drone. He and the camera crew went back the next day, jugged lines that had been pulled to the side, and shot two 5.12a pitches and a few 5.11s. They chose these sections because “they were high and exposed, and I felt secure on them,” says Honnold.

It’s standard filming protocol for Honnold to use fixed ropes to reach certain pitches. “I’m really good at wiggling out of my harness in crazy places,” he says. Every movement is completely calculated, and before filming, Honnold has already climbed the route. Barr explains that having a film crew changes the dynamic from a day out climbing to a full-on shoot. “These climbing scenes are re-creations, and we’re not hesitant to tell people that,” he says. “Viewers are sometimes disappointed to learn that, but we don’t want to be up there when the climber is pushing it.” Says Honnold, “There’s extensive conversation between subject and photographer.”

According to Williams, Findlay, Honnold, and Barr, that conversation usually starts with a “do whatever you’re comfortable with” from the cameraperson, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an athlete feeling pressure.

In 2014, Williams sent the 20-foot Splash of Red, a V10 in Rocklands, South Africa, on her second attempt, thanks in part to “perfect overcast conditions.” Beau Kahler was there to film, and wanted her to repeat it at sunset, after the problem had been in the sun all day.

They hiked up with pads. Near the top, she faced a long reach to a greasy crimp. “Oh, my gosh, I’m actually scared,” she thought before bailing. The next afternoon, Williams reached the top and was terrified again. “I kept going up to this crimp and coming back down. I could hear the fear in my spotters’ voices,” she says. Eventually she committed, noting that this ascent felt a thousand times scarier than her original one. “In retrospect, I can’t believe I did it again,” she says. The footage eventually appeared in REEL ROCK 10.

Perhaps the same thing can be said of Caminati after his fateful day. The reality is that the climber is the only one who can decide what is best. On the day he fell, Caminati was relaxed because conditions were good and he had done the line again on toprope. There was no reason for him not to be confident in a good outcome.

Everyone wants to see thrilling climbing footage, but it’s not like ultimatums are given to athletes to climb dangerous lines or else. However, it remains that Caminati, a pro climber, was only climbing Elder Statesman that day to get photos and video footage, some of which he shared online as a warning about rope shearing. In the meantime, Caminati is healing and returned to climbing. "Three months after the injury I finally feel to be climbing again," he wrote on Instagram. "Nothing too hard, but at least I manage to fit some proper climbing shoes and fight at my limit as before."

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