A Year in the Life of a Climbing Photographer - Climbing Magazine

A Year in the Life of a Climbing Photographer

Planes, trains, and broken luggage: one year with Colette McInerney
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While the life of a traveling climber/climbing photographer might seem to be all glitz, glamor, and exotic destinations, travel is strenuous and disorienting. You’re often rootless, and schlepping untold pounds of gear around the world and up the cliffs takes grit and patience. We asked Colette McInerney to take us on a world tour of her busiest year yet, from October 2015 to October 2016, to understand how much work went into getting the killer shots. From Japan to Israel to Spain to China to the States and beyond, McInerney journals about her life on the road.

climbing photography daila ojeda la suama sport climbing

Daila Ojeda climbing at the otherwordly La Saume crag near Briançon, France. Photo: Colette McInerney

I’ve always kept a diary. As a kid, I had an assortment of brightly decorated journals and Hello Kitty diaries complete with miniature locks. I loved writing about my ideas on life, and continued to jot down my thoughts and feelings over the next 15 years growing up in Nashville, up through college in New York City.

I wanted to be a writer and thought I’d major in it. When I found climbing, I wanted to write about the community. But my skin wasn’t thick enough. Writing always felt personal. When I started shooting photos, it was a great relief because it had nothing to do with me.

In 2008, I started a blog with photos to share stories from the road. By 2010, I was traveling so much I had to take more photos just to remember the places I’d been. I also began to shoot video. Since then, I’ve made a living selling photos and videos to climbing publications and manufacturers, worked with companies from Red Bull to Five Ten, and shot top climbers like Sasha DiGiulian, Emily Harrington, and Jonathan Siegrist. To make ends meet, I’ve worked side jobs, from production work to waiting tables to catering events to being a personal assistant. I even drove a beer cart at a golf course one summer for extra cash.

Over the last seven years, I haven’t stayed in one location more than three months. Most years, I’ve flown about 30,000 miles, jugged about 8,000 feet of rope, and hauled enough gear to, in 2015, create a serious back problem. I’ve missed birthdays, weddings, and graduations to live such a transient life. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that there are only a few things I know how to do, and shooting is one of them.

October 5, 2015

Tokyo, Japan

I conceive of the year in terms of climbing. The climbing year starts in fall: It’s when the good temps arrive and your biggest problem is figuring out where to go.

That’s why being stuck in a city is so hard. In September, I moved here with my boyfriend, Mikko Mäkelä, for a one-year position he landed at a university south of Tokyo. This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to settling down. Several times a week, I walk outside and lament, “It’s perfect sending weather!” Mikko rolls his eyes and says, “It’s just perfect weather, Colette, for, like, living.”

October 21, 2015

Mizugaki, Japan

Sweet escape. Koyo is the Japanese word for “autumn,” and the Mizugaki forest is the best Japan could give me. People come to see the colors change. Brilliant oranges, yellows, and deep reds speckle the forest, which is dotted with perfect, tight-grained granite boulders. The good weather makes my skin smile and my belly soft. The crisp temperatures create the perfect friction for the slopey granite bouldering.

November 3, 2015

Narita International Airport, Japan

I wouldn’t consider Japan a “great hub” for what I do. I naively thought I’d be able to hustle jobs in Tokyo like I had in the States. Come to find out all the “Yes’s” and “Of course’s” I got when I first arrived were mere cordialities typical of Japanese culture.

The only job I’ve landed so far is shooting Ofer Blutrich, a Black Diamond athlete in Israel. The shoot will require 20-plus hours of travel and will cost me a quarter of what I’m going to make. “Why?” you ask. Well, the short answer is I fucked up my tickets to Tel Aviv. The long answer is that about every six months I have the “serious talk” with myself about how, “Well, this might not be working .… ”

November 10, 2015

Tel Aviv, Israel

“We’re going to have to drive south of Jerusalem. There are some people throwing homemade cocktail bombs along the north side. It’s usually nothing. But not worth the risk—you know, being your first time and all,” Ofer says as we drive to Ein Prat, one of Israel’s few open climbing areas. The Israeli government has “closed” many areas to climbing because they have bigger issues to tackle. I get it, kind of. I’m not Israeli and find it difficult to wrap my head around the country’s complex history and ongoing unrest.

Blutrich has been developing Israel’s climbing for the past 15 years. Ein Prat is a stout desert limestone cliff, with rugged Mediterranean scenery. Here, amidst the fresh rock and spiny desert plants, the sketchy drive and country’s sociopolitical turmoil feel distant and unreal.

November 11, 2015

Tel Aviv

“Why does my Wifi keep dropping?” I ask at the Performance Rock climbing gym near downtown Tel Aviv. In the gym’s front room, there are thick walls, no windows, and no natural light “Oh, that’s because most of these buildings double as bomb shelters,” says Blutrich matter-of-factly.

November 19, 2015

Tel Aviv, Airport

The day before I fly out, there’s an attack in Paris. At the airport, two young girls in front of me chat excitedly. One is blonde with blue eyes, the other with darker hair and skin. I’m aware that profiling is a way of life here. Even with my US passport, airport security still removes every single item from my carryon luggage, checking every hard drive, wire, camera lens, and case. I’m afraid they may see the climbing footage and erase it, just because.

Next to me, as security unpacks my bags, the darker of the two girls is being interrogated. “What’s this?” the security woman asks, pointing to a booklet with the word “Islam” on the cover. “Why would you have this? Who were you with? Where are your parents from?” And finally, “You’re not going anywhere.” The girl is almost in tears. As I’m repacking my gear, I hear the guard order the girls to sit and to call a family member or a friend. They’re going to miss their flight.

November 25, 2015

Siurana, Spain

Nalle Hukkataival La carriola siurana spain sport climbing

Nalle Hukkataival works the moves on La Carriola (5.14c), Siurana, Spain. Photo: Colette McInerney

For the Black Diamond climber meeting, we’re installing portapotties as well as putting up signs about how to handle human waste. I’m also filming a short with Hazel Findley about her shoulder surgery last summer and subsequent recovery. It’s time for work mode.

When you’re hanging in a harness, you have an hour before you lose circulation to your legs. Today, I’ve forgotten my belay seat, and so spin around in my sport-climbing harness as I film Hazel climbing up at nearby Montsant.

I jumar “gym-style”—one jug and a Grigri. I might go up and down my line 15 or 20 times to get the perfect shot. We’re shooting mainly picturesque moderates—for Hazel, on the recovery program, this means mid-5.12s. The first couple of hours, there are too many people and the light is harsh. Then, end-of-day light settles as Hazel tries a pumpy 5.12b. As I shoot video, I steady myself by finding a foothold for one leg and flagging the other. Hazel’s breathing deepens then spikes as she searches for holds. I can sense her panic setting in. Everything glows bright orange; Hazel’s eyes grow wide with the struggle and anticipation of the fall. And then, PING, she’s off and halfway down the route.

I zip down the ropes as the sun sets. As I touch down, I feel the blood rush back into my legs. It’s the same as ever: My back is on fire and I’ve tweaked my neck. “Wanna do a pitch?” someone asks. Uh, I’ll pass.

December 3, 2015

7 a.m. Tokyo Metro

My wheel just exploded off my roller duffel amidst Metro rush hour during my commute to Narita Airport. Don’t worry: Nobody slowed down! They made sure of that. Just another reminder that the Japanese are hyper-polite until it comes to the Metro, then it’s, “Good fucking luck, lady!” Every 50 feet or so, the wheel falls back off. I stick it on again and press through the crowds.

December 11, 2015

Hong Kong, China

Three girlfriends and I visit Hong Kong and Qingyuan, a newer climbing area in mainland China. Tour guide Olivia Hsu is twerking her Mandarin to get us from A to B. She orders the best Chinese cuisine I’ve ever had. I’m obsessed with dim sum, Xiao Long Bao, and dumplings.

In a suburb outside Hong Kong, we try to find the Tseung Boulders, but the cabby we’ve hired remains convinced we’re looking for shopping. It takes a firm tone before he agrees to drop us off in a deserted neighborhood near the granite blocks.

“Shopping?” he yells when we tell him where we want to go.

“No,” we reply. “No shopping!” We point to the surrounding hilltops. “Climbing. Hiking.”

“Shopping,” he says again, shaking his head. Poor guy. So confused.

December 14, 2015

Qingyuan, China

Qingyuan China Photography Landscape

View of the valley from "The Farm House" in Qingyuan. Photo: Colette McInerney

On our last night here, we order the special pot chicken at our little hotel restaurant. Moments later, the chef walks out to the front yard. He returns holding a live chicken by the neck. He probably enjoys the horrified look on our faces. We’re the only Westerners for days. Once he’s back in the kitchen, we all sit in silence and wait for the thud. BAM! Now I’m staring into the pot and the chicken head has bobbled up to stare back at me.

December 15, 2015

Hong Kong

My wheel falls off my duffel again. Olivia asks a roadside repair guy to fix it. He’ll try, he says. He’s using pliers on the axle when another guy walks up and chimes in. “Yeah, he can fix it,” the interloper says, “but it’s just going to break again if you keep putting too much shit in there.”

December 31, 2015

Yangshuo, China

“You can’t miss it. It’s off the main road along the river. Of course, I haven’t been in eight years, so it may have changed,” Olivia tells me during our farewell in Hong Kong. Like many areas in China, Yangshuo is growing so fast you wouldn’t recognize it from one year to the next.

Yangshuo is a tourist town bubbling over with karst formations. The humidity never seems to wane. Each morning, you’re sure that it rained the night before, but it’s just condensation. At the cliff, the view of rice paddies filters through a light haze. The limestone tufas are still phenomenal, albeit slippery.

Mikko has flown over from Japan. We hop on scooters and meld with buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, bikes, humans, and animals all converging on the roadways. Mikko, true to his Scandinavian roots, labels it “organized chaos”; I can tell he’s just trying to comfort himself as he marvels at the guy carrying four industrial-sized gas canisters on his motorbike.

February 9, 2016

Tokyo-Seattle Flight

Ideas from the sky on this 13-hour flight:

  • Cheesiest chick flick that I wouldn’t dare watch in public. Next, a drama with a second glass of wine and a good cry. That always freaks out the person next to me.
  • Do not drink too much wine on this flight. Trust me—not worth it.
  • Note to self: Always bring extra socks, underwear, toothbrush, and deodorant. Do not stray from this agenda if you care about feeling half-human when you arrive.

February 20, 2016

Somewhere, California

On the 16-hour drive from Seattle to Bishop, I forget what side of the road to drive on. I’m just past Klamath Falls, in the Modoc National Forest. There’s only empty road, pine trees, and wandering mountain tarmac. Amidst my jet-lag-fueled brain fog, I gaze at the single yellow line and make a split decision. In America, it’s to the right, right?

March 1, 2016

Bishop, California

I’m in Bishop, filming and shooting for the first ever Women’s Climbing Festival. A local hostel has been gracious enough to let festival attendees stay for free. When I walk in, the “host” is about to take a fat bong rip. “Ummm … can I get my room key?” I ask. “Now?” he replies, setting his bong down, adding, “Like, right now?” The door code, he’ll tell me, is 420420.

March 7, 2016

San Diego, California

Daila Ojeda, Barbara Zangerl (Babsi), and I have just arrived in San Diego for “BD Bootcamp,” a training camp we organized with Black Diamond, who will be filming the whole thing. So far, nothing has gone smoothly. For the first three days, our coach has us doing heavy injury prevention and muscle-stability workouts, instead of camera-friendly campus boarding and pumping iron. At one point, he has Babsi crawling on the ground, holding her arms out in various directions to isolate and stabilize a brewing shoulder issue.

Then, when I give Daila oregano oil for a waning cold, she ends up puking for two days. Oh shit, I think. I’ve killed her. It turns out she contracted a virus the week before in Bishop. Now Babsi has it too, and the house we’re staying in feels like a movie-style meth shack, dark with the curtains drawn and coughing and wheezing in the background. I keep my distance, hoping my hearty Irish genes keep me well. Over the next week, we’ll settle into a routine: breakfast, gym, light lunch, second gym session, then the beach for a walk, then early dinner. We’re usually in bed at 9. Daila calls it the abuela (grandma) program.

April 13, 2016

Grampians, Australia

The best part about dating a climber with a 9-5 is that when you’re on a trip with him, it’s all about climbing. This time, my goal is Serpentine, a mixed 5.13b up brilliant orange rock on the Taipan Wall. The hardest part will be the mental crux—its stealthy runouts. It takes me five days to work up the nerve to even try the thing. With three climbing days left, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen. Then, just like that, it does.

May 16, 2016

Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Jonathan Siegrist Gimmel Express Sport Climbing Photography

Jonathan “J-Star” Siegrist drops the hammer to climb Gimmel Express (5.14c), Gimmelwald, Switzerland. Photo: Colette McInerney

When you show up in Switzerland and you’re not mind-melted as a photographer and climber, there is something seriously wrong. We’re in the majestic Jungfrau region; each day, we take a cable car to Gimmelwald, a hamlet perched on the edge of the Bernese Mountains. It feels like a fairy tale, but I’m exhausted. The travel has done me in. Fortunately, Jonathan Siegrist, whom I’m teaming up with to document his takedown of Switzerland’s hardest sport routes, has enough stoke for us both. Within a week, the alpine hikes, fresh air, and flawless limestone have my brain, psyche, and creativity back on track.

June 2, 2016

Céüse, France

CLIMBING! I’m not planning to pick up a camera at all. One, because I have my mind set on one of my hardest routes to date and, two, because the hike to Céüse is an hour uphill, and if you drag anything up that hill you better use it. Right now, it’s safer to leave it at the bottom.

August 3, 2016

Niemisel, Sweden

This is the first destination of Mikko and my four-month trip. He’s taken a sabbatical from work. Northern Sweden doesn’t have a ton of climbing, but this wall is sick! It’s a featured, slightly overhanging pane of volcanic rock. Striations formed from long winters of snow and the subsequent melt-off make for beautiful photos. Plus, there are 14 hours of daylight. The lodging is amazing, too: a cabin in the woods, equipped with a wood-burning sauna and riverbed entrance.

August 4, 2016

Niemisel, Sweden

Mikko hurt his finger; life is not so good.

One of the realities of living on the road is that injury can end your happiness. It’s shitty. This impending doom—the inevitable breakdown of our bodies—was my catalyst for shooting and filming, as I suspect it is for many others. We need something else to feel fulfilled and to make our living. What happens when our fingers give out—what then?

September 1, 2016

Briançon, France

I’m focusing on a film project. The idea is to check out some lesser-known zones in the Briançon Hautes Alps region. I see why so many climbers have settled in this valley, with its alpine vistas, magical, slate-roofed hillside towns, and plethora of outdoor sports. The best part is local Yann “Diego” Ghesquiers, who’s been crushing here since you were in diapers. He might be 20 years your senior, but he still climbs circles around you despite having done a 10-kilometer run that morning and riding his bike to the cliff. Touché.

October 1, 2016

Flight from Stockholm to the USA

I’m on my way back stateside to my dad’s spare bedroom in Nashville. It’s going to be fall soon in the Southeast—my favorite time of year. I can already hear distant thunderstorms rolling in and smell the rain. My dad always opens the windows when the storms come in. My bags sit in the corner. Covered in airline stickers, they look more tattered and torn after every trip. Amazingly, the wheel on my roller duffel is still intact, though bent slightly inwards from my latest overweight check-in. Maybe it’ll last one more round.

In the meantime, I’m setting up a slideshow tour for five locations in November, highlighting my favorite venues. Editing images and pulling out the gems reminds me that my life is enchanted. Yes, this enchantment takes a lot of work, but a life capturing travel, climbing, and the people who do it is well worth the effort.

I flip to a picture I shot at La Saume near Briançon (see opening photo). The drive was heinous: five miles on a dirt road full of ruts and big boulders. The hike was a Stairmaster, and my pack jammed with photo and rigging gear felt like it weighed 200 pounds. And then the trail opened onto one of the most pristine valleys I’ve seen. A shepherd’s cabin nestled on the lush green floor as sheep grazed in perfect alpine meadows. To the right and down-valley, great limestone cliffs bulged from grassy hills, perfectly overhung as if made for climbing. It’s not obvious in the moment, legs sore and chest still heaving from the hike, but these will be the moments that stick with me and keep me climbing and shooting days, weeks, and years down the road.

Visit coletteloc.com to see more of Colette McInerney’s work.

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