The initial pitch began as many Zion routes do. Dirty, sandy, loose and awkward, but somehow it was manageable. The off-angled fist crack of the second pitch looked intimidating, but it too was achieved. Bowe led the flared hand crack of the third pitch that soon cast out onto the wild features Navajo sandstone is known for. During this pitch the sun crested the summit of the Watchman and warmed the November cold from the rock’s face. Going off a vague route description I began the fourth pitch. The first of two dead ends had me climbing a mossy flared crack that I repeatedly greased out of. The second dead end involved traversing a deteriorating section of stacked blocks covered in patches of grass to accessing a tapering finger dihedral. Eventually the seam petered out and I found nothing on the horizon. Character building down climbing followed.
Ten feet above the belay I discovered the unlikely escape from the flared crack. Run out climbing through elephant ears, patina edges and shallow cracks put us back on track. Dirt and moss rained down the cliff as I clambered to the anchors. It was heads up climbing and I liked it. Bowe and Charlie, not so much.
From the ledge we stared at the pitches above. It was just before sunset and in the sharp light the stone appeared immaculate, begging to be climbed. Below the village of Springdale hummed with traffic, the cottonwoods shimmered with their golden leaves and the surrounding sandstone appeared warm and inviting. Five more demanding rope lengths remained to gain the top. Without a speaking a word we looked at each other and chose to rappel.
A few months ago I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who happened to be a photo editor. I was looking for feedback and he was willing to help. One nugget of wisdom he gave regarding climbing photography was not to shoot the easy stuff. It was something about not sending him images from Indian Creek. He said, “People shoot it because it’s easy,” or close to that. I believe the editor was implying that he sees tons of shots from the Creek and that if an image of a single pitch route from the area had a chance at being used it had better stand out otherwise it would be swimming is a sea of similar photos.
This is kind of a subjective. I have peers who believe fixing a line and jugging it at any crag is too much work. Whether it’s up the talus cone in the Creek or at your local roadside crag they would consider it more effort than it’s worth. I take the stance that it doesn’t take too much energy to set up a fixed line for single pitch routes, but do believe if you don’t practice shooting “easy” climbing shots now you’ll be unprepared when you go out to get the harder ones.
The first images I took from a fixed rope didn’t turn out. In fact they are totally forgettable. In the beginning I was so excited to be shooting from above and so focused on the mechanics of ascending and descending that I let composition and peak action fly out the window. I quickly realized that if I were going to be any good at this I would have to put some thought into it.
I started by asking questions before I left the ground. Has this route been photographed before? (As a rule I try not to shoot routes that I have seen photos of, but make exceptions from time to time.) Are there interesting angles to shoot from the ground? Does the route favor one side of the climber or the other? How’s the light? Where’s it coming from? How’s the background? Will it be distracting or will it add something? What color is the rock in relation to the climber? Will they stand out enough? The next lesson learned was that shooting from a line fixed to the anchors of the route you are shooting doesn’t (most of the time) really work. There’s a lot of talk about the dreaded butt shoot, but have you heard about the crown-of-the-head shot? There’s nothing more disappointing after you have set up your line and jugged repeatedly to only come home with countless images of faceless climbers. Yes, one of these shots might be interesting, but a whole day of shooting these will bum you out. Getting to the side, clipping a bolt, placing gear and using the anchors of the route next to it or even further seem to do the trick.
Practice, practice, practice on the easy shots translated well when the shots became harder. I recall shooting a route in Death Canyon. Our party of three climbed up five or six pitches before I set up my line. As I weighted the equalized anchor of cams and lowered out over a 1000 feet of air I was happy to have spent so much time shooting the “easy” stuff. It may not be the best shot, but I am certain I have never seen this image before…
What do you think the difference between an easy and hard image is?
Visited family in the Uintah Basin for the holiday. I was surprised by the wave of emotions. Here’s a excerpt from my journal.
July 5th, 2014
The burnt aroma of sage mixed with the musky-sweet of the cottonwoods fills my chest. The summer’s morning light casts fading shadows along cliffs of gray sandstone. Fields of sweet grass and alfalfa wink droplets of dew. Irrigating sprinklers tisk in rotation. Stands of tamarisk shield the meandering path of the stream. I bend and touch the warming earth, letting the breath escape my lungs. “Hello Earth.” A tiger stripped mosquito flaps its wings near my ear. “Hello family.” There is no wind to cut the coming heat. Memories pulse through my battered soul… the sticky affection of family and the longing to feel her love. Above clouds spread thin and useless against a pale sky. I press my hand firmly to the ground searching for a pulse.
Last week I had the opportunity to work with my friend and photographer Dane Cronin. We were shooting mountain bike athletes riding their bike sponsor’s new 2015 line. It was a great experience in which everyone involved learned a great deal. Sometime in the week Dane and I began comparing the experience to ski photography. He was in the camp that skiing was easier to shoot. I asserted they might be about the same, maybe skiing slightly more difficult. There are definite similarities. What do you think?