The Real Thing

Posted on: June 1, 2004


Provo Canyon, Utah. A friend and I hunched over our packs at the back of her car, stuffing in ropes and jackets, water bottles and Fig Newtons. Beside us, two men who had been undergoing the same ritual as we drove into the parking lot shouldered their sacks. The sound of metal on tarmac rang toward us. I turned to look and one of the men caught my eye, giving a nod before continuing toward the trail, crampons grating over asphalt.

Bridalveil Falls is a wide waterfall, perhaps 500 feet in height, that is broken by a broad bench 200 feet off the deck. In winter, at its lefthand edge, the force of the falling water prevents it from freezing completely. Sheets cascade inside a translucent tube, the mist and spray splashing at the icy rims. You wouldn't want to climb it: you'd be instantly soaked, and the cauliflowered ice would be both tedious and insecure. My friend and I made our way up to the far right instead, where the ice was steeper and drier.

The two men from the parking lot were tucked beneath a rock alcove to the left of the waterfall's base. As my friend racked up, I watched as they pulled climbing gear and camera tripods from their packs. One of them set up an anchor to self-belay, while the other busied himself with his photographic equipment. Errant strands of conversation floated toward us, braided with the sounds of rushing water and the noise from Route 189, half a mile below.

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My friend climbed carefully up the first ten feet of our route.

"Wet," she said. A smile snuck in at the corners of her mouth. Her tools sunk deeply with each swing, the picks shivering in the blue ice. The ropes quickly grew dark as they began to run with water.

As she climbed, the conversation on the other side of the falls continued. I had seen a poster of the route some years before—a climber moving unroped at the fall's edge, the blurred flow of water contrasting strongly with the colors of his clothing. Perhaps, I thought, enough time had passed for that classic photograph to receive an update.

Our route was steep for thirty or forty feet before it, and the bottoms of my friend's crampons, disappeared from view. My mind began to wander. The mountainsides across the canyon reflected the midday light, while on our side the evergreens' deeper hues were enveloped in shadow.

"That's it! Great! Move a little to the left, so you're on the edge of the ice, against the falls!"

I leaned back against my anchor, a single screw clove hitched with ten feet of rope to keep me out of the dripping water.

"Perfect! Can you lean back and drop your right arm? Yes! Yes! That's it! Drop your head back and look up! Great! Hold that.... Got it! Great!"

My perch left me facing the two men. The climber, attired in an orange jacket, neon green helmet, black pants and blue gaiters, hung straight armed from his left tool, his right thrown back dramatically, his gaze cast upward to the improbable moves ahead. It was, I must admit, a striking scene, one man moving over an ephemeral medium. Meanwhile, my partner kept going, the rope paying out in increments as she fought out one of her more difficult leads.

I tried to divert my gaze to the trees on the canyon sides beyond the model, but the commands and the studied profiles crowded my attention. I couldn't be angry: it was a Sunday, and Provo Canyon, with Salt Lake City only an hour away and the highway noise whining incessantly below, offers a decidedly urban climbing experience. But as ten rolls of film rattled off, then fifteen; as two cameras became three, then four; as the poses lost their drama and became simply ridiculous, and the photographer's shouts filled the day while my friend continued to battle to the end of her lead, the realization that what I was witnessing might eventually end up on a poster or in an ad began to make me think.

Climbing photography often depicts moments that have little to do with the reality of the climb itself. What we see in such instances are simulations of the climbs the photos purport to represent. The degree of manipulation can range from a partner shifting to one side for the benefit of the photo to a much more studied composition: a model's clothing chosen beforehand to coordinate with the scene; the photo shoot coinciding with morning or evening light; the route and the model chosen for their aesthetics. Yet the degree of manipulation in climbing photography is rarely, if ever, disclosed. Contrast this with wildlife photography, where a declaration of facts (the Komodo dragon lured into the lens's range with a staked goat, the haunting visage of the wolf peering out from behind a tree captured on a wildlife farm) is de rigueur among reputable magazines.

Our goal with Alpinist is to celebrate adventure climbing and the lifestyle it inspires. When we began the magazine we approached photography as photojournalism. This is not to say we discount the value of a visual presentation of an idea. Working with the fickle nature of mountains and weather inherent to climbing often entails a careful orchestration of elements to produce a desired effect. Our photographic portfolios, which thus far have included the work of Kennan Harvey, Thomas Ulrich, Corey Rich and Topher Donahue, showcase the vision and sheer hard work of the best photographers in the genre today; they sometimes include images that have been set up to create a specific look and feel. But the majority of the images we publish, particularly the ones that illustrate our lead articles and climbing notes, are captured on the fly.

This is important to us for a simple reason. It is much more difficult to photograph action as it unfolds, especially in the mountains or on long routes, than in situations where the compositional elements are easily controlled. The difficulty in capturing the spontaneous moment contributes to its rarity. This rarity gives it value. If orchestrated photos are not distinguished from spontaneous ones, that value is diminished.

Finding successful, unposed shots is no easy matter, as any climber who hopefully reviews the photos from a recent trip only to find further additions to the butt-shot collection can attest. And, to be completely honest, even shots taken on the fly can be set up to an extent (for the record, the photo on Page 12 is hopelessly posed). Most of the shots in Alpinist, however, are and have been spontaneous. The publication of only such images will continue to be the ideal toward which we strive.

My friend made it to the top that day, and I followed her up the melting Popsicle, admiring her lead. We had no cameras, and I have no physical mementos from that climb. At the belay, we considered climbing the second tier, but a long drive remained back to Wyoming and we rappelled instead. The climbers across the way were breaking down their equipment and readying for home by the time we began our walk out. I'm still looking for their shot.

—Christian Beckwith



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