The Eyes Have It

Posted on: July 1, 2005


Stefan Glowacz, Waste Not Want Not (5.12c), Looking Glass Rock, North Carolina. [Photo] Harrison Shull

Iam a rock climber. My milieu is sunny stone—anywhere I can find it. I am fortunate to live in the southeast, a region that may well have the best concentration of quality cragging in the country. As I grew up, the deeper I explored the south's storied and colorful climbing scene, the more its adventure-climbing ethic shaped my perspective.

Onsighting routes is the single most important aspect of my climbing. Knowing all the holds, moves and pro reduces a climbing experience to the lowest common denominator in both a physical and mental sense. For me, the goal is not to learn every move by rote, but rather to savor the challenge of getting the climb on the first go. The appeal lies in the unknown.

Taking photographs can be part of this adventure. There is nothing like shooting a climber as he or she attempts to onsight a route. Confronted with the unexpected, climbers display a full range of emotion as they struggle through each section of a route. They are apprehensive about turning a blind corner. They fight to hang on while placing a delicate piece of gear from a bad stance. Their focus intensifies as they climb farther from their last piece. They are relieved or even surprised to find a good hold. In short, they act naturally, and their eyes are the points at which their physical situation and their emotions meet.

Capturing these spontaneous moments in a climber's eyes is no easy task. As the photographer, I must know when these moments are going to occur on a route, so I try to climb the route first myself to determine the best shooting angle for each one. Which way will a climber's body face when she does the move? How will I catch her eyes? Where will she likely stop for gear? When will she climb out of my field of view? Once I've answered these questions, I set myself up and wait for the drama I've imagined to unfold.

Most of the images on these pages depict climbers trying to onsight a route near the upper end of their abilities. In many cases, I am shooting the route "onsight" as well—on the fly, with the light I have on hand. I have not shot test rolls on the route or scoped a number of angles. I do not have assistants holding reflectors for me. I have not asked the climber to dress in the latest clothing. I am shooting the route simply because the climber is psyched to give it a go. The climber's enthusiasm to be on the route and my challenge to capture it in real-time merge into a powerful synergy.

It could be argued that my approach limits my options, or that I am reducing the odds of getting a good image. Sure, my misses are more mundane, but after all the effort and patience, the hits are immensely rewarding. In the end, my motivation for capturing a compelling moment at an obscure eighty-foot southeastern crag does not come from fame and money. Perservering through challenges to bring back a unique image—one that encapsulates the essence of a particular climber's experience on a specific route—is the ultimate prize. If these images go on to publication and in some way inspire others to seek out their own moments, so much the better.

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