Passion and Beauty

Posted on: July 1, 2006

John Hayward chases his dreams. Joshua Tree, California. [Photo] Heinz Zak

My interest in captured adventures began when I saw the cover of Mountain 78, showing Ray Jardin on Separate Reality, in Yosemite. This image of a long-haired man stuck to the underside of an enormous roof perplexed me and my friends, and we tried to turn the picture sideways in order for it to make sense. Until that day, our world of climbing had been only vertical, not horizontal, but the upright trees in the background were hard to ignore. In 1979 we traveled to California to find out for ourselves.

As we hitchhiked to the Valley, I left my camera—a heavy SLR given to me by my biggest sponsor, my grandma—behind in a car. It hurt not to be able to capture Yosemite's perfect white granite. I soon hitched back to Merced, where I spent half my money for the three-month trip on a new camera. Since then, I've always had one with me.

In my pursuit of beauty on the crags and the walls, I discovered something else: essential friendships. At first I felt shy about talking to famous climbers, but I soon learned they were willing to help. Wolfgang Gullich, one of the world's best, became an early friend and collaborator. I didn't know much about climbing photography then, and there weren't many role models to emulate. But it seemed wise to be on a rope next to Wolfgang in order to see the expressions on his face and the steepness of the rock. Until he did the first free-solo ascent of Separate Reality in 1986, however, I didn't realize how difficult it would be to watch, close up, one of my best friends in a dangerous situation.

Wolfgang seemed insecure at the start of the roof crack, and I felt almost too helpless and nervous to take pictures. Fortunately he calmed down before the crux, several hundred feet above the Merced River. The resulting photos became my first to make it into climbing magazines around the world.

Over the years I've worked with more than a hundred of the world's top climbers. Not much has changed in my aesthetic concept: I just want to take the best picture possible! The character of the climber, his self-expression on the rock, the individual nature of the climb—I want these elements to appear in my pictures with authenticity and honesty. On the other hand, although this may sound contradictory, I don't like to take photos of the initial redpoint ascents. I respect this magic time, so the climber can be alone with the rock and his thoughts, without the disturbing noise and presence of a camera. The essence of climbing can still be apprehended in a more relaxed atmosphere; I've spent days on El Capitan in order to get the best angle, the best light, the best movement. I can't think of anything more fun than this search for perfection... except my own climbing!

These have remained my biggest passions, particularly after Wolfgang died in a car accident and I realized that my photos would preserve the spirit of such great climbers, and their traces on the rock, forever.

Climbers on Holy Spirit (7a+), Meteora, Greece. [Photo] Heinz Zak

Gerhard Horhanger redpointing his route Ganja (5.13b), Ewinge Jagdgunde, Zillertal, Tyrol, Austria. [Photo] Heinz Zak

Heinz Zak, belayed by Angelika Zak, on the first ascent of Heaven or Hell (5.12+), Karwendel, Austria. [Photo] Heinz Zak collection

Alexander Huber, Voie Petit (5.13c, 450m), Grand Capucin, Alps, France. [Photo] Heinz Zak

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.