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Climbing Photography Redux: The Thin Red Line

September 25th, 2008

What started as a conversation about how to do project photography turned into an invite for me to revisit a photography style I haven’t practiced in nearly two years: Climbing Photography.

Mikey Schaefer, a sponsored athlete and professional climbing photographer himself, was going to Washington Pass to attempt to free a classic aid line on Liberty Bell. Kate Rutherford, his partner, was due back at the end of the week. With my grant due (and thus a moment’s respite) the timing and the weather were looking perfect. Plus, he’d fixed the first five pitches with static line and all I had to do was show up, clip in, and stay ahead of them. It seemed like a no-brainer. I said yes. (at right: mike and kate in the meadow below Liberty Bell)

I enjoyed driving out with Kate, who is a bit of a celebrity in the climbing world, and we talked non-stop about our interests, families, and recent pasts. We met Mikey at the Blue Lake trail head parking lot where he, in his custom outfitted Sprinter Van, chef-ed up some tasty wraps with fresh produce from a friend’s farm near Winthrop. Plans were discussed, gear was sorted, then we passed out in our respective vehicles. 5 a.m. wasn’t far away.

The next morning I tromped off an hour before Mikey and Kate; the goal was for me to get my kit rigged and up about three pitches before they showed up. I didn’t quite make it, but managed to stay ahead with minimal waiting. They free climbed below me as I snapped frames and, in short order, we were sharing a belay as I transferred onto the next fixed rope. The two fit climbers made things look three grades easier than they were.

I kept scooting up the solitary rope dangling in space, trusting that Mikey had fixed a good rope to a solid anchor with no sharp edges to cut it. Once, when I was shooting in a limestone cave in Thailand, what I thought was a safe surface cut through the rope’s sheath and was working on the core. I was lucky that I started from a platform halfway up the cave wall, for I only had to ascend half the rope. If I’d started from the cave floor there’s a good chance the rounded, but sandpaper-like limestone, would have sawed through the core as the rope bounced under my shifting weight. (at left: Kate cooks french toast in Hotel Schaefer, a custom outfitted Sprinter van. they cooked every meal–and cleaned. incredibly gracious hosts!)

Swinging free of the anchor, I moved up the rope. Being out of practice, I felt a little insecure on the steep wall, so I focused on ascending and analyzing the route for the good images. With two cameras, a video camera, audio equipment, water, food, and their extra gear I was weighted down. Ridiculously. I felt like a junk show and probably looked it too. Patiently, they waited for me to get in position over the first real crux, a variation of the original line Mikey had bolted to avoid what he thought would be a four-foot dyno (a complete leap of faith) to some minuscule edges rated at an estimated .13d (or really hard). His line went at a mere .12c.

With some contortion, grunting, and feats of sheer levitation he joined me as I hung near the anchor below the final crux. Above, though there were still two aid pitches, he felt confident they would go free more easily. Because of the different climbing style he was using and because he hadn’t been on the route since his teens, it was almost completely new to him. Sure, employing Yosemite tactics he’d aided up the first five pitches, worked a few of the moves, and added some fixed pitons for safety, but he hadn’t set foot up higher in over ten years. (at right: kate on an oft-photographed aid pitch climbing free at 5.11)

Kate followed with grace as I positioned myself a touch higher and prepared to shoot the last major crux; a roof involving a heel hook, toe hook, and sheer power only strong fingers and serious core strength can muster. These were sporty boulder moves in the alpine environment, several hundred feet off the deck.

Mikey pulled it off and Kate wasn’t far behind. They still had seven pitches to go, plus a descent and a hike off the backside, but this was my high point. Rappelling down the fixed line, just before they untied and cast it down to me, I surveyed the route. Buoyed by their success, I thought didn’t look so hard. If only I could still climb 5.12.

I didn’t climb a lick on this trip, but I had a chance to combine my photography with the mountains once again. It was a wonderful invite, great company, and felt like a holiday after grinding away in the office. I relished the respite and would have stayed until the weather turned, but work called. I had another grant due in three days. Returning home I drove alone, windows down, along the sunlit Skagit River singing at the top of my lungs. (below: mikey traversing into the corner of his variation pitch)

(pulling the roof crux at the top of pitch five)

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2 Responses to “Climbing Photography Redux: The Thin Red Line”

  1. […] Climbing Photography Redux: The Thin Red Line – Tim Matsui …Easy way to make a difference through education: … "iPhone at the NY Photo Festival 2010" http://bit.ly/9wL13A 12:07:57 PM May 15, 2010 from Facebook … Mikey Schaefer, a sponsored athlete and professional climbing … […]

  2. Eddi says:

    Dag nabbit good stuff you whanperspippers!

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