Editor's Note: Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have completed their ascent of Yosemite's Dawn Wall. See photos of the moment they reached the top.
Tennis players have Wimbledon. Golfers have Augusta. But for rock climbers, the most important and sacred proving ground is El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite monolith that commands center stage in California's Yosemite National Park.
For photographers, capturing the climbing action on El Cap is a tad more challenging than setting up a tripod and shooting courtside or at the 18th hole.
Photographer and filmmaker Corey Rich calls El Capitan his office. Currently, Rich is camped out on a portaledge with a pair of the world's top rock climbers who are trying to make history on the giant formation. Kevin Jorgeson, 30, and Tommy Caldwell, 36, are heading into their second week of vying to become the first people to "send" the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, which many in the climbing world claim as the longest, hardest free climb in the world. (Caldwell is a National Geographic 2015 Adventurer of the Year.)
For the attempt to qualify as a free climb, the men are attached to ropes for safety but use only their bodies to ascend.
Rich, 39, has spent countless nights tethered to El Cap's tall granite walls over the past two decades, sleeping in portaledges and documenting some of the most significant moments in climbing with his camera.
From El Cap Meadow, down on the valley floor, you can barely see the group of tiny figures moving incrementally up the 3,000-foot overhanging shield of granite. What they are doing, from this vantage, looks no different than any of the other hundreds of ascents El Cap receives each year. Yet if Caldwell and Jorgeson complete their mission to free climb the Dawn Wall-that is, climbing each segment, or pitch, in succession, without falling-it will be one of the most impressive achievements in 21st-century sports.
We called Rich on the mountain to hear more about what it's like to punch the clock at 1,200 feet up the side of El Capitan.
You've been shooting El Cap rock-climbing for over two decades. What's changed?
At first, you'd come up here with rolls of film. You didn't have a cell phone. You took pictures and just hope you exposed correctly. Three days later when you got down off the wall, you'd develop your film and find out whether you screwed up or did a good job.
Today it's pretty remarkable that we are sitting up on these portaledges on the side of El Cap with 4G coverage and devices that allow us to capture imagery and communicate those pictures with the entire world instantaneously.
Everyone on the wall right now is wearing two hats. There are currently four of us: two camera guys [Brett Lowell is the other] and the two climbers. If you're a climber, you're focusing on climbing and helping with rigging. If you're a camera guy, you're shooting motion and stills. That's a really unique characteristic for storytelling in the climbing world today.
What is your approach to capturing stills and motion?
What's important to understand is that this isn't a photo shoot. This is photojournalistic-at least in many ways. There's no direction on our part. Brett and I are hanging on ropes for hours, waiting for either Tommy or Kevin to climb. And they only climb once or twice each day.
Brett and I know that we're probably not going to make the best pictures and video of our lives this week. For one, Tommy and Kevin are climbing at night due to the fact that temps during the day are too hot for climbing. They need good, cold conditions. For better or worse, that means climbing at dusk or at night. Even in January!
So, what are good conditions from a climbing perspective are actually bad conditions from a photography/video perspective. We're shooting in the last light of the day-in a shadow. We're shooting at night. We're pushing the limits of what modern cameras can even handle.
How long does it take for you to get into position?
We don't spend 200 days a year on granite, like Tommy and Kevin do. We're super slow. We're carrying heavy cameras. So Tommy and Kevin give us a two-hour warning before they're about to climb. Brett and I move up the ropes and try to get into position. It's a real web of color-coded ropes up here. You go up blue, get on black, swing over to green, get on the tan line, and then tension yourself off the white rope. It all takes a lot of time.
Are you thinking more about safety or getting the shot?
We've been joking that it's "safety fourth."
Climbing is first. Photography/video is second. Having a good time is third. And safety is fourth. [Laughs] But in all honesty, you're constantly double-checking your system. Beyond that, you still have a very limited number of places you can actually get to. Even if you thought that over there would be the best perspective, it's still impossible to reach unless there's an anchor. Or unless someone like Tommy, who is a Jedi at rigging ropes, can figure out a way to get you into position.
Climbers have always held the "bond of the rope" as sacred. Does that bond exist between photographers/filmmakers and the climbers that they are documenting too?
Yeah, there's a huge trust factor. It's something that Tommy and I have talked about over the years. You want to know that the people who are next to you know what they're doing, that they're committed, they're psyched, and they're safe. Then, on top of all those basic climbing fundamentals, you still have to be able to tell a story and make interesting pictures.
Any close calls?
Not on this trip, thankfully. But in 2005, I was shooting Tommy and his then wife Beth Rodden on El Cap during their free climb of the Nose. After shooting Tommy, I began rappelling down to the belay to join my friends when I just heard Tommy, in this very stern voice, say, "Corey, stop! What are you doing?" The way he said it just made me freeze.
I looked down and saw that I was 12 inches away from rappelling off the end of my rope and falling 2,000 feet straight to the ground! He totally saved my life that day.
The entire climbing world is watching, and rooting, for Tommy and Kevin. As a climber yourself, are you having a hard time staying focused on the task at hand?
Totally. Last night I was shooting video when Kevin was giving pitch 15 a burn. He got to the crux, and I was shooting wide. I was so captivated watching Kevin give this incredible performance that I just let him climb right out of the frame so his head was cropped out ... This isn't a football game. We're watching our buddies. We really want them to succeed. And just as climbers ourselves, we want them to succeed. So we have to snap out of it and pay attention.
What is your motivation to continue going up on El Cap?
If you saw me sitting here right now, I'm sitting on a granite ledge about the size of my ass, with my feet dangling off into space. I'm staring at Yosemite Valley below, and above me I can see the most insane section of free climbing I've ever seen. I love the idea that this is where I get to live and work.
But more important to me is that, in some small way, I hope I can help share this sport I love with people and motivate them to be outside and push themselves in whatever capacity that is. I think that's my role as a storyteller. To help expose people to these wild places, and encourage them to get out there and enjoy the outdoors at their own levels.
Truth is, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I'm with my buddies, on El Cap, doing what I love to do. It's as good as it gets.
Check back in at National Geographic for continued reporting from the Dawn Wall. In the meantime, check out our interactive history of climbing in Yosemite.
—By Andrew Bisharat, photo gallery by Sadie Quarrier