Big Wall, Big Time
I climbed the rope with both of my ascenders, foot pushing down in the sling as I hauled myself up, feeling the breeze wafting from below. A big smile crossed my face. It was my first time on El Cap. That smile stayed with me the whole day – I couldn’t quite believe I was actually there.
My friends Jacopo Larcher and Barbara Zangerl contacted me six months earlier. ‘Will you come with us to Yosemite Valley? It would be our first time and we would really like to do something on El Cap.’ Me, that guy from the east coast of Canada, where I’ve learned my ropes on small cliffs, far from any California dreams?
‘Of course I’ll be there!’
I knew the valley was special for a lot of climbers – a unique sanctuary of gigantic rock cathedrals, a sacred place tucked in the Sierras of California. Maybe it would show me peace, truth, humility, sanity, or just simply blow my mind. I’d be walking on paths that legends had used before me. Even after 10 years as a rock climber, I had never set foot in the valley. I couldn’t hide my excitement. I was ready for my pilgrimage.
Jacopo and Barbara had already completed their project, El Nino – an eight-day push on the wall, during which they ran out of food and water. They decided it was easier to leave me home and focus on the 30-pitch route instead of figuring out how to bring me up with them. Once rested and ready, we would go back on it and shoot the climbing without the pressure of sending it for the first time. Now we’re here.
Leaves are changing colour and temperatures dropping. I wake up slowly in my hammock, bundled up in my sleeping bag against the crisp air. First thing I do is slide into my flip-flops, then drag my feet to the Columbia boulder to admire Midnight Lightning, the most famous boulder problem of all time – the Marlon Brando of boulders. I just allow myself to gaze at it, not to touch the holds yet. I’m saving it for the right moment.
The goal for the next three days is to get on the wall and set some fixed lines, shoot the first pitches – including some of the hardest ones – and pray for good light. Jacopo and Babsi are racking up the climbing gear in the meadows while I’m gathering my kit together. I don’t want to run out of batteries, don’t want to run out of memory cards, don’t want to freeze to death in the night, and don’t want to run out of snacks. Even if we’re only going to be up there two or three days, I just don’t know what I’m getting into.
Walking towards ‘the Captain’ of all the walls is like going to the principal’s office. I feel small, out of place, and I expect to be taught a few lessons in humility. At the base of it, loaded like a sherpa, I can barely tilt my head back to look at the immensity of the wall. My eyes search for the line where El Cap and the sky are supposed to meet, but I just see an endless expanse of rock. With my load pulling me back, I almost topple over. This is even bigger than I’d expected.
Jacopo leads the first hard pitch of the route, a few hundreds metres off the ground on tiny little edges, no problem. The sweep of empty space beneath us is dazzling. I’m satisfied with that first round of images; the mission already feels promising. We move on to the second hard pitch to continue shooting. I look down. The bottom of the cliff is in the shade, and the sun is at its three o’clock position in the sky, casting dramatic shadows on the wall. It’s simply breathtaking.
Babsi takes the lead. She attacks a pitch with a massive runout where she’ll be exposed to the risk of a big fall. She shows me two thumbs in the air as a sign that she’s ready. Once Babsi starts to engage above her last bolt, a zone where not many souls would dare to venture, I wonder why we do this. She is moving slowly but confidently, every move above her last bolt extending the potential fall. The only thing I can do is shoot – I’m here for that. I’m safe, attached to the wall, but she is so high above her last draw it’s almost unbearable to watch. When she clips the next bolt at 30-40ft above the last one the relief is immeasurable.
As a photographer, capturing images of people who risk their lives puts me in a strange position. We need to record their spectacular endeavours in order to share the stories with our friends and family, and for our own memories of course. But that double-edged sword is always dangling over me as a professional. What if something goes wrong? However, nothing compares to the rewarding feeling of perfectly capturing a great adventure.
After three days on the wall, I had a glimpse of what it takes to do big wall climbing and photography. You need to work – hard. We returned this year to repeat the experience. Jacopo and Barbara free climbed Zodiac, a route that sees a lot of traffic from aid climbers but has rarely been attempted free. With 7 pitches in the 5.13 range from a total of 21 pitches, the last ascensionist who free climbed it was Tommy Caldwell in 2003 immediately after the Huber brothers did the first free ascent. Many others have tried, including Joe Kinder, Ethan Pringle, Alex Honnold, Ro Miller, Lee Cossey and Lawrence Dermod. Jacopo and Barbara will be able to put their names in the summit log with a first female ascent. When they say they will do something, it is rare that they don’t execute.
François Lebeau is a Montreal French-Canadian-born photographer who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He creates images which are an anthem to the beauty of everyday life and his work wanders in the crossover style between photo-reportage, portraiture and adventure photography.