Monday, February 3, 2014

Cameras & Climbing

With elevated breathing and tensed arm muscles, I reached the base of the ice slab and firmly stomped my crampons into the snow, feeling the slack loosen against my harness.
"Lowy did you get some good pictures?" God, I hate myself for saying that.
The first statement that came out of my mouth after my first awesome, challenging ice climb was about the proof that it had happened? Ick.
As soon as I said it I cringed inwardly. Later that the day, on the bumpy van ride back to campus, I started thinking about why that was my initial thought.

I had genuinely enjoyed the day. It was awesome. I was on a natural high- I loved finding a new way to pump my adrenaline. I loved the satisfaction of a good secure swing of the ice pick and a sturdy foot chip to help you advance. I loved the feeling of being hot and sweaty beneath my huge clothes in icy weather. So I was enjoying the moment, right?

But I also wanted to preserve the memories. I wanted to show friends who I wish could have been there what it had been like. I wanted to see what it looked like when I was at the top of the climb. So how much of adventuring is really just for the adventurer and how much is for the street cred?

When narrating an extreme adventure, is it only a narrative if it is recorded in some form?

Herzog calls Marcel Ichac the "trump card" of the Annapurna expedition, in charge of filming, photography and general documentation (2-3). Does every adventure need an Ichac? With new and expanding technology like a Go-Pro we can all be our own Ichac's now.
Or the "first" descent of peak 7601 in backcountry Alaska... why is the documented descent assumed to be the first? Do those who completed that route before the video was taken feel resent toward the boarder in the video? Or do they not care because when they did it, it was for them and them alone? The combination of ice climbing and reading Annapurna this past week has made me interested in questioning why we document our adventures and who for.


  1. After finishing Annapurna I went down a two hour youtube hole during which I found two videos of Ueli Steck climbing the three North Faces in the Alps: The Eiger, The Matterhorn and Grandes Jorasses.

    Watch this one first:

    I eventually pulled my jaw up off the floor and then I began thinking about what it must have taken to get those camera shots. Obviously there were sweeping helicopter shots (those were easy), but there were also stationary shots that required people to not only climb up themselves with heavy camera equipment, but to identify exactly where Ueli would be climbing at certain points on the route. I gained an immense amount of respect for the cameramen who carried their gear up and then waited, roped onto a vertical face (likely for hours) for twenty seconds worth of footage each.

    Then I found this...

    I quickly realized that the shots that I had seen were in fact not from Ueli setting the record. They had been completely staged. Obviously it was incredible to see Ueli climbing and it's fantastic that so many resources were provided so that we could see him at work, but I simply couldn't get over the fact that this was all totally staged.

    While I don't think this takes away from his accomplishment, I think it raises a lot of the same questions that you talk about. Ueli already set the records, now he had to climb all of the faces again for a camera crew? For now I'll plead ignorance and pretend that every video I watch isn't totally staged (and I'm sure some aren't), but for me it takes away some of the legitimacy of many of the documentaries that populate the youtube sidebar.

  2. Rizzo, I think you make a really interesting point regarding the difference between doing something for one's self and doing it and having proof of having done it for the credit. While I do not think that the two are always separate, it does seem that many people since the invention of the camera have taken photos of themselves doing really crazy and awesome things, such as Jeb Corliss' extreme wingsuit flights, purely because they want to receive the "street cred" for doing it. Krakauer, himself, even took a picture of himself on top of the Devil's Thumb for the soul purpose of proving he had done the climb. While this is in many ways a completely personal issue and therefore impossible to judge as right or wrong, from my own experiences, doing something just for the credit does seem to take something away from the personal gain of the accomplishment. On many of my own adventures and outings whether they be fly fishing trips or hikes, while I am doing the activity because I enjoy it, if I find myself falling victim to wanting to get proof of what I am doing, I usually don't have the same sense of accomplishment that I would have had had I simply done the activity for my own enjoyment. Consequently, I think it is necessary to tread the line between wanting credit for an achievement and for simply wanting to do it for one's personal benefit very carefully if one wants to get the most out of an experience.

  3. I was also interested in how much effort the expedition devoted to photographing their exploration of Annapurna. I've been lucky enough to carry a pocket-sized point and shoot camera on camping trips. On the ice climbing trip, everyone whipped out their iPhones to take pictures - I can't imagine having to carry heavier and larger 1950s camera equipment in addition to different types of film.
    Krakauer spends a brief period of the summit of Devil's Thumb to take pictures. Similarly, in Herzog's mind the camera is essential gear for his summit attempt. Summiting Annapurna would not be complete without photographic proof, and he uses precious time on the summit to take photos of pennants and flag. After being buried by an avalanche, Herzog searches desperately but unsuccessfully for his movie camera. Schatz [161] is quick to search a crevasse to retrieve the camera containing views from the summit. Bringing home photographic proof of their success is of utmost importance to the team. Does photographic proof bring someone more satisfaction than a successful ascent?

    On a side note, the pictures in Annapurna helped me to picture how member's of the expedition looked in their gear and gave us a glimpse into early mountaineering. It reminded me of a story about film that had been recovered from an ill-fated 1911 Antarctic expedition. The Ross Sea Party became stranded on the ice in Antarctica for more than three years after their ship blew away during a storm. A box of negatives was recently found frozen in a solid block of ice in the expedition's photography darkroom at the base in Camp Evans where the team took refuge. These negatives have been restored give us a glimpse into polar exploration of the early 1900s. These photos can be found here: