The author gives rigged photography a shot with a disposable camera, a great way for beginners to hone their skills without smashing their gear.
Greg Garretson was dangling 150 feet off the ground. The wind was pushing and spinning him in his climbing harness as he fought to keep his lens steady.
Below him Ryan Palo was fighting to become the first local guy to climb Just Do It, one of Smith Rock's most difficult routes. Garretson knew there might not be another chance to capture a successful attempt, so he steadied himself on his fixed rope, fought the vertigo and kept his eye to the camera. Then—free fall.
Palo let out the familiar scream of muscle failure. Garretson followed the climber with the lens until the rope stopped Palo's fall, dozens of feet below, snapping a dozen great shots of the stellar climber.
At Smith Rock State Park ("Smith" as the local dirties say) the two men have become central figures in a sub-culture of technical photography that has sprouted from the broader climbing scene and is rising beyond a simple form of expression.
Climbers love photos and videos taken from above, from the sides and up close. This is partly because straight up ground shots tend to showcase climbers' backsides, but there is also an allure for the generally unseen world of mid-route rock climbing.
Luckily, there is a small crew of dedicated climber/photographers at Smith that provide rare aerial shots of fellow climbers digging deep for glory, or pitching off the cliff in free-fall.
The actual number of these specialists ranges from five to 10, "depending on who's injured and who's around for the season," said local climber Andrew Hunzicker.
Climbing is a hobby scheduled around injuries and rest days, and photography is a way to get out there precisely when roping in for a day of climbing is out of the picture.
"It's a way to live climbing without doing it," said Palo. "In climbing, injury is a fact of life and, even if you're not injured, you just can't climb everyday."
Already a bit of a household name around these parts for climbing some of Smith’s most notable and difficult routes, Palo is one of the climbers that's really been getting after roped-in photography.
"It keeps me in the community I love," he said.
But capturing climbing from this angle is motivating for other reasons, too.
"It's rewarding to get the shots that I wouldn't otherwise be able to get," said Garretson, who has been tinkering with climbing videography for the last five years.
"It's my creative outlet," he said. "And when you're shooting something you’re interested in, it's exciting."
There is also support from the broader climbing base. The promise of a photo from a killer angle is enough to get most climbers in the mood to cooperate with the photographers.
"It's always a team effort getting the ropes up, staying safe, and keeping the gear safe," Palo said.
"That's important to remember," echoed Daniel Jordan, a climber who recently began taking roped-in shots.
He had some good advice for newcomers.
"You’re going to need the usual climbing stuff like a harness and a locking belay device," said Jordan. "You’ll also need a rope, an ascender, willing subjects, and a decent camera."
Some of the fixed-line photographers have really nice cameras, but a basic digital camera is a great way to start. It allows for photo editing, but more importantly it allows for photo sharing.
"That's how you get ahold of those willing subjects," Jordan said.
So, the ropes are rigged, the photographer cradled in his harness, the climber's got his feet smushed into those impossible little shoes. This is when the challenge starts.
With years of rock climbing experience, these guys have already developed a lot of crucial skills necessary to maneuver around fixed lines, but this is more complicated.
"You have to keep moving to get your shot, and to stay out of the climber's way," Palo said.
It is poor taste to blow a climber's attempt by snagging them in the fixed line.
"When you’re stressed out it takes a lot of energy," Garretson said. "I try my best to get the shot. Sometimes they come out really nice and sometimes you look like a total novice."
With ascenders, which are handles that bite into the rope, and a rappelling device, the fixed-line photographer constantly moves up and down the rope.
By kicking, swinging and snagging bolts they control their lateral position in relation to the climber. This is its own genre of photography.
"The whole time I'm trying to focus," said Garretson. "There's a lot going on up there. It's really a lot of work."
That’s the thing. These guys are getting great shots, but they are working their tails off for them. It's an apt example of how engrained hobbies can be in the lifestyle and identity of those who fall ears over ankles for the activity of their choice.
Photo taken by Ryan Palo.