Taking Risks to get The Shot

Alex Honnold nears the top of El Capitan as his climbing partner Hans Florine (barely visible in red) follows. Photo by Paul Hara

Imagine being suspended 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor with nothing but a 3/8th inch rope to hold you and your Nikon D4.

The dizzy, heart stopping image above was taken a few weeks ago by Camera West customer Paul Hara who lowered himself off the top edge of the granite rock called El Capitan to document with his Nikon, a record breaking climb.

Paul, who produces web based training courses for the Lawrence Livermore Lab is an avid climber and photographer. When his friend Hans Florine and Alex Honnold decided to attempt to break the record for climbing the Nose Route up El Cap, Paul knew he wanted to record their attempt.

Here’s what Paul had to say about his coverage :

Two weeks before the event my wife and I and two friends went to the top (of El Capitan) to stash water, descent shoes for Hans and Alex, camping gear and climbing gear.  I did not bring cameras on that trip.  On that trip I did rappel down a short distance from the top to find the best angle to shoot from.  The position I chose had me hanging about 3,000 ft. up with a clear view all the way to the bottom. To go over the edge of El Capitan “cold turkey” like that was unnerving.  At least when you climb up El Cap from the bottom to the top, you get used to the exposure as you climb.  I found a position were I could see some black water stripes on the granite and I decided to try to include them when I shot the event.

The day before the event we went up again, this time with camera gear.  I rappelled down again, this time with two cameras to make sure I had the right lenses and to make sure I had systems worked out so when I looked down, I wouldn’t see my own rope, or my feet, or my other dangling camera body.

The morning of the climb Alex and Hans got kind of a late start, not getting off of the ground until about 8:15 am which meant the light would be getting pretty contrasty by the time they got to me.

I and my companions were on radios so we could monitor the climbers whereabouts as they climbed.  This meant I could wait a while before I rappelled down.  Waiting while hanging in a climbing harness can get uncomfortable so I waited as long as I dared before rappelling down.

When they were about 3/4 of the way up, I went down.  I could clearly hear the spectators in El Capitan Meadow cheering even though they were 3,000 ft. below me. I couldn’t see the climbers until they were about 200 feet below me and then I started shooting.  They were moving fast and I was shooting fast.  I was shooting mostly vertical orientation and tried to capture the exposure of the climbers and their distance off of the ground.  But I also shot closer up for more detail.  My Nikon 24-120 on my full frame body was pretty much the ideal lens for this.

When Alex, the lead climber saw me he said “Good morning” in a casual but breathless way.  I was speechless.  How often do you have a world class athlete involved in the heat of competition do something like that?

After both climbers went past me I ascended the rope back to the top to take pictures of the timing watch and the climbers looking back down at the spectators in the meadow below.

For perspective, Paul added : “I have climbed a handful of big walls, including El Cap…it took me and my partner 5.5 days as opposed to Hans and Alex climbing it in 2:23:46!”

By the way, one of Paul’s great images was awarded the Extreme Photo of the Week honors by the National Geographic website. Congrats Paul. Well deserved!

Spectators watch the climb from El Capitan Meadow. Photo by Margaret Hara

That's Paul at the right as Alex nearly reaches the top. Photo courtesy of Tom Evans

Nearly at the top, Alex Honnold takes a breather as he watches his climbing partner Hans. Photo by Paul Hara

Hans takes a look below him as he nears the summit. Photo by Paul Hara

Alex and Hans acknowledge the cheers from the valley floor after breaking the speed climbing record. Photo by Paul Hara

A special thanks to photographer Tom Evans for his photo of Paul Hara on the ropes. Tom can often be found shooting climbers from the valley floor with his Canon 800mm lens. He publishes his photos and climbing reports on his website, El Cap Reports. Check out Tom’s great photos from this climb here.