Though not a lawyer, my father served me a contract over Thanksgiving dinner many years ago, stipulating that I’d actually return to college. I’d recently told him that I’d be taking a semester off from school to travel the West and photograph rock climbing. Understandably, he was concerned that I would never go back. I signed the contract, noting in my head that the language merely said “go back to school,” not “finish a college degree.”
And while I technically fulfilled my contractual obligations to my father, begrudgingly returning to school after some of the best six months of my life, I didn’t stay there for very long … I’d already seen too much.
Prior to this six-month “drive-about,” I purchased an old Honda Civic, removed all seats but the driver’s, and loaded it up with all my climbing and photography gear, including 100 rolls of Fuji Velvia film. I hit the road with less than $3,000 to my name, and drove from climbing area to climbing area, sharpening my teeth and making pictures along the way.
You meet many fringe characters on any aimless journey like this. I met two legends of the climbing world: Kurt Smith and Jeff Jackson. They invited me to come with them to Mexico, to a climbing area north of Monterrey called El Potrero Chico, a canyon of 2,000-foot limestone big-walls. At the time, El Potrero was still a nascent climbing area, but it would go on to become one of the most popular climbing destinations in the winter months. I headed south with Jeff (aka “Jefe”) and Kurt, unaware what fantastic, long-lasting friends these two climbers would ultimately become.
From El Potrero, Jefe pulled me deeper and deeper into the Mexican backcountry, luring me in (as he’s done to many other unsuspecting climbers) with his unique brand of spellbinding adventure storytelling. He told me about a mystical big-wall tucked away in the northern Mexican desert. It was dangerous, too, Jefe said. The wall was guarded by mummies (las mommias de Monterrey), naguales (half-horse, half-human creatures), centipedes, peyote and blood-thirsty narcos.
“Corey, the wall is called El Gavilan,” Jefe said. “It means ‘The Hawk,’ and it’s steep as shit!”
Putting up a 900-foot climbing route is the type of manual labor on par with high-rise construction.
Jefe and his climbing partner, Kevin Gallagher, had finished the “construction” phase of El Gavilan, and were now working on the even tougher part of doing all the climbing moves, gunning for the first ascent. Jefe invited me to join him and Kevin and venture into Los Remotos, the primitive pueblo village sitting in the shadow of the mighty El Gavilan.
As a climbing photographer, I was still learning the ropes—literally, the most efficient way to move and shoot while hanging from a rope dangling in space. But also I was learning how to work with climbers and talk them into getting early starts so we could be in the right place when the dawning light casts its first glow and makes everything look magic. Near the top of the 900-foot El Gavilan, the rock bi-folds vertically into a series of incredibly geometric dihedrals; I wanted to be up there, at dawn, shooting rock climbing.
However, Jefe and Kevin slept later than I would’ve preferred—I wanted to leave camp at midnight. Instead we didn’t wake up until 3 a.m. We reached the base and began ascending the fixed ropes at dawn. It quickly became clear that we were too late; we had missed the golden opportunity.
I was a little pissed. Clipped to an anchor a few hundred feet up the wall, I found myself dozing in my harness, my head leaning against the cold rock. Then, through a squinted eye, I saw a reflection in my glasses of this incredible color palette. I opened my eyes and looked around it was the most incredible fucking sunrise that I’d ever seen. And there was Kevin, hanging in space and inching his way up the fixed line.
Instantly I realized: THAT was the photograph! Who cares about missing the upper dihedral pitches in the golden light? The picture was unfolding in front of me.
I fumbled as quickly as I could to get my camera out of its bag. I started shooting a few frames with a 17-35mm lens. Because I was shooting film, each depression of the shutter button cost me money, the one thing I didn’t have much of. So I was conservative.
It was the sunrise that was spectacular, so I exposed for the highlights in the background. With Fuji Velvia 50 ISO film, the latitude for exposure was not that great—exposing for the highlights would silhouette Kevin. Because Kevin was swinging around in this ethereal pink and blue atmosphere, I knew I needed at least a 1/250th of a second shutter speed to prevent blur. I opened the aperture to f/4.0, knowing that doing so would actually make the focus difficult. So I manually focused to make darn certain that Kevin was as tack sharp as possible. I banged off three or four verts, and one or two horizontals.
Clearly the verts were the winners.
It wasn’t until months later, when I was back in my dorm room at San Jose State, editing my road trip’s 100-plus rolls of film down to the best images, that I realized how good this picture was. Not just in terms of its technical execution, but in its emotional value of memory and experience.
I sat in my dorm room, thinking about how I had no plan for how I’d one day make money as a photographer, or how I’d pay for the next trip, or how I’d turn this passion for photography into a career. But those anxieties dissipated when I looked at this shot. Holding the slide up to the light, I saw something that I’d gone out and created. Somehow that seemed like the most important thing. It really was about doing what I loved, following my heart, making pictures and telling stories about the subjects I cared about.
It’s been interesting to see this image get published in a variety of magazines over the years. It found its way into Rock and Ice magazine (where Jefe, a brilliant writer, now works as Editor) and Outside magazine, and various other places. Ultimately the slide found its home at Aurora Photos, a stock agency.
But it wasn’t till 10 years after that road trip that this picture came full circle back to me.
I was walking through an airport, en route to probably the thousandth rock-climbing shoot of my career, when I noticed a magazine stand out of the corner of my eye. Once again, a palette of familiar colors reflected in my glasses, resonating in my brain and opening a nook of memory. I turned toward the magazine rack, and there was this photo of Kevin Gallagher, jugging up El Gavilan, on the cover of the Economist. The cover copy read, “On Top of the World.”
And that’s how I felt, affirmed that climbing, this sport that I love, has the power to convey these universal messages and themes of our collective human experience: of challenge, risk, and success. All those things we face every day when finding our paths, or making our careers, or just trying to create something meaningful and lasting in this world.
I thought back to those days when I was roaming the West in my beat-out Civic, and realized that not much has changed. It really is about following your heart and doing what you love. The rest falls into place.