Hanging with The Claw

24th May 2013

It's May and it's Snowing! Even for England that’s pretty extreme. I recently spent a couple of weeks in Arizona where the temperature regularly hit 30; yesterday in Yorkshire it couldn't quite make it into double figures!

I was up in North Yorkshire at the huge Limestone amphitheatre that’s known as Malham Cove to photograph Steve McClure, or "Strong Steve" as he's affectionately known by the climbing fraternity. He'd been working away over the winter months on several extremely hard projects through the most grotesquely overhanging part of the 300ft high crag and he'd just managed to climb one of them. Which he's called "Batman"

Over the years I've been lucky enough to be present and photograph Steve on some of his most Iconic first ascents and groundbreaking repeats of classics, so when the call came "we're heading up to Malham tomorrow, do you want to come" I was both honoured that once again my friend had put his trust in me and thrilled at the prospect of seeing him in action on one of the country's hardest routes in such a spectacular setting - that was before it started snowing! They say "every cloud has a silver lining" and the positive side of the snow meant the air temperature was cold, exactly what Steve needed to hang onto such small holds.

The short walk-in to the crag warmed me through and Luckily for us the rain held off for the 15min walk, before resuming torrential status on and off for the rest of the day. When the sun did occasionally poke its head out from behind the black clouds the Cove immediately heated up like an oven which, for climbing at such an extreme standard isn't actually that conducive!! But rather nice for us spectators to just strip down to a t-shirt rather than the "full-on" down filled mountain duvet I was wearing!

When Steve rung me to see if I was interested in taking the photos a few weeks earlier and mentioned that he was getting close to doing his project, I decided I'd like to try and photograph him on the climb from two completely different angles. This way I would be able to show the exact same moves but from wildly varying perspectives - from above him on a rope using a wide angle lens and from the ground utilising a telephoto lens.

I’ve often thought of shooting simultaneously from various angles utilising multiple cameras, In fact I have tried it a few times but haven’t been that impressed with my results. You don’t have that much control with the camera on the ground – Normally I would abseil (Rappel) in on a rope and use a camera with a wide angle to short tele, something like the 24-70mm f/2.8. I’d mount a Pocket Wizard on this to enable be to remotely trigger the camera on the ground, which would be mounted on a tripod with the appropriate lens, on this occasion a 200-400mm f/4, pre-focused and framed on the climb and set to Programme mode and Matrix Metering (not ideal) but the best option for the ever-changing light we were experiencing. The idea is, every time you take a photo from the rope, the camera on the ground also takes a photo – same move, different perspective, get it?

However, on this occasion I didn’t actually need to employ the remotes – let me explain. On very hard climbs which are at the cutting edge of what is humanly possible the climber will always need multiple attempts at climbing the route from bottom to top in one go. Falling off is a prerequisite in the modern day arena of hard sport climbing. Linking all the moves on the route and climbing it in its entirety are known, as “Redpoints” and Steve would be throwing down at least three of those today!

For Steve’s first Redpoint of the day I decide to shoot with the “long tom” from the ground. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Malham Cove (See photo above) the Cove reaches a height of about 300ft at its centre with rising hillside on its left and right flanks. These sweeping, grassy hills rise steeply, meaning you can walk up them and shoot straight across at the climber from the same height, rather than, in most cases, shooting upwards (see photo above - steve is the tiny orange dot at the left side) 

The camera and lens combo went on a sturdy tripod and then it was just a matter of waiting and watching. A lot of photography is about waiting and watching, and climbing photography is no different, its about understanding angles, where the climb goes, what body position the climber will make at a given point during the climb and then putting yourself in the right position to capture the image which will hopefully depict that in an authentic way.

So, Steve climbed and I watched, occasionally firing off a few frames. By the time he clipped the chains at the top of the route and lowered back to the ground I pretty much understood the complicated moves and body positions required to climb up this vast expanse of white and black – all good.

Next, I gather up a 100m of rope, don harness, change lenses and head off to the top of the crag to rig my ropes and abseil down into poison (I’ve decided to shoot the crux, hardest section, from the rope) I abseil about 60ft into a position I think gives me the best possible angles, check exposure and focal lengths and wait for Steve to climb. I’m not going to ask Steve to “Pose” for photos, as this is an actual Redpoint, so its up to me to get the best possible shot while the action unfolds in front of the lens, and the speed at which Steve has to climb (its not like a 100m sprinter, but then your not hanging from a rope) the route doesn’t allow many shots.

So once I’m in position I wait. Steve climbs, I shoot, he falls from a hard move and hangs in space from a bolt, suspended by his rope a 100ft from the ground. We look at each other and laugh at the surreal situation before he lowers back to the ground and I climb back up my rope and de-rig it. Back on the ground we chat about the climb, he rests up and I get ready to shoot from the ground again. This time I have a better idea of not only what I want but also, how the moves look from both the ground and a rope and the sequence they’re climbed in.

Burn number three will be the last of the day, Steve’s last chance (today) and my last chance to “marry” the moves I shot from the rope, to the exact same moves I’m going to shoot from the ground.

Steve climbs quickly and smoothly to the rest below the roof, here he shakes out his arms to allow the blood to flow back into them. He looks up and behind him at the series of hard moves (the crux) He sucks air in to his lungs, reaches up to a ridiculously small hold, pastes his feet high on the wall (he’s now horizontal beneath the roof) and explodes up the desperate sequence. I snap away trying to focus, meter and recompose angles at the same rate (which is hard) eventually somewhere near to the top he falls. He looks across at me from his suspended “high-point” and grins. I grin back. It’s been a good day, hanging with the “Claw”

If you fancy reading about Steve's successful ascent in his own words go here or a write-up on the worlds N0 1 climbing site, UKClimbing.com go Here

Big thank you to Steve McClure for putting his trust in me once again, his sponsors Marmot, Petzl, Beal and Five Ten and to the ubiquitous Rab Carrington for driving and his company.

Awesome day, thanks Guys.