Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Ex-Bee photographer records daring climb up El Capitan

Former Modesto Bee photographer Corey Rich checks his camera while perched on El Capitan as he photographs the Dawn Wall climb by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in Yosemite National Park on Tuesday.
Former Modesto Bee photographer Corey Rich checks his camera while perched on El Capitan as he photographs the Dawn Wall climb by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in Yosemite National Park on Tuesday. james.clayton.lucas@gmail.com

To suggest Corey Rich has a bird’s-eye view of the historic climb going on in Yosemite National Park might be an understatement.

Our fine feathered friends haven’t ventured nearly as close to the climbers as Rich, who began his career at The Modesto Bee as an intern in 1996.

Two days after Christmas, 36-year-old Tommy Caldwell of Colorado and 30-year-old Kevin Jorgeson of Santa Rosa began their ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in a 3,000-foot free climb, using only their hands, feet and safety ropes.

Experts will tell you these gents are making perhaps the world’s most difficult free climb because of the smoothness of the mountain’s face on the route they’ve chosen. Only those who have tried to climb these kinds of walls can even begin to understand the skill, experience, strength, endurance and sheer desire necessary to complete such a task. Heck, staircases wear me out. Yet there they are, inching their way up the rock.

And there is Rich, 39, right with them capturing their efforts – their daily successes, struggles, failures and victory – but most of all, their will to conquer the Dawn Wall. This is his love as well, a life’s dream being fulfilled. He joined the climb Jan. 3, just 48 hours removed from a trip to South America, using the ropes that dangled to the valley floor to catch up with them already well into their climb.

“It began with watching tropical storms roll in on a beach in southern Brazil and it will end with me hanging on a rope, 2,000 feet up the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, documenting what might be one of the most monumental climbing achievements of all time,” Rich posted on his Facebook page that day.

In fact, just about everyone involved, from the climbers themselves to Rich to others shooting from the ground, has been posting on their Facebook pages (search for his at Corey Rich or Corey Rich Productions).

Each day from the mountain, he’s produced spectacular photos of their climb, including some shot through the doorway of his tent shelter. He’s photographed virtually every step, reach, pull, blister, torn fingernail, fissure and crease over the past eight days.

By Friday, Caldwell had made it past the roughest pitches. Jorgeson struggled to keep pace on the sheer, smooth rock face, due to cut-up fingertips, according to reports. But Jorgeson broke through as well on Friday, keeping his part of the dream alive. They’ve done some of the climb at night because the uncharacteristically warm weather this month makes them sweat during the day and therefore hinders their ability to grip the rock. Rich used a spotlight to capture some of those nighttime shots as well.

Indeed, Rich is capturing it all for history and posterity in an event that mirrors, you could say, the trajectory of his career.

Rich studied photojournalism at San Jose State University, and in 1996 began looking for internship opportunities.

“I didn’t approach it in a conventional way,” he told me from his perch alongside El Capitan early Saturday morning. “I looked at the map of California, and I looked at the newspapers close to Yosemite. And that was The Sacramento Bee, The Modesto Bee and The Fresno Bee. I had an interview with Al Golub, (Modesto’s) director of photography at the time, and we hit it off immediately and it was because of that shared love for Yosemite and wild places.”

Every weekend, he’d jump into his Honda Civic and drive to Yosemite to photograph rock climbing.

“That was my true passion,” he said. So much that he formed his own company, Corey Rich Productions based in South Lake Tahoe, specializing in extreme outdoor photography in both still and video forms.

He’s shot photos for National Geographic, which is following the ongoing climb; The New York Times Magazine; and Sports Illustrated.

“I’ve waded across crocodile-infested rivers in Papua, New Guinea, lost cameras to Saharan Desert sandstorms and suffered through blizzards in the Andes in an ongoing odyssey of unforgettable stories, dawn light, and timeless images,” he posted in the bio on his Web page.

Rich also is a Nikon ambassador, meaning he represents the company in various ways and tests new equipment. He produced a video for the Coolpix P7000 model touting its video capabilities. He’s also done promotional videos for companies such as Polartec, Mazda, Red Bull, The North Face, Patagonia, Roadrunner Sports and Apple, as well as a tourism video for Nevada.

This is by no means Rich’s maiden voyage up El Capitan. He’s been photographing climbs on the monolith for the past two decades, dating back to the pre-digital camera days.

“And now, a lot of years later, it’s still the core of why I picked up a camera, to document adventure,” Rich said. “This is really the pinnacle experience, to be in Yosemite Valley and on El Capitan, exercising one of my skill sets as a documentarian, as a photojournalist documenting the ascent of the Dawn Wall.”

He is close friends with both of the climbers, and with climbing filmmakers Josh Lowell and Brett Lowell, who are working with him on the mountain.

“This is a lifestyle,” Rich said. “This isn’t just something you do for a week or two. Since I was 13 years old, being outside and being in vertical environments has been a big part of who I am and what I do. (My) No. 1 rule: It’s when you are photographing the things you care about, that’s when you do your greatest work.”

This clearly is one of those times. He’s perched alongside a 3,000-foot-high rock mountain in one of the most spectacular places on earth, camera focused on two men making the climb of their lives.

That makes it perhaps his own greatest moment, as well.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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