A Fist-full of (Classic) Grit

So, straight off the bat, the winner of the 2014 “Be in my Calendar” Competition and hence star of the UKClimbing page in Climbing:2014 is… (drum roll please…) David Kirsfelds. And the three runners-up, each of which will get a free copy of the calendar, are Luke Owens, Char and Owain Atkins.

Results of the Be in my Calendar comp duly reported and the star for 2014 introduced, let’s back-up a tad, back to the summer which – for once – was pretty good, right? In comparison with recent fiascos in fact, I’d say that the summer this year was pretty amazing. My list of ‘still to get’ calendar shoots was going down nicely and with every new shot in the can, my control spreadsheet was turning from red to amber and then to green as more photo-shoots were confirmed and then completed. Confessional time – I’m into using spreadsheets to track progress. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad, but it’s probably my training as an engineer. So spreadsheets, I use a red-amber-green to RAG status and monitor progress against my intended plan. Yep, there is a plan – honest! Location wise, the shots for the calendar were looking thin for the Pennines so by the time I discussed possible venues with David I was feeling that a classic grit day on the Eastern Edges would fit into the 2014 calendar mix rather nicely. David didn’t need any persuading so decision made, a day of classic grit it was. BBC Weather promised early morning sun so our joint thinking zeroed-in on a mid-morning start at Higgar Tor to pick up the early sun, then spin around to Froggatt for the afternoon.

In each of the previous write-ups for the past competitions I’ve picked a theme to talk (prattle-on?) a little about. This year, and given that we’d honed-in on a classic grit photoshoot, the challenge I figured I’d set myself was to breathe fresh life and perspective into images of what, for many, would be well-known and much photographed routes. Not an easy challenge to succeed on and by the time of the shoot I couldn’t help but think that I’d set myself something of a poisoned chalice?! The major problem of course, was that I, along with everyone else, are all too familiar with shots from the ‘usual angle’. The question in my mind then when I’m shooting famous routes which have been photographed many times before is whether to adopt the tried and tested methodologies (viewpoints, lens selection etc.) and try and out-class the previous efforts or whether to avoid the usual viewpoints and go with something else completely different with the attendant risk of falling flat on my face in the photographic swamp? The smart money of course would have been to avoid the problem in the first place and side-step by shooting something that isn’t that well know but I was already committed by then. But what’s life without a challenge?

I met David at the Sheffield train station on the morning of the photoshoot. Stefan had kindly offered to do the honours and look after the ropes so he came round soon after we got back to KSP Towers (ha ha…) in S11. One of my daughters and the family dog Simba completed the team for the day. We downed a quick cuppa, confirmed our game-plan, packed the car and were off in double quick time. It was all falling into place nice and easy – what could go wrong, the sun was shining and I had a good vibe that the day was gonna work out well as we headed out to the Peak.

I should have known it was all going too well – ‘cos by the time we’d past Norfolk Arms on Ringinglow Road on the outskirts of Sheff the sun had done one and the clag was down – great! So much for the BBC forecast. In blind faith we carried on, parked up and set off to walk into Higgar. “Keep calm and carry on” I kept saying to myself. Visibility wasn’t great as we hacked over to Higgar. I recounted to the team an occasion a couple of winters before when I’d almost gonnen lost on that bit of moor which is all of 100m from the road. I’d been out on a solo lantern bouldering session and a dense fog had come down and had killed visibility totally. I’d nearly got lost and spent the entire night wandering around in the fog but had just made it out OK. By comparison, the day wasn’t that bad then – in fact, we arrived at Higgar at the same time as the first batch of sun raced up the hillside from Hathersage. At least there were holes in the clouds and the sun looked as though it was going to peep though occasionally – all we needed was to get a bit of luck on our side.

David Kirsfelds polishing off the classic grit jam crack, The File (VS 4c), at Higgar Tor

I had two routes in mind that I thought would be worth shooting; The File and Surform. The File was the obvious first choice – and a good warm-up too – but with a team already racking up we were in for a bit of a wait. The File is a classic Peak jamming test-piece and at VS 4c it should be on every aspiring leader’s to-do list. Whilst we waited patiently in line, I had some time to mull over my options. The File is essentially a vertical or portrait-friendly climb but I needed to shot it horizontally or landscape for the calendar. I would therefore have to include a fair bit of the landscape but that landscape would have to add value to the image. I figured that the shot would need to include the belayer if there was to be a significant amount of the ground in the frame too. That pretty much dictated the shot straight away; the climbing action on the right and the background on the left with the ground and the belayer in shot. The sun wasn’t playing ball when David set off to climb – although it was at least bright, despite being overcast. David climbed quickly and almost immediately I re-evaluated my initial location that I’d chosen to shoot from. Shooting ‘down’ my camera position was visually shortening the climb more than I thought before David started. Moving left, I started to shoot more straight-on. I experimented with a tighter crop and switched to a wider aperture to blur the Hope Valley in the background. As David approached the final moves I zoomed back and shot wide and, as I could no longer blur the background, I deliberately stopped-down my lens to ensure that the background was as sharp as possible. Reviewing (chimping as it’s known by photog) the shots on the LCD straight after David had finished, I liked the widest shots best but I thought that the background being sharp was pulling my eye away from the climbing action. My verdict; nice enough shots but no cigar – in footie terms, played one – lost one!



Surform, at HVS 5b, is The Rasp, more accommodating sibling – here David Kirsfelds is in the thick of the crux

The next route we went for was Surform, the classic Joe Brown route up the front of the leaning block and the companion to Brown’s famous route, The Rasp. Much of Surform climbs facing right so I abseiled down the wall to the right intending to shot left. That set-up also meant that if the sun did pop out, I’d be shooting with the sun over my shoulder and David would be well-lit. Having abb’ed down I put a series of cams into the breaks so that I was as close to the crag as possible and not spinning around in space. The wall to the right of Surform – along which I was shooting – had several heavily featured horizontal breaks plus a solitary straight up (it would be wrong to call it vertical!) crack which is taken by Flute of Hope and Bat out of Hell. I figured that the trick here would be to shoot along the horizontal breaks so that the viewer’s eye would be lead into the image to David. A small fern in the flake-line of Flute of Hope nicely provided a small but crucial bit of foreground interest and helped to ‘balance’ the shot. Stefan belaying in the bottom of the image provided scale and ground interest. Following the inevitable post route chimping I figured I’d pulled one back to level the score.

So with two routes in the bag we called time at Higgar and high-tailed it over to Froggatt – not least because it looked as though the southern edges were getting all of the sunshine! There’s plenty of great routes at Froggatt but three stuck out in my mind around the HVS/E1 marker as possible calendar options; Chequers Buttress (HVS 5b), Valkyrie (HVS 5a, 5a) and Strampiombante (E1 5b). Chequers and Valkyrie had been heavily photographed, Valkyrie especially was never far from being in print. Strapadictory (E5 6a) too is oft-photographed but it’s easier neighbour doesn’t make the press too frequently albeit (those of us of a certain age) will remember a certain image of POD’s which was published c. 1990 that was a sensational (B&W) shot that would take some beating. Walking into Froggatt the sun obligingly came out – though it was ‘straight on’ to the crag given it was early afternoon by then. Depending upon the angle I shot from that was going to mean either glorious back/rim lighting effect or a horrendous sun/shade combo!Arriving at the base of Chequers Buttress it was soon obvious that I’d have to shoot that into the sun so the smart money was immediately on moving onto the next target, Valkyrie. I’d shot this on several occasions, the last time back in 2007 when Rich Mayfield and Mark Stevenson were blasting round the country on their Hard Rock Challenge. On that occasion I’d shot the first pitch of Valkyrie from directly above. I hadn’t quite worked but I was convinced that with a bit more work that position held promise. Incidentally, I think that it’s as important to work out why a photo ‘doesn’t work’  just as much as one that ‘does work’ – understanding failures is critical to development of photography skills so keep you duff shots so you can refer back to the again as reference if you’re ever going back to re-shoot a scene. So whilst David racked-up Stef helped me get established on the top of the Pinnacle. There’s a monster ring-bolt hammered into the top of the pinnacle so I rigged a short abseil line and then launched off straight down to a position immediately above the initial crack. The sun was shining and casting a deep shadow on the gully to the left of the pitch – my right as I looked straight down – when I got into position. I was pleased that I’d have a strong (‘solid’) backdrop against which to shoot David as he climbed up the initial crack. As usual, I was shooting with a zoom (in this case the 24-70 f2.8) for maximum flexibility and whilst David was getting established on the pitch I tried a few different framing and focus options. From previous experience I’ve found that shooting straight down a pitch – especially a crack such as Valkyrie – can, very often, be a ‘low percentage’ shot. I’d best explain. Climbing a crack, David wouldn’t need to look up that much given that his attention didn’t need to be yards in front of where he was climbing, just the next few feet. That meant (in all probability) that his face wasn’t going to be camera-visible for more than a handful of moves/times whilst he climbed the relatively short initial crack of Valkyrie. If that didn’t combine with an interesting body shape it wasn’t going to give a ‘keeper’ ie a decent shot worth keeping. Photographically at least, I had the advantage that David wasn’t wearing a helmet – that would have made camera-eye contact even less likely! My game plan was a bit on the thin side but I figured that David’s face was going to be visible as he approached the top of the crack. To add emphasis to the height of the crack I was shooting wide-open (ie with a wide aperture) and focusing just in front of David’s position. That threw the background, including Stef, nicely out-of-focus. As expected, the number of keepers was low but one shot stood out above the others. I figured I’d been lucky.

David Kirsfelds enjoying on sun and the initial crack of Valkyrie (HVS 5a, 5a) at Froggatt

The top pitch of Valkyrie has been photographed (literally) thousands of times before. Frustratingly, the tree out left of the Pinnacle seems to have grown considerably was preventing an open, wider framing. Really, the second pitch of Valkyrie needs a portrait framing but that as that wouldn’t work for the calendar so I was forced to say with the (landscape) programme. As it was, I just caught David pulling over the crucial bulge at exactly the moment that Stef pulled an interesting and powerful ‘look at me belaying’ pose! It’s a nice enough shot, and certainly a keeper, but it suffers from the ‘seen it before’ syndrome. So, that was that for the day. It was back home to download the cards and to start sorting out the next shoot for the calendar. A pretty good day in the end, despite the less than optimal shooting conditions. Thanks to David for his efforts and to Stefan for minding ropes all day!

Finally then, here’s a gallery of my favourite images from the day. In the end I went with the shot of Surform for the calendar because it feels to me a more ‘rounded’ image and I just love the cheeky little bit of fern in the crack in the foreground and how I find it provides a balance for the climbing action beyond. Mind you, the Valkyrie shot pushed it a close second and it showed to me that it is possible to get a different shot of an old iconic route if you mix it up and go with a different viewpoint and lens selection and if you’re a little bit lucky with the light – which as usual, often adds that final (crucial) ingredient…




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