Ian Caldwell on Spank the Monkey (5.13d R) at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon during the total eclipse of the sun on Monday, August 21st, 2017.
My inspiration for this shot stemmed from a film I saw at the Banff Film Festival. It was documentary about Reuben Krabbe's attempt to shoot a skier coming off a glacier with a total eclipse in the background. As a filmmaker-- it was inspiring and I wanted to do something similar- only better. I started searching for a spot where totality would fall over a glacier in Oregon, and I found an ideal one-- Milk Creek Glacier on Mt. Jefferson.
I made 4 trips to scout Mt. Jefferson and climbed it twice. The spot I was trying to reach was extremely difficult to access, and it was one that required more mountaineering skills than I had. It was going to take 4-5 hours of hiking, and 2 plus hours of skinning just to get to base camp. Not to mention having to bring an incredible amount of photo gear and days worth of provisions. Rehearsals needed to be shot each day leading up to the eclipse, so there would have been no way to get back off the mountain until after the event. I wasn't even sure if I would have the physical and mental capacity to work and compose the shot after a ridiculous amount climbing with overweight gear.
I had the idea, but I didn't have the talent who was the right fit. It didn't take me long to put this idea in front of Roger Strong, a well respected skier and mountaineer. He agreed to ski the line for me and I became excited--however, after several attempts to reach the glacier, my excitement waned. On one of my trips to gain access to the glacier, I went with my good friend Toby Winston. He graciously agreed to be part of my team as well, but the danger factor was high so I decided to look for a back-up shot.
I knew another killer spot for a shot of the eclipse that would also line up, but with a rock-climber instead of skier. The lining up of; the sun, the moon and earth coincided perfectly with the north side of the Monkey Face. As before; I didn't have the talent right away, however Roger was again instrumental with helping me out and put me in touch with two Smith Rock locals, Ian Caldwell and Tim Garland almost two years ago.
Ian has been climbing at Smith Rock since 1991. He is known as the mayor because of his dedication to taking care of the park over the years. He volunteers by working on the trails, replacing bolts, and participates in search and rescue. He is one of the best climbers at Smith, having completed many 5.14s at Smith Rock, including two 5.14 first ascents. The route we were looking at; Spank the Monkey is no cake walk at (5.13d R) 4 stars 13 bolts. Spank the Monkey is a relatively new route --bred from the latest generation of climbers unafraid of making intense moves on an alarmingly sharp overhanging edge.
The Monkey Face shot lined up so well--I couldn't pass it up. So I decided to have two shoots; one at Mt. Jefferson with Roger Strong, and the other at Smith Rock with Ian Caldwell. I enlisted my brother Nick Kraemer as interim photographer for the Smith Rock Shoot. Ian and Tim continued to work on red-pointing the route over the summers of 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, I had been making regular trips to Mt. Jefferson and Smith Rock to rehearse and plan as well.
The danger of doing the Mt. Jefferson shoot; scrambling over steep slopes of rock scree and traversing ridges snow that were so mushy they could give away at any moment started to turn me off. With no trails and treacherous travel-- throw in the fact that a major forest fire closed all access to Mt. Jefferson during August-- I decided to scrub the Jefferson shoot. Poachers were warned to be ticketed if found in the closure area. Not the best idea for a team of professionals to breach, especially with the climbing danger so high in late August.
This was all just weeks away and now all my attention was now focused on Ian and the rock shot. Traffic warnings went out six months in advance. People were saying how bad traffic would be and how hard it would be to find a camping spot; so I started bringing gear to Smith Rock a month in advance and camped out at the Smith Rock Bivouac Center for what seemed like an eternity.
We did not know the challenges we were about to face just days ahead of the eclipse. Smoke from the Whitewater Fire on Mt. Jefferson was thinning out, but a new fire was brewing up even closer-- in Sisters, Oregon. The Milli Creek fire turned skies dark from smoke for days and we thought we'd be shut out. It was fortuitous that it cleared just enough at the right time. Looking closely at the photo you can see a lot of particulate in the air. The day after the eclipse-- skies turned dark again.
But now we now had a new problem. We heard about other climber/photo teams descending upon Smith Rock. We read one of their blogs and realized they wanted to shoot exactly our shot and started to freak out. We hoped they wouldn't show up, or wouldn't even see them; but Smith Rock is a small place. We had some brief discussions with some of them but mostly kept to ourselves.
We set our goals early and stood our ground as dozens of other photographers and climbing teams tried to gain access to Spank the Monkey just days before the eclipse. We had to defend our shot, our route, and all the planning and climbing we had already put into the project.
For the entire week before the eclipse, we were at the Monkey every day at 10:19 am to make sure nobody else was lining up the shot. Our theory was that anyone planning on the photo would need at least one day to line up the sun with the Monkey to figure out where on the ground the cameras needed to be. I had an app on my phone that would calculate the position of the sun on any given day and time, but that proved to not be accurate enough for exact camera locations. Every day at 10:19 there were other photographers out wandering around the river trail trying to figure out the sun's position. It seemed like most people were focusing on the south side of Monkey Face, which is a bit more iconic because you have the profile of the Monkey's Face. But there were no real routes that lined up with the sun. Plus, being an athlete myself, I wanted a real climbing shot on a difficult and iconic route.
Most days, Ian and Tim would head out early in the morning to get to work on the route. From the parking lot, it's a 45 minute hike up and over the Misery Ridge Trail. They discovered that getting an early start they could get a quick lap on the route before the summer sun made the route nearly unclimbable. Ian would head up the route to get into a position that would line-up with the cameras at 10:19. Most days the temps were in the mid 80's but magnified by the reflection of the tan colored rock. Ian would just hang in the harness; baking the the heat waiting for 10:19 to come. All the practice would tire Ian and Tim out and they needed to take rest days. On days we weren't rehearsing the route, I still got up at 5:00am and literally sat at the Monkey for hours so other teams wouldn't be able to snag our shot.
I didn't understand the difficulty of the route Spank the Monkey. When I first saw it, it looked amazing. It lined up perfectly with the sun. It was a knifeblade arete which allows for climbing on the edge to create the silhouette shot I was looking for. I could see bolts up there and some chalk so I knew people climbed it. Ian explained to me that I was a REALLY hard route. He believes only 5-6 people in the world have completed it. The bolts are very far apart leading to huge falls. The individual moves are very difficult, something Ian and Tim had to work on multiple times to figure out the right technique and build the finger strength. The route is also extremely long. Most people use a rope that is 60 or 70 meters long to climb at Smith Rock. Tim got a special 100 meter rope just to be able to lower to the ground from the top anchors. On September 30, 2017 Tim was able to complete the climb, which is called a Redpoint. He did all the moves without falling. But over the summer Tim fell from the last hard move near the top of the route at least 10 times, leading to about a 40 foot fall into space, on a 9.2 mm rope. That is about the thickness of your pinky finger.
The night before the eclipse Smith Rock State Park staff closed the road into the park all night long, which was the first time ever. Hundreds of cars were lined up on the roads outside the park through the night. At 5:30am the road was opened and by 6:30am all the parking spaces were filled. Another 500 cars were parked outside the park on the shoulders of the road, requiring a mile walk just to get to the park. The top of Misery Ridge trail was the most popular site to view the eclipse at Smith. You could see Mt. Jefferson to the west and see for miles to the east. People were saying you would be able to see the shadow race across the desert floor.
On the morning of the eclipse the place was like a zoo; everyone was nervous. Would someone else show up to climb the route? Would something happen to miss the shot? This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and we only had 1 minute and 22 second to get it right. There were at least 3 other climber/photo teams stepping all over each other not far from me. One was National Geographic, who's helicopter wouldn't stop hovering over the park. The slack-line team went into the park before opening to get their shot with a crew of 20, and their gear ended up interfering with the other teams shots. Luckily all those other teams were on the south side of the rock.
Off in the distance Ian could see the snow fields on Mt. Jefferson about 40 miles away. Right when 10:19 hit, he saw Mt. Jefferson disappear into darkness. He screamed "Here it comes" and then bang, like a magic trick- everything went dark. Hundreds of people on Misery Ridge started screaming. Ian started climbing the section of the route that we planned on shooting. My brother and I were firing away as many shots we could. That minute and a half flew by so quickly and then bang...the lights came back on. It was like the day just started again. For Ian, who has devoted his life to climbing at Smith Rock, says that this was an amazing experience for him. He says now he fully understands peoples obsession with chasing total eclipses. "With my love and passion for the park, I could not have experienced the eclipse in a better way than climbing on on Monkey Face. The mystic of the Monkey combined magic of the lights going out at 10:19am made this one of the best experiences of my life" says Ian.
I wish I could tell you more about my actual experience of the eclipse but I can't because I was so entrenched in looking through the lenses. We only had about 90 seconds of totality-- which flew by like a nanosecond. I can tell you however, one of the hardest things I've had to do in my entire life--is keep this photo under wraps for almost two months now. With all the viral photos popping from the talented photographers that day- It was a tough decision to wait and get it published than to post it immediately online. All of us on the eclipse films team saw Hesser's shot pop on instagram right as we were reviewing ours in the Bivouac center. We were making calls right away and sending our shot out to all the mags and contacts we had. Ian's sponsor Adidas made an awesome poster out of it; and he's able to hand it out to his fans. The shot also ended up in Rock & Ice Magazine in a full page spread.
Ian and I are both extremely grateful for all the help we've received on this project. Tim Garland and Roger Strong were key players in this collaboration--and without our families support we wouldn't have been in a position to get this timeless shot. Special thanks to Darryn Caldwell, Dean and Mary Stauffer, my brother Nick Kraemer, and my daughter, Katherine Kraemer.