THE ONLY WAY IS UP
YOU MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED BUT CLIMBING IS HAVING A BIT OF A MOMENT. WE MEET THE AUSTRALIAN MAN WHO HAS DOCUMENTED THE SPORT AROUND THE GLOBE AND THE LONG CLIMB TO FOLLOW HIS DREAM
Few people get to forge a career from not one but two of their great passions, yet noted Australian photographer Simon Carter has been quietly capturing some of the world’s most spectacular rock climbing images for more than 25 years.
The editor of iconic US climbing magazine Rock and Ice rates him as “arguably the greatest climbing photographer of all time”.
But it was an untrodden path to the top – so to speak. There were zero climbing photographers in Australia when Simon dreamt up his ultimate job as a teenager and it took him some years to get there.
“At least there was no competition,” he laughs.
But, as with most people who follow the most unlikely of dreams, there were many rocky patches along the way, including an early portfolio of climbing shots scoring a fail grade at TAFE because they were deemed not arty enough.
Simon grew up in Canberra and got into photography as a 15-year-old, switching from his high school to a college that offered a photography course as part of its program.
It was about the same time he came across some classic mountaineering books in the school library that were to spark his lifelong obsession with climbing.
His first taste of it came at his college when students built a climbing wall on the outside of the gymnasium.
“I actually discovered I wasn’t very good at it at all,” Simon says.
“I was very skinny, that was actually my nickname, and I thought because I was light, I would be quite good at rock climbing but I wasn’t.
“So I got really frustrated and just poured a lot of energy into getting better.”
It became an obsession and, as a keen youngster in a fringe sport, Simon was taken under the wing of some local climbers and learned the ropes – literally – scaling climb sites around Canberra.
After he left school, he worked in darkrooms on scientific research projects at the Australian National University, furthering his qualifications by studying photography at TAFE at night.
It was there his early climbing images, taken with great effort from cliff faces while hanging from ropes to capture the best angles, were received less than enthusiastically.
“My approach to climbing photography is very straight,” Simon says.
“I show what’s there without trying to be
too clever, letting nature and grandeur do all the talking. That’s the artistic stamp.
“Back then, shooting on film, you had to be good at nailing a photo and that’s been good training.
“Now I look at a place and the question I ask myself is, ‘What would the ultimate shot of this climb or this area look like?’ Then I try to deconstruct that backwards and end up with a plan to be in the right place at the right time to capture it.”
Sometimes that may involve pre-dawn climbs, with camera gear to be in the best position to capture a climber at sunrise. Or it may involve hanging from a rope and pole construction to get the optimum angle.
Perhaps it was an element of fate that Simon got disillusioned with his prospects as a photographer and threw himself into climbing instead, perfecting his technique and testing himself at some of the world’s noted climb sites.
It was some years before his two passions came together again. His first foray into making money from his climbing shots came through a 1995 calendar featuring some of the most spectacular images from his travels.
It sold beyond his expectations and kept him in the game. About the same time, he sent some images he’d taken in Victoria’s Grampians region, featuring distinctive Australian orange rock, to an international magazine.
“They’d never seen anything like it and they were keen for more,” Simon says. “It made me realise there was a market for my work. I could find my niche.”
His passions have led to many other projects along the way including a range of comprehensive Australian climbing guidebooks, among them the meticulously researched South East Queensland Climbing and a special guide to celebrated crack climbing site Frog Buttress in the Scenic Rim.
There have also been a number of high-end coffee table and limited-edition books, videos, further calendars and, most recently, collaboration on a climbing app.
But Simon is no rampant entrepreneur. He takes both his crafts seriously and feels the weight of responsibility for emphasising safety and ethical practice which always need to be at the forefront of climbing, he says.
“The first guidebook was published in
2002 and all the guidebooks involve a lot of different people to provide the best quality information for climbers to maximise their safety and enjoyment,” he says.
“There’s a lot of information on the web these days, crowd-sourced sites and ones that people can contribute to but I still think there’s a need for carefully curated content, giving people all the research and information from the best sources.
“Even with the app, I had to think ‘Do I really want to be in that space?’ but I thought if I wasn’t, lower quality content would win out.”
And for someone who’s managed to make a business around climbing, it’s a mark of the man that the recent surge in interest in the sport leaves Simon in two minds.
“On the one hand, I enjoy the solitude of it, not just the activity of doing it but the places climbers get to experience, just the most awesome experiences in the most stunning locations.
“It’s hard not to want to share that and I think people definitely need to reconnect with nature but, at the same time, I’ve got no real desire to see it grow too much.”
Simon puts the current boom down to the proliferation of indoor climbing gyms around the country. The indoor version of the sport is set to debut at next year’s Tokyo Olympics and he expects that will spur more interest.
Then there’s the Free Solo phenomenon, the Oscar and BAFTA Best Documentary film winner about the rope-free climb of the notorious El Capitan rock by American climber Alex Honnold.
Simon takes a wary view of the mainstream attention it’s received.
“That was real life on the line stuff,” Simon says. “Quite unnecessarily I thought.
“It does make me wonder how many soloing deaths might follow from that. Personal responsibility always has to be on the participant but it would be naive to think the media doesn’t have some influence in that being promoted.”
After 35 years of climbing, Simon offers the precise, level-headed wisdom he’s learned from the sport itself.
“There’s always an element in climbing of looking for the new. But if you start out in climbing now, everything you do will be new.
“There’s some amazing stuff out there to do and you don’t have to be a really great rock climber to enjoy so much of it.
“Climbing’s huge around the world. It’s massive in Europe and the US where it’s part of the culture. Some of the local authorities in France are even paying people to open up climbing sites because of the tourism it brings.
“It’s still more fringe in Australia but in the 35 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve never seen growth like (what we have now). But that can lead to access problems, and of course accidents, and I don’t want to see that happen.”
Simon is married to noted Australian rock climber Monique Forestier who has her own coaching and guiding business. They have a 10-year-old daughter Coco.
Although Coco has been around climbing all her life, Simon says at this stage she is into acrobatics.
“I’m not going to be a soccer dad and push her into climbing,” Simon says. “Climbing should always be something you want to do.
“But she’s been to some amazing places and seen some of the best climbers in the world. She’s watched people pursue their dreams and have a great time.
“I think it’s good for her to know life is not just about going to school and the rest of it, that there’s adventure to be had when you pursue your dreams.”
Simon is a great fan of Southeast Queensland’s climbing sites, particularly the Glass House Mountains, the Scenic Rim and Pages Pinnacle in the Numinbah State Forest, which has become more popular with climbers in the last decade.
He says Southeast Queensland is one of the few places in Australia where climbs are in relatively easy proximity to where people live.
These days Simon climbs less than he used to, thanks to the demands of his business and parenthood, but can still deliver an impassioned answer to that eternal climbing question: why?
“It’s multifaceted,” he says. “The physical act of climbing I just love. It’s like a little dance mixed with strength, problem solving, the yoga thing.
“Then there’s the outdoors, the amazing places it takes you, and the challenge. For me, climbing is quite scary.
“I’m not good at falling. There’s the mental challenge of fronting your fears.
“Being on the side of a cliff is an outrageous thing to do. It makes you feel very alive.”
“THERE’S SOME AMAZING STUFF OUT THERE TO DO AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A REALLY GREAT ROCK CLIMBER TO ENJOY SO MUCH OF IT.”
ABOVE: Simon Carter rigged his Nikon D3S to an 8m pole and suspended it out from the cliff to get this perspective on Brittany Griffith climbing Mr Clean, one of the immaculate lines on Devils Tower, Wyoming, US. RIGHT: Chris Sharma at Mont-rebei, Spain. OPPOSITE PAGE, FROM TOP: Lee Cujes on one of 2153 limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; Toni Lamprecht on Tsaranoro Be, Tsaranoro, Madagascar; Monique Forestier on The Cathedral, Mount Buffalo, Victoria.