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.”



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.

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