GET TO THE POINT
Jim Thornburg’s 30- year quest to document the art of redpoint climbing.
As my friend “Doug” is fond of saying, “Redpointing is everything I hate about climbing. I don’t want to mess around with remembering moves and making them pretty. I just want to get in there and fight— I’ll get knocked down and bite ankles if I have to!” I get what he means: Grit and determination are undeniable assets in climbing, and Doug has those in spades.
It’s possible that Doug’s fierce distaste for redpointing is related to the roots of our sport, in which the original goal was to walk up to a mountain and climb it by “fair means”—solving its challenges on the go. In my own early California climbing days (1980s), I learned that “rehearsal” and “pre-inspection” were two of the most egregious crimes an American climber could be accused of. If you fell, you were supposed to lower off, pack up your crap, and return when you were better. Even the forgotten practice of “yo-yo-ing” didn’t allow for rehearsal. The only exception was if you were on a multi-pitch route and in survival mode—but only if you later confessed to your poor style, aka doing the route “French Free.”
Ironically, the less dogmatic Euros simply considered such tactics normal. In 1973, the late German climber Kurt Albert invented the concept of redpoint climbing—he would paint a small red dot at the base of aid climbs he’d freed in the Frankenjura. And yet like Doug, even Albert had a distaste for working on a route for more than a few days.
Like a work of art, a climb can be realized in a brilliant flash of inspiration or it can be the result of weeks, months, or even years of refinement. In 2013, Alex Megos became the first climber to onsight 5.14d when he walked up to Estado Critico in Siurana, Spain, and fired it in a virtuoso performance. Conversely, Tommy Caldwell famously spent seven years dreaming, scouting, and working on the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) of El Capitan before his and Kevin Jorgeson’s FFA in 2015.
Both approaches have their place, but for me, the greatest art is found within the latter. The craft of redpointing can border on mystical, especially with a first ascent, a tabula rasa that no one has climbed before. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time coaching fellow climbers to redpoint. I fell in love with projecting in the 1980s while trying hard boulder problems at Indian Rock in Berkeley, California, and later while attempting first ascents with friends at nearby Mickey’s Beach. Those climbs were beyond my ability to flash or do second try; instead, I worked on them until they began to make sense. In the process, I learned to be patient and to believe. Meanwhile, my passion for photography was a direct offshoot of my passion for climbing; I wanted to share the excitement I felt as our dreams turned into these visually stunning new climbs.
As a photographer, I’ve had a front-row seat to some amazing ascents during the 30 years I’ve been shooting. Memories include witnessing the ups and downs of Ron Kauk’s multi-year bid on
Magic Line (FA: 1996), a 5.14 thin crack next to Yosemite’s Vernal Falls that went unrepeated until Kauk’s son, Lonnie, did it in 2017. And watching Chris Sharma, just 17 at the time, decipher the crux moves on Biographie (5.15a) in 1997. A few weeks later, Chris, beat down by the unrelenting difficulty of the monster line, received a pep talk from Lynn Hill, who encouraged him to focus on the more manageable process of refining his beta and efficiency rather than on the daunting feat of sending the entire climb. More recently, in 2016, I witnessed as Ethan Pringle walked a fine line between motivation and burnout on the first free ascent of the spectacular trad line Black
beard’s Tears (5.14c) on the Northern California coast, one of North America’s most difficult traditional pitches.
While documenting these experiences was enlightening, it wasn’t so because of the climbs’ extreme difficulty; instead, it was for the privilege to witness how much effort, passion, and emotion went into each ascent. Ultimately, these are experiences that can be had by any climber at any level who is willing to commit to a climb and stick with it, send or fail. The mental, physical, and tactical barriers we break are the same at any grade.
On these pages, you’ll find a semi-chronological record of redpoint attempts and ascents from my three decades’ of shooting. Some images document epic battles that took years, while others are rough-hewn second-try sends. I prefer to shoot the longer battles. They give me multiple attempts to refine my vantage points, capture different light, learn from my mistakes, and ultimately “work” my way to a photographic redpoint—a tactic I much prefer to getting in there and, as Doug phrases it, biting ankles.