Behind the scenes with The Dawn Wall's cinematographer Corey Rich
© Brett Lowell/Red Bull Content Pool
Rich spent 10 straight days on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall and explains he was ‘just out there shooting his friends’. Today, he recognises the work that helped propel his career into the stratosphere.
Most viewers of the 100-minute documentary The Dawn Wall, which is showing worldwide now through October, already know it’s the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson and their quest to climb the world’s most continuously difficult route. A route that ascends over 900m up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. But for Corey Rich, it was personal.
“My entire career, over 20 years, I decided that what Tommy was doing was rad,” Rich, the cinematographer and photographer for The Dawn Wall, says. He worked closely with cinematographer Brett Lowell and directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer. “I hoped that one day that I went up there would be justified.”
Caldwell’s – and Rich’s – obsession with El Cap began in 1999. Through the ensuing years, Caldwell climbed the hardest routes on the granite monolith and made first free ascents of four routes, all while Rich was capturing the action. The 32-pitch Dawn Wall, which Caldwell began work on in 2007, was his fifth new free climb. Jorgeson joined Caldwell to work on the route in 2009.
In December 2014, while Rich was on holiday in Brazil with his wife and daughter, Caldwell called to say, “Man, I think we might actually do this. You should get out here.” Rich caught the next flight to California and pushed himself so hard to quickly get on the wall – a red-eye flight, a duffle shuffle at his home in Lake Tahoe, a speed racer’s drive to Yosemite Valley – that once he was ascending ropes up El Cap, he was vomiting from a mixture of exhaustion and adrenaline. He was also fighting a flu.
“Then I got up there with my buddies and knew that, hell yeah, this is where I want to be.”
Rich rode out 10 continuous days on the wall. To keep pumping out the video and stills for media, he handed off memory cards to team-mates who were shuttling loads up and down the wall.
“It felt no different than the dozens of times I was on El Cap with Tommy,” said Rich. “But this time it was this perfect storm. There was now big world news, The New York Times and NPR had taken notice of what Kevin and Tommy were doing. Then it spread like wildfire.”
To free climb the Dawn Wall in a continuous push, a glassy, nearly featureless face that receives first light on El Cap, Caldwell and Jorgeson spent seven years of preparation followed by 19 days on the wall. Before the final ascent, both climbers sustained injuries: Jorgeson sprained an ankle, Caldwell separated a rib from his sternum.
Yosemite’s granite is notoriously slick; in order to climb it, the duo had to grab and edge their climbing shoes on razor-thin holds. They also needed it to be as cold as possible, forcing them to climb in winter at night – which meant Rich and the team also had to work in the bitter cold and under a black sky. The cold drained the batteries in the film crew’s headlamps as they waited for the climbers. The icy air, mixed with Rich’s harness digging into his legs, and caused him to lose feeling in his feet as he sat in place and shivered next to Brett Lowell.
Finally, on day 10, Rich’s photo agency called him away to another assignment.
“I had a shoot in the Bahamas,” Rich says. “I was supposed to shoot a world-class free diver in the Great Blue Hole. It felt so crazy to rap off the Dawn Wall and to fly [away], especially at one of the most critical moments in climbing. It was heartbreaking to not be out there high-fiving everyone at the top.”
But by then Rich’s images were already all over the internet. In total, the team’s breathtaking photos and video from the Dawn Wall generated 13 billion media impressions worldwide (two for each person on Earth.)
Today, Rich does work for tech and Fortune 100 companies; in a way, his experience on the Dawn Wall and in the adventure world prepped him for these jobs. “If you shoot hanging from a 10mm rope 1,000 feet off the ground when a storm is coming in, everything else feels tame.”
“Adventure is still at the core of what I love to shoot and who I am.”
The Dawn Wall is playing in cinemas across the globe, head here for the closest screening to you and tickets.