August 16, 2016

Lost On a Line: Behind the Shot with Forest Woodward

Adventure Photographer Forest Woodward was lost in the clouds while climbing in New Zealand but it couldn't stop him from snagging these shots.

Looking back at this image now, it’s not surprising to me that we were beginning to wonder if we were lost shortly after it was taken. Or that an hour after said “wondering”, we would come to the conclusion that, “yes,” we were in fact very lost.

Forest Woodward photography

This was not the kind of “Go, lose yourself” lost that travel agencies romanticize about on billboards where they show remote tropical beaches or stunning mountain vistas in Switzerland. No, this was the kind of lost where you have to stop and remind your frenzied brain which way is up and which way is down. The kind of lost where you look at your climbing partner and wonder if you’re prepared to eat them. Or if they are prepared to eat you.

OK maybe not that, but I did wonder if they had any food left that they weren’t telling me about. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the moment when I snapped the shutter, as Graham headed across the ridge back toward where we had left our packs before rappelling to the base of the climb six hours earlier, everything was fine. Sure, it was wet and foggy, and we were a little hungry, but other than that, everything was fine and dandy.

We had just finished climbing one of the classic test pieces of New Zealand, an absolutely stellar line deep in the Darran Mountains called the Labyrinth (5.11R) and despite the weather, morale was high.

Topping out the climb, the rain had turned from spitting showers to a heavy continuous pour, and the low clouds that had hung in the valley below, slowly rose until they enveloped us in a thick, murky soup.

We knew we were only a few hours of easy walking from the alpine hut where we had setup camp, and with our feet back on solid ground and the climb successfully completed, none of us seemed particularly concerned about the inclement weather or fading light.

That is until a few hundred yards into our descent when the darkness became complete—as did our immersion in the clouds. Our headlamp beams bounced back at us, reflected by the soupy moisture through which we now waded, rain and clouds mixing around us, threatening to separate us from one another as we scrambled over loose scree and steep late season snowfields.

Somewhere between our hundredth zig (or maybe it was a zag) through the murk, I realized we were not going to be sleeping indoors that night. As we moved slowly downward, blindly searching for the narrow saddle that split the cliff bands, the steep rock slabs we had easily scampered up in the daylight transformed into the rushing waterfalls for which Fiordland is famous.

Pushing a boulder off the edge of a suspicious looking rollover we listened, counting the seconds until we heard it implode somewhere far below, marking the general direction in which we wanted to go, but not the fashion in which we hoped to arrive there. Standing on the edge of an imposing cliff band, with zero visibility and a series of new waterfalls barring any chance to try and retrace our path, we made the decision to hunker down for the night.

After an hour or so of hacking out single cheek ledges in the shelter of a shallow cave (read: future waterfall) we anchored ourselves to the wall and spent a sleepless night shiver-snuggling and wishing for the clouds to clear. My cameras were soaked by now, and the euphoria of our fun day of climbing had been left far behind on the slippery slabs.

As the first light crept, the clouds parted for a brief moment, allowing us to triangulate our position and begin the slow slog back to the hut.  When we finally got there, we were greeted by the warden who was waiting for us with a hot pot of coffee and a big smile, “Welcome to the Darran’s!”

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