Rock climbing with Youth Development Programme

Yesterday I was invited by Brook at Hangdog Climbing Gym to photograph an outdoor training exercise for the New Zealand Army’s Youth Development Programme rock climbing at Titahi Bay near Wellington. The plan was to meet the group at the base of the cliffs mid morning following all of the training and start shooting the climbing directly. With a little trial and tribulation and some U-Turns I managed to navigate the streets and find my way to the park behind the Radio Transmitter Station which tops the large hill overlooking the Titahi Bay area.

POMT(P) Danny Matheson at the base of the cliffs watching over the group

The cliffs drop down to the ocean so the next trick was to find my way over along the edge of the cliffs and spot the goat track that winds its was down in relative safety. Luckily I had transferred the jpegs Brook had emailed from Google maps and onto my iPhone and was able to visually line up the landscape before taking the plunge. About 1/3 of the way down I saw two soldiers dressed in camo gear and they reassured me I was heading in the right direction.

Once down on sea level, I made my way around the base of the cliffs and found the group. Brook introduced me to POMT(P) Danny Matheson, one of the leaders in charge of the group- he explained that the army manages Youth Programs to get young people into training programmed or employment. While not really a “Boot Camp” it is pretty full on from what I saw that day. There is a lot of discipline and hard work enforced by the military. Within that the atmosphere was really relaxed and there was a sense of comradeship with everyone getting up on the cliffs and giving it a go.

Shot from the base of the cliff, a climber makes it to the top of his climb and looks back down to his belayer signaling he is ready to come down

My assignment that day was mostly to put in place the principles learned in the gym and apply them out in the natural environment. Jake, a climbing instructor had set up all the ropes attached to bolts set in the rock at the top of each climb. When I got there he scaled up a steep sloped cliff with no ropes and proceeded to fix a safety line for me to use. This consisted of a static (no stretch) line that looped between all the anchor points. With two slings and carabiners, I was able to safely secure myself to the rope and move around at the top of the climbing area and hang down vertically off the cliff next to the climbers. It took me a while to build my confidence up and really trust the rope system – I moved from a 70-200 long lens down to a 24-70mm wide angle and was literally inches from the climbers by the end.

Brook showed me how to make a make shift belay device and abseil down using a carabiner and special knot which worked really well. Previously I was down-climbing with my heavy camera bag on my back and only a prussic knot attached to my harness as a backup in case I fell. When I got back to the base of the cliff- my backpack with car keys had disappeared. I figured that one of the group had grabbed it by mistake. So with my 20KG camera bag on my back, I tried to race up the goat track up the cliff and catch up with them. One thing I learned in the process is that you cannot race up steep tracks like that. My lungs were working at top capacity and my legs were on fire. Instead I settled into a steady pace and hoped to catch them. As I came over the grassy hill I was in time to see the bus pulling away. At least I would be able to catch a ride with the instructors who were behind me packing up the ropes!

Toward the end of the day, Jake, a climbing instructor tries out a speed climb on a not quite vertical slab of rock- his time, 14 seconds. Average times for the group were 30-60 seconds!

Turned out Jake had been given the bag when they realized it was not one of theirs- I was able to drive home after all. I met the Hangdog team at the nearest Dairy and enjoyed a double decker ice-cream and listened in on their debrief and got feedback on my progress on the rocks. All in all it was a big success- the group had fun and learned a lot, as did I photographing them. Although I am getting more confident on the cliffs, I still have a healthy respect for heights which I hope never goes away!

Parting Shot: Once I got more confident and got in closer on the steep rock, I was able to get much more interesting angles of the climbers. While not everyone's cup of tea, I certainly like the thrill of photographing from up high in the vertical world!

But wait, there’s more- a sequence of Jake Cave free climbing up a rock face to set ropes. Shot with a Nikon D3 in burst mode- its fun to put together little sequences like this when shooting action scenes.

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