The best moments of my career have always involved the times when business (opportunities), sport (adventure) and lifestyle (passion) come together—always in some unique way that always makes going to work fun and interesting. Getting to “do what you love” is another way of describing this unique intersection. But there’s a fourth ingredient involved in creating a successful lifestyle/career. And that is found in the value and depth of the personal connections you make in pursuit of doing what you love.
In the summer of 2013, the phone rang. I was holding my 6-week-old daughter, Leila, while Marina got some much-needed sleep. “Hello, this is Corey,” I said, speaking softly into the phone so as not to wake my baby.
It was Nikon’s ad agency in New York City. They asked if I was interested in being involved in an online brand-building project that would inspire people to go out and take pictures. The “Nikon Experience” would be an immersive website featuring still photographs and audio recordings from myself and two fellow Nikon shooters, Troy House and Taylor Glenn.
Of course I said yes.
I was given a blank slate in terms of subject matter, so I decided to shoot rock climbing in the Luther Spires, a stunning craggy location near my home in Lake Tahoe. This was a great opportunity and I needed to deliver. When the stakes get this high, I don’t prefer to work with some random model vetted by an agency. I want—and really, need—someone who I trust and know will be professional, work hard and deliver.
And if that person just so happens to be one of my best friends in the world, all the better.
I called up Beth Rodden, one of the best rock climbers of the last 20 years. At age 18, Beth became the youngest female to climb 5.14a with her ascent of “To Bolt or Not To Be” at Smith Rock, Oregon. Back then, she was winning all the National climbing competitions year after year while also working on free climbing El Cap with her then-partner Tommy Caldwell. Ultimately, she’d go on to establish the first ascent of one of the hardest single trad climbs in the world: Meltdown (5.14c) in Yosemite.
Beth is someone I’ve worked with for many, many years and I knew she’d be professional, work hard and deliver.
“This Nikon Experience project is a big deal,” I explained to Beth. “Yeah, I really need you for this one.”
It’s difficult to describe my relationship to Beth in a few words. We never had a romantic relationship or anything like that—but to just simply call her a “good friend” doesn’t quite do our friendship justice either. Beth, Tommy and I simultaneously became quite close friends in Yosemite, up on the walls of El Cap. I would hang off a single rope shooting pictures while Beth and Tommy climbed—2,000 feet of air beneath our feet. Over the years, we three spent many nights sleeping on portaledges and many days traveling the world in pursuit of new adventures. Tommy became one of my closest guy friends, and Beth was maybe my only really close friend who was a girl. I only mention this because I always appreciated having her unique female perspective on my life, especially during those times when I was contemplating my own relationships.
It turns out that there are a lot of parallels between the life of a professional climber and that of a professional adventure photographer in that there is no course you can take at school that teaches you how to do it. There is no manual for turning passion into a career. To pioneer a way of living is a rather audacious thing, rife with loneliness, uncertainty and sacrifice. Yet Tommy, Beth and I, in each other, found friendship and support as they worked toward making their love of climbing a career, while simultaneously I was doing the same with photography in the climbing world.
In many ways, Beth taught me how to work with professional athletes—what to ask and what not to ask; how to coach a shot; when to push her and when to lay off; etc. She also opened up all these opportunities for me to work with her various sponsors over the years, from selling pictures of her climbing or even orchestrating big advertising campaigns and expeditions.
Over the years, Beth has asked favors of me. “Corey, I need you for this one.” And of course I do it, even if the travel is heinous and/or the money isn’t there. Because that’s what you do for your friends.
Now, with the Nikon Experience shoot just a couple short months away, I was asking the same of Beth.
“I’d love to work on this project, Corey,” she said. “But there’s something I have to tell you. … I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, but, um … Randy and I are pregnant!”
“Holy shit! That’s awesome! Wow! Congrats!” I said. Leila, who was still nestled in the crook of my arm, woke up, fidgeted and looked up at me. “Looks like Leila is going to have a new little friend soon!” My wife, Marina, and I had had, Leila, less than two months earlier. Now it was Beth and her husband Randy’s turn. The idea that we’d all be able to raise our families together suddenly seemed very exciting.
“But please don’t tell anyone yet,” Beth said. “I still haven’t told my sponsors.”
As a professional athlete, Beth admitted she was worried about how becoming a mom would affect her career as a professional athlete. I assured her that it was all going to be fine. But she still worried. Soon she became excited when she realized that this Nikon Experience project would be her first professional gig as a pregnant woman.
When the shoot day arrived, we were a large group. I was with many friends and associates from Nikon’s New York ad agency, Nikon’s headquarters, PR people and assistants. It was total chaos, with some fun moments as our group of city folks got a taste for real mountains and the effects of altitude as they hiked up this steep climber’s trail to the Luther Spires.
On that day Beth wasn’t quite showing yet, but she was suffering from bouts of morning sickness.
Beth whispered to me: “Corey, just so you know I might have to occasionally lower of the route, walk around the corner and puke.”
I chuckled. Despite her compromised state, being pregnant and battling waves of nausea, Beth complained the least, hiked at an athletic pace and by far climbed harder than everyone else there.
There was a lot of pressure to produce. But we kept Beth’s pregnancy a secret from everyone quite well (though Beth might disagree).
We shot all day. I took a moment to smile in acknowledgement of where I was and what I was doing. I was right at that intersection of business, sport and lifestyle—I was doing what I loved. I pinched myself and went back to work.
Moments before the Golden Hour of light began, the Nikon crew hiked back down the trail in order to reach the car before dark. But Beth and I stayed out to continue shooting—just as always. I never even had to tell Beth that we’d be out shooting till well past dark. From nearly 15 years of working together, she already knew.
With the group’s departure, it was suddenly quite peaceful. There were only four of us: me, Beth, her belayer (Kat) and my assistant (Bryan). We were out in the mountains in a stunning location, breathing crisp air and bathing in golden light.
This was that fourth ingredient I mentioned earlier. Doing what you love is an incredible experience that can only be topped by getting to share that experience with one of your best friends. This was what it was all about—and what it has always been about. Me shooting pictures and Beth climbing. In that simple moment, we created this image, my favorite from the shoot.
What I’ve realized is that my success as a photographer and director can’t be measured in dollars earned, photographs captured, videos produced, awards won or recognition gained. Instead I measure my success by the quality of friendships made.
Today, when Beth and I get together, we sit back and watch Leila play with Theo by pulling on his ears or throwing sand on his feet. Whether or not Leila and Theo grow to have the friendship that Beth and I share, I don’t know. I only hope that they find the friends and network of support every individual needs in order to create a lifestyle of your own choosing, whatever that may be. I like to think that Beth and I have been decent role models in that regard.