Doubling Down in Lebanon with David Lama

by Corey Rich
Nikon D810 / 16mm Fisheye / ISO 800 / 1/320th second / f/3.2

In the mountains of northern Lebanon is a limestone sinkhole that is simply beyond words.

It’s called the Baatara Gorge. It features a pencil-thin waterfall trickling into a misty sinkhole, hundreds of feet below. There are also three natural freestanding bridges of land that somehow add to the tenuous, mind-boggling character of this natural wonder. It’s a spectacular place, but it took a special person to identify a sinkhole as a potential venue for rock climbing.

Enter David Lama, a former Austrian sport-climbing phenom who has since become one of the world’s best alpinists. In 2014, he first sent me a photo of the Baatara Gorge. The subject simply read “Check this out.” No other words were needed. The potential was clear and stunning.

Over the next year, David and I had numerous conversations with Florian Klinger, David’s manager at Red Bull. Florian, as a visionary marketer in the adventure sports world, recognized this would be a special project and fought to make this happen. Thanks to a team effort, we secured the funding we needed to explore this Middle Eastern hot spot.

Everyone went into this project with their own set of goals. For David, he allotted himself one week to find a really hard new free climb, bolt it, clean it, and send it. There are probably only a few people in the world who are capable of pulling off a brand new 5.14+ in a single week, and David is one of them.

For me and my team, we were tasked with creating a film around David’s efforts, as well as capturing all the supporting still imagery.  Was the difficulty in achieving all of these goals, in such a short period of time, a “5.14” effort for our small-footprint production? In hindsight, perhaps it was … and that’s almost what got me into trouble.

The small team for this production was obvious: Dane Henry, Sean Haverstock and Bligh Gillies were instantly on board. I’ve worked and traveled with this surly crew a lot over the years, and no matter what the job entails, when we get together, it’s always a great time. With at least 25 bags between the four of us, we brought everything but the kitchen sink: one 30-foot jib arm, a Freefly MoVI M10, a Freefly CineStar heavy lifter with a MoVI attached, a Kessler second shooter, a set of Litepanels Astra LED lights,  and a few Nikon D4s and D810 cameras, and a RED Dragon. (I think on the way home we set a personal record for paying over $3,000 in excess baggage fees to Middle East Airlines, and that was after lots of negotiating to bring the rack rate down from $7,000!).

Upon arriving at the Baatara Gorge, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Wikipedia pictures I’d seen didn’t do this place justice. You might think this makes our job easier, but in fact, it really adds a lot of pressure because the expectations are suddenly so high.

“Corey, I think the route I’m going to bolt will go here,” David said, drawing a line across the cave with his outstretched arm.

“David, that looks incredible!” I said. “Do you think you’ll be able to send it?”

“Of course!” David said. “It’ll be no problem.”

Famous last words. In fact, the route ended up being much harder than David imagined.

“Shit!” he said after a his second day of effort on the climb. “I think this thing is really tough! … This is great!”

David was in his element—enthusiastic and optimistic about a world-class challenge. I’ve worked with many of the best climbers, skiers, kayakers and runners in the world. And David—the son of a Sherpa father and Austrian mother—is one of the best athletes to come out of Innsbruck in over a generation.

By the end of the week, David had actually achieved his goal. I couldn’t believe it! He got the first ascent of a 5.14d, making it the hardest rock climb in the Middle East. He named it “Avaatara,” conjoining the word “avatar” with the Baatara Gorge.

Meanwhile, our four-person production crew had been working in overdrive to capture the film. The film was the top priority for our client, Red Bull. It was also the part of the project that we were all most passionate about. As a result, the still photography played second fiddle.

I’ll admit it: in the back of my mind I was thinking that we’d be able to simply pull stills from the RED footage. Then, second guessing myself, I grabbed a D810 and found some time to snap a few photos—you know, just to be “safe.” In between directing the film, I shot stills of about four situations that I knew I could nail quickly and easily.

Thank god I did!

It wasn’t until I got home, and began looking through our files that I realized that the stills we were pulling from the RED footage were nowhere near high quality enough to be taken seriously. Now, before I get into trouble, I should qualify several things. First, we’ve pulled stills from RED footage in the past (although, it hasn’t typically been in action-sports scenarios).

Also, we were capturing video at 120 frames per second. It was way over cranked for that sweet slow-mo, which is where the RED shines. However, it also meant higher compression. Pixel for pixel, it was no contest. When we weren’t shooting over-cranked slow mo, we were filming at a much lower shutter speed than what I might use for still action photography—and our camera was constantly moving. And, of course, we were using manual focus on our cinema lenses, which is inevitably prone to more human error compared to the precision autofocus of a DSLR. All said, the stills pulled from our RED footage didn’t hold a candle to the stills I had shot on the 36 megapixel Nikon D810 with super-sharp Nikkor glass.

These days virtually every professional camera, and many prosumer and amateur cameras, shoot both stills and video. But the reality is, there is no single camera that can handle every single task, at least not at the highest level—not yet, anyway. But … that’s sort of the dream, right? To be able to have one tool that does it all. To pull stills from video files that can rival, pixel for pixel, anything the best still cameras on earth can shoot.

When you work as a small-footprint production, every resource is precious. Every decision is a compromise. That’s the whole game. To me, technology gets better when it gets out of the way—meaning, it allows you to spend more time on creativity and less time doubling down on technical details, which often just slow us all down.

I’m reminded of my first newspaper internship, when I was a kid aspiring to become a photojournalist. There’d always be a bunch of old crusty photographers and editors, gathered around the office water cooler, railing against the fast-changing world of photography. These were the days of slide film and print deadlines, but you could feel the high tide of digital cameras and the fast-paced internet cresting on the horizon. I heard a lot of grandiose predictions around that water cooler: Digital will never replace film! Print will always be king! The internet is just another fad!

Of course, none of them ever came true. The lesson I took from my time hanging around that office water cooler was to be a forward-thinking guy. I believe it’s better to embrace new technology rather than rail against it.

Yeah, in Lebanon, I was probably operating a few years ahead of our time—believing that stills pulled from the RED would work. I may have been wrong this time, but I do believe that my instinct was on the right track.

One day, the time will come when your mirrorless camera will shoot in 10K RAW, you will be able to control your video and still exposures independently but shoot both simultaneously. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. But we’re not quite there yet. Right now, when it comes to capturing brilliant still images, there’s no substitute for picking up a DSLR camera and doing it the “old fashioned” way.

Interestingly enough, over a year later, I found myself in Austria, with David and Florian, once again making another film of David’s latest climbs for Red Bull. The priority for Red Bull was gathering high-res video in super slow motion. And, oh yeah, they also needed stills. You can be damn sure that I learned my lesson! As I hung from a rope a few hundred feet above the ground, with a gorgeous vista of the Austrian Alps sweeping around me in all directions, I had a RED Weapon slung from one shoulder, and my trusty Nikon D5 slung from the other.

And in the back of my mind was the memory of our time in Lebanon, quickly turning toward thoughts of all the future adventures and opportunities yet to come.

For more on our Lebanon trip and the entire final production, check out this link.

Thanks to our partners: Nikon, FreeFly Systems, SanDisk, and our sponsors: Adobe, AquaTech, ClifBar, Connex, G-Tech, Litepanels, Light & Motion, LitePro Gear, Lowepro, Kessler, Manfrotto, Patagonia, Sachtler, SmallHD, and X-Rite.

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James Scott August 6, 2017 - 3:30 pm

….and you write well too….

James Scott August 6, 2017 - 3:30 pm

…..and You write well too….

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