Alpine Mettle Memorialized

By on July 18, 2018

Author of ‘The Climbers’ pages through his recent book that captures the life and legend of mountaineer renegades

Photographs from Jim Herrington’s latest book capture climbing eminence in their late years.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In 1931, Glenn Exum was 18 and in a borrowed pair of leather-cleated football shoes two sizes too big the first time he climbed what would become known as the Exum route on the Grand Teton. Today the route is the most popular one on the peak.

Kim Schmitz, who would later become an Exum mountain guide and Jackson resident, made the first ascent of the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan in 1977, and claimed other significant first ascents as well.

Chuck Pratt, another former Exum guide, was a renowned Yosemite big wall climber whose resume includes the first ascent of the North American Wall on El Capitan, among other historic climbs.

They are legends in the climbing world. The pictures of them in bulky shoes, or climbing with hemp ropes are iconic, documenting their feats.

The photographs Jim Herrington took, decades after their crowning achievements, are different.

The alpinists have aged. They are posed for a portrait instead of focused on a rock. Herrington didn’t try to capture athleticism or physical prowess in his black and white images, he wanted to document the person behind the legend.

“I think modern things are documented quite often—like modern music and modern climbing,” Herrington said. “There is no shortage of people documenting who the ‘now’ people are.”

But not many people are documenting older climbers, he said. “They were a little forgotten.”

Herrington spent nearly two decades photographing legendary alpinists like Exum, Schmitz and Pratt. The images resulted in the 2017 book The Climbers. It features 60 portraits of seasoned climbers like Fred Beckey, Yvon Chouinard and Bradford Washburn.

Herrington limited the project to those who climbed in the 1920s to 1970s. He wanted to capture the generation of climbers before his time. It was a way to document the past, but also meet his childhood heroes.

“I just always wanted to time travel and exist in that world,” he said. Since time travel isn’t an option, Herrington said meeting them and learning their stories is the next best thing.

Herrington’s fascination with climbing began when he was a child growing up in North Carolina. His father kept a stack of old Life magazines, and somewhere in that pile Herrington thinks he found an issue with a triumphant mountaineer atop a peak on the cover.

Herrington became especially interested in the Sierra Nevada. He studied the history and photographs. By the time he started climbing as a teenager, he idolized the climbers of the 1920s and 1930s who put up some of the most famous routes in the region.

It was also his father’s Life magazines that inspired Herrington to pursue photography. When he finished high school, he moved to Los Angeles to study with talented photographers. He primarily shot the music and entertainment business and portraits became his specialty.

When offered a chance in 1998 to meet Glen Dawson, who made the first ascent of the east face of Mt. Whitney in 1931, he also photographed him. That same year Herrington met and photographed Doug Robinson and Jules Eichorn, California climbing legends of the same era.

He thought he might turn his personal photography project into a magazine article one day. He planned to keep it “Sierra-centric” until he met Bradford Washburn in 2002. Washburn was the first to climb the West Buttress route in Denali and notched other notable ascents in Alaska. It became an international project when he photographed climber Ricardo Cassin in Italy in 2009, one week before he died.

The subjects in his book are people who chased and achieved greatness, sacrificing relationships and money along the way. The stories included in the book show the climbers lived their passions.

“They are people who chose a path in life and lived it really hard and enthusiastically,” Herrington said. “Now they are on the other side of something in their lives.”

The project made Herrington think about his own life. The photos are a reminder to stay present in whatever he’s doing and the images inspire him to live his life as fully as he can.

Herrington wanted to capture the climbers as they are now—old men and women.

“I think these people are beautiful,” Herrington said. “Of course they no longer have tan, ripped, fit bodies, but this is where we are all headed—if we are so lucky.”

Jim Herrington discusses his book The Climbers 6:30 to 8 p.m., Thursday at Teton County Library, free.

About Kelsey Dayton

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