Rock climbing in Appalachia has historically been a more niche endeavor compared to more popular outdoor sports like rafting, fishing, hunting, and mountain biking. While we don’t have the 14,000-foot peaks of the Rockies or the granite faces of Yosemite, we do have some of the best sandstone in the world in the New River Gorge region. What we lack in sheer verticality, we make up for in pure quality. The striking cliffs of the Nuttall sandstone formation were sculpted over millions of years by the incessant friction and raging energy of the New, Meadow, and Gauley rivers. Each exposed foot of the legendary Nuttall took thousands of years to erode into perfect, climbable stone.
The same factors that make the New River Gorge a world-class climbing destination also conspire to make it a unique photographic challenge. The gorge is an important biodiversity corridor that creates its own weather, offering a unique terrarium for flora, fauna, and fungi to mutually thrive. Thick stands of pine and deciduous trees carpet the base of the cliffs, while thickets of greenbrier, blueberry, and rhododendron tunnels choke the tops. Photographing a tiny climber in this intimidating vertical landscape is a project of its own. Most clifftops are entirely too thick with vegetation to hike in and rappel, making my work as a climbing photographer all the more stimulating.
I picked up photography in high school as just another creative outlet. I stole my dad’s crappy stock Nikon rig and lugged it around on climbing trips; messing with it at the crag gave me something to do when my arms and fingertips were terminally exhausted from climbing. Hours spent photographing my friends developed into a passion for creating visual art focusing on climbers, who are often graceful artisans in their own right.
To properly document climbing movement, one has to be at the same level, if not higher than the climber, and for me, the most fun way to get up there is to actually climb the route I intend to photograph. Climbing the route allows me to know the line and understand the difficult sections, body positions, and potential hazards. This practice also helps me connect and empathize with the climber I’m shooting. I photograph climbers from above to capture the full gamut of unique movements, raw emotions, and intense moments only the climber experiences—details viewers on the ground can only imagine.
Photographing a moving climber while dangling in a harness from a moving rope poses its own challenges. Paying attention to so many details requires me to be a more conscious observer. Working with natural light, framing a shot, and thinking about angles remain at the forefront of my mind while switching lenses 100 feet above the ground and moving up and down my rope. I also make a concerted effort as a photographer to never get in the way of the climber, to never break their flow and focus. I want them to ascend the route in confidence, though sometimes I can’t help but cheer them on.
For me, climbing photography isn’t just about nailing an interesting shot, it’s also about representation. Seeing people like yourself doing things you’ve never done before inspires support and validation. Representation via photography reduces stereotypes, challenges misconceptions, and diversifies perspectives—particularly for underrepresented and marginalized groups.
I mostly climb with people who identify as women. Photographing them on routes I could never imagine myself climbing is one of the main reasons I do it. A photo of a badass woman climbing, hair blowing in the wind, muscles straining, trying hard; I don’t think there’s anything more validating than that. These women prove it’s possible, sometimes even making it look easy, and I am there to record their attempts, failures, and successes. Cheering on a friend as they climb to the top of a route makes the mosquito-bitten ankles, numb legs, and harness rash worth it every time.
Ultimately, I want the climbers in my photographs to see their power and feel inspired. I want the image to make them see and love themselves a little bit more. And I want others who look at the images to feel the same way. I want this representation to reach the little girl in the climbing gym, who only just started, to know that she can climb anything. That she, too, can eat a Tudor’s biscuit while driving over the New River Gorge Bridge through the fog and instantly feel at home among the rhododendron and sandstone, ready to climb, just like I once did.
Karen Lane is a climber, designer, and photographer living in Fayetteville, WV. The breadth of her work includes photographs of her good friends climbing to documentation of life in the New River Gorge.
Feature Photo: A climber dangles from a massive overhang near the ceiling of The Cirque, an impressive cliff of seemingly impossible climbing routes towering atop the ancient New River Gorge. Photo by Karen Lane