Chris Noble has been photographing climbers and adventurers for decades – for the likes of Life, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Climbing, and Rock and Ice. For his latest project, he aimed his lens at women. His book, Women Who Dare, is a collection of photos of some of North America’s strongest, most accomplished female climbers.
But Noble wasn’t interested in just putting out a one-dimensional book of beautiful photos. He wanted the full story. So he dived in and interviewed the climbers, from the legendary Lynn Hill to Sasha DiGiulian, opening up their multidimensional stories of dedication, fear, victories, and family.
We asked Noble why women are different from men as climbers – and what he’s learned from them.
AJ: Why a book about women?
A few years ago I looked back through select images from my career and noticed that many of my favorites featured women in relationship with nature. This started me thinking about ways I could create a more in-depth project focused on women and wilderness. I spoke with several publishers about the concept, but we were not able to agree on an approach that seemed to have a strong enough commercial appeal.
However, one of the publishers, Globe Pequot Press/Falcon Guides, was interested in creating a calendar featuring women climbers and they hired me to shoot it. While everyone was happy with the results, I felt we were missing a much bigger opportunity – to explore not just the sex appeal of women climbers, but all aspects of women in the sport – specifically their tremendous skill, dedication, collective wisdom, and of course, the opportunity to see climbing through a female perspective, rather than the male point of view that’s so common. So after a year of shooting the calendar, I convinced Falcon that our focus on women and climbing should evolve and expand into a book.
Even though you’ve been climbing for more than 40 years, you say you learned something from each one of the climbers you interviewed for the book. What was your biggest takeaway?
My biggest takeaway from Women Who Dare is to fully embrace your own “inner climber.” I come from a generation where there’s still a deep-seated belief that fully dedicating your life to activities such as climbing, skiing, surfing, mountain biking, etc., is somewhat suspect. There’s a lingering feeling that someday you’ll “grow out of it,” “get all that out of your system,” “get a real job,” and settle down behind the white picket fence. Even though I’ve spent my entire life without a “real job,” I realized I still had some hesitation about admitting that climbing brings me deep joy, and that I want to fully explore that.
As you interviewed these climbers and collected their thoughts, did anything surprise you?
What surprised me the most about spending time and working with the athletes featured in Women Who Dare was the way all the women, whether they were pro climbers or not, were unapologetically 150 percent committed to climbing. Even the women with children and careers outside the sport made no apologies about how much climbing enhances their lives and makes them better people. I found that inspiring and contagious.
It seems that the media often struggle to portray female athletes without over-sexualizing or objectifying them. Was that something you had in mind as you went about this project? How did you address it? And what about the women you featured?
One thing that surprised me about working on the calendar project that preceded the book was that I was more worried about the sex appeal aspect of the photos than the women I worked with, and I think that’s a healthy thing. In my opinion, the goal in portraying women in any situation should be balance. In other words, an attempt to tell the whole story, not just part of it. Women are beautiful and endlessly alluring. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that much of the attention they receive stops with their looks, and doesn’t go deeper. To me, the goal is to profile the whole person. I think that’s what Women Who Dare accomplishes because it grants these amazing athletes – who just happen to be female – the chance to tell their own stories, in their own words. It provides them with a platform in which to explore the challenges, fears and frustrations, as well as the joys and transcendence that make up an exemplary human life – and at the same time, the photos don’t shy away from the fact that climbers can be beautiful.
Photographs blend the photographer’s vision and the subject’s personality. Did you find yourself shooting each woman differently? How? Or why not?
Not really. My goal with the photography was to bring a similar style and aesthetic to the entire book, rather than develop a separate approach for each climber. But of course the challenge is, as you point out, that each person is different, and so is each location, time of day, and season. Very quickly, I realized that I didn’t have enough time or budget to wait for “magic hour” light with each climber, so ironically, my solution was to purposely avoid direct sunlight whenever possible. I purposely sought out climbs in the shade or in bright diffuse light that didn’t cast shadows.
It’s interesting to read all the women’s discussion about how women climbers are different from men. Did you find some common themes among their responses? How do you think female climbers are different from male?
Most of the women profiled agreed that generally speaking, women are more supportive and sympathetic than men when it comes to climbing. Men tend to be competitive rather than caring. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about their partners, but they express it through teasing and trash talking rather than gentle words of support. However, as Brittany Griffith points out in her profile, support and empathy among women climbers can hold them back as well. As Brittany states, it’s okay to fall – in safe situations. The bolt will hold you, so toughen up and go for it! That’s something men naturally find easier to do.
At the same time, women are much more open and willing to learn. As Kitty Calhoun says, women aren’t afraid to ask questions and admit they don’t know. This is where men’s pride becomes their greatest weakness. The default setting in men is to pretend they know, even when they don’t, and not to try new things if they think they might fail. Women aren’t afraid to admit they’re afraid, and they aren’t afraid to ask how to climb better. In that respect they are much more courageous than most men.
What’s been the response to the book from women? Men?
The response has been great from both men and women. I meet many fathers who have purchased the book for their daughters and are delighted to have profiles of female role models to share. Women often mention that it’s a great relief to learn that such accomplished climbers still struggle with a fear of heights, or of falling, as well as struggle with trying to balance their passion for climbing with other aspects of their lives. And for me, one of the most rewarding experiences has been seeing all the young girls who come to book signings to meet their heroes featured in the book. It’s gratifying to be part of a project that encourages girls to learn a life long skill, get fit and connect with nature.
What was the most difficult shot to get for the book?
As a photographer, I gravitate toward images that were the most difficult to capture. But what I’ve learned is that those are not necessarily the shots other people respond to. Some of the shots in Women Who Dare were shot on expeditions – Lynn Hill on the Bird in the Ak-Su region of Kyrgyzstan and Kitty Calhoun on the North Face of Thelay Sagar in the Garwal Himal of Nepal. In terms of sheer physical effort, those were month-long missions requiring massive amounts of work. However, closer to home, the photographs of Madaleine Sorkin and Kate Rutherford in the Black Canyon, while not as time consuming, were challenging as well. To obtain them we had to borrow a six-hundred-foot length of static line, which we fixed from the top of the North Rim on the Free Nose Route. Then we rappelled in, tying the rope off strategically as we descended. When we ran out of rope we started back up with Kate and Mad climbing and me jugging above, shooting. Have you ever tried to coil six hundred feet of rope while hanging in mid-air? Believe me it’s a full-body work out! But I also love those images because the Black Canyon is such an amazing place and because the photos capture a sense of the spectacular exposure and commitment of climbing there.
Which one do you like the most?
To be honest, I really can’t choose a favorite photograph from the book. Like a father, I love all my kids in their own way. For instance, the shots of Robyn Raboutou and her daughter Brooke. They aren’t extreme and weren’t difficult physically, but they illustrate the powerful love between a mother and her daughter and the love of climbing they both share. When I started the book, I didn’t even think of a shot like that, but now I see that it speaks volumes about women and climbing.
BONUS: How do you define adventure?
Adventure is the antidote to our overly luxurious, risk-averse, materialistic society. Adventure is what happens when you are no longer in control, when things go off the tracks, the shit hits the fan, and we are confronted with our own limitations and mortality. It’s when life gets distilled down to its essence. There are no guarantees, and no one else is going to save us. Adventure is when we all have to dig deep into our own character, in order to save the day. That’s always been the hero’s journey. It’s universal and eternal.