By the late 1990s only a few of the climbing pioneers who defined an era of exploration and first ascents in the Sierra Nevadas in the 1920s and ’30s remained alive.
Jim Herrington, a Los Angeles-based photographer and climber, wanted to meet them, while he still could. They were his heroes, the people who inspired him to first touch a climbing rope in 1976 and to later move West where he could explore the mountain range that had captivated him since childhood.
Herrington met Glen Dawson, who made the 1931 first ascent of the east face of Mt. Whitney, and took his picture in 1998. That same year, Herrington met and photographed Doug Robinson and Jules Eichorn, California climbing legends from the same era.
Herrington didn’t have a plan for the images. He just wanted to document the men as they were when he met them. He thought the material might one day become a magazine article. Instead it turned into an almost-two-decade-long project and his book “The Climbers,” which was published in October 2017.
The volume features 60 black-and-white portraits of climbers, including several with strong ties to Wyoming, like Glenn Exum and Kim Schmitz.
Herrington will talk about his book and share slides at presentations in Lander on July 15, and in Jackson on July 19.
Herrington credits his interest in both climbing and photography to a stack of Life magazines his father kept in their North Carolina home. He loved the black-and-white photographs from the 1930s and 1940s.
“And somewhere in there was probably a picture of a guy waving an ice ax from the top of a mountain somewhere in the Alps,” Herrington said.
It made him want to climb mountains and soon he was obsessed, reading everything he could about climbing, particularly climbing in the Sierra Nevada.
“By the time I was 13 or 14, the Sierra Nevada had this pull,” he said. “I knew so much about its history and in my mind it loomed pretty large.”
Herrington knew he wanted to climb, but he also wanted to be a photographer in a big city. So within a year of graduating high school he moved to Los Angeles to work with photographers known for their portrait work and to cover the music industry.
The climbing portraits were a personal, self-funded project. At first “it was Sierra-centric and it was about picking who I could find that was left,” he said.
Then he connected with Bradford Washburn in 2002. Washburn was the first to climb the West Buttress on Denali and notched other significant ascents in Alaska.
With the addition of Washburn, Herrington expanded his project to include mountain icons nationwide. When he photographed Riccardo Cassin in Italy in 2009, a week before Cassin died, the project became international.
Herrington did hew to one final parameter: his subjects had to be active in the mid-1970s or earlier. He wanted icons from the era before he began to climb.
He photographed Chuck Pratt, known for his big wall climbs in Yosemite and his time in the Tetons as a mountain guide; Yvon Chouinard who in addition to an impressive climbing career started Patagonia Inc.; and Gwen Moffat, the first female mountain guide in Great Britain. Herrington admired the climbs they undertook on hemp ropes and without the safety gear today’s climbers take for granted.
Herrington’s book is not a collection of climbing photographs. Everyone has already seen the famous pictures of his subjects climbing in their 20s and 30s, Herrington said. He created portraits.
“I don’t think you have to see them climbing,” he said. “I think there is more going on than that. It’s interesting to see people in repose who have done amazing things.”
There are few people who experience what it is like to be among the best in the world at something they love. It takes talent, but also dedication and sacrifice.
“The ones that do it, that reach that greatness, there is a lot of compromise and obsession to devote their lives to doing it,” Herrington said.
For some, their passion ruined friendships, marriages and finances, but it was their choice to pursue it, he said. “And now, in these photographs, they are on the other side.”
Herrington will share slides and discuss his book at two Wyoming events. First will be at 9 a.m., July 15, in Lander City Park at the International Climber’s Festival and the second at 6:30 p.m., July 19, at the Teton County Library in Jackson.