You’re going to love talking with Tom Frost,” said Flatlander Films director Tom Seawell, who, along with editor Jeff Wiant and producer Craig Flax, is creating a documentary about the Golden Age of rock climbing. “I personally believe he would think photography is the link between climbing and the rest of his life.”
Without a doubt, Seawell was right. The early 1960s saw Frost, along with fellow Big Wall pioneers Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard, tackle those daunting, sheer, granite faces with aplomb. Big Wall first ascents like The Nose and Salathé Wall set the standards for clean, leave-no-trace ascents on iconic El Cap — and the climbing world as a whole.
Frost was Seawell’s first interview for the documentary. After they finished, Seawell asked him, “What’s next?” Frost handed him a long list of climbers.
While the Flatlander filmmakers — Seawell, Wiant and Flax — were in the middle of one of their marathon editing sessions in Lake Tahoe, I reached Tom Frost at his home in Oakdale, California. It was amazing listening to him reflect on his legacy, left on the big walls of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and the world-class climbers he teamed up with to accomplish those feats.
As extraordinary as his ability to climb those routes cleanly was, equally impressive was how Frost was able to capture on-camera and document, for the first time, the throng of first ascents on El Cap — initially with his Leica screw mount camera, a collapsible 50mm Elmar lens and a healthy bag of blackand- white film.
Chuck Graham: What was it like on El Capitan? How were you able to both climb and shoot?
Tom Frost: I was comfortable up there. I wasn’t bothered by the exposure, for the most part. So when I saw a photo opp, I stopped and took advantage of it. I didn’t have any training. I was lucky that in general the stuff came out as good as it did. Most of it was at least usable.
CG: Do you miss the Golden Age of rock climbing?
TF: Normally, I would say no to that. Even for the stuff we were doing back then, making the early ascents on El Cap . . . those were big experiences, particularly for me. When I stopped in the mid-60s, got married, had a family and all that it requires, I said, “Well, that’s the end of that.”
There’s no way to come back to that kind of stuff because of the level of commitment it requires. After moving to Boulder, Colorado, I stayed out of climbing. But I recently walked into a shop, and on the wall was a topo map of El Cap showing close to 100 routes. When I left climbing, you could count them all on one hand. I didn’t realize such big changes were taking place.
During the making of the documentary, I’ve gotten reimmersed in it while looking back on it and sifting through my black-and-whites to recapture and discover what it was all about for me. I’ve actually relived it all without climbing.
CG: Have you enjoyed that?
TF: It’s been great. I realize looking at my images that I really was so at home on the big walls. I’m a big cheerleader for [Flatlander Films’] project and try to help wherever I can. (www.flatlanderfilms.com/donate)
CG: When you were climbing, what was more challenging for you, a first ascent or setting up and positioning yourself for a proper composition?
TF: None of it was hard. I enjoyed climbing. I really liked the first ascents. I had the advantage of climbing with the best climbers on the planet: Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard. When I climbed with Royal, I didn’t have any worries going up. What made the climbing great was the commitment to style. Royal set the standard for big wall climbing — still basically the world standard. It was also about raising ourselves to the level of the climb. It was about leaving no trace — pretty simple stuff — so trying to do as good a job as we could. We were partnering with nature and aware we were setting the standard for generations that would follow. It was our first priority to climb in style. That made it enjoyable for us. We were really solid as a team.
As a photographer, I was an amateur snap-shooter. You look at the modern work and you see how they set up a shot. That’s not at all what I was doing. I was just doing documentary work as a member of the team. I just happened to be the only guy doing it during those critical climbs — Robbins’s first big wall climbs. I was the guy who brought the camera along. It was 99 percent being in the right place at the right time. We never set up for a photo. We were just climbing. I had a leather camera case with a strong shoulder strap so I could wear it at all times unless I was leading. I really enjoyed film. There’s something a little more natural about that in my mind.
CG: So, no adjustment for going from climbing to then implementing photography?
TF: When I started climbing Yosemite — and obviously, I was thinking this was awesome — I was working at North American Aviation in Los Angeles. I went into the photo department and said I wanted to learn how to shoot film. They told me to shoot still photography, but I didn’t have a camera. Then the second ascent of The Nose came up, and the day before we started at Camp 4, I was handed a Leica camera. I learned how to use it, use the light meter. We went up on the climb shooting about one roll a day for seven days. Those were basically the best seven rolls of film that I have. So that’s why I say it was 99 percent being in the right place, because the environment is so photogenic, unless you completely screw it up, you’re coming away with okay stuff. Another plus was being influenced by Ansel Adams. I much preferred black-and-white film, so darn good for Yosemite.