Every shoot I find myself on offers a unique set of difficulties—but a few of them have been harder than the rest. My most challenging photography scenarios so far have required me to maintain focus while immersed in freezing surf, battling treacherous waves, scrambling through deep snowstorms, facing screaming winds, and while hanging by a rope 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley floor. Read on for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into some shoots that I’ll never forget.
With towering mountains and the dramatic sun seeping-in color from behind clouds, Norway’s Lofoten Islands can feel like another world. But behind that beauty lurks the harsh reality of frozen fingers, hypothermia, equipment issues, and lack of sleep, which is what you sign up for if you want to shoot surfing in the frigid water. When you suit up to go shoot surfers in the break zone you are setting yourself up for about a 40-minute countdown until all the blood rushes from your extremities to save your vital organs and hypothermia kicks in. I remember needing to be carried across the beach after losing all feeling in my legs. It might not sound like fun but when you’re back in a warm cabin looking back at all the incredible moments captured in the photos, all the pain seems to drift away.
Teahupoʻo Body Surf
I had the opportunity to shoot stills for the bodysurf film Come Hell or High Water in Mexico, Maine, and Tahiti. I was stoked to go to a place that had warm water, clear skies, and great waves. But when they informed me they were planning on shooting Teahupoʻo, I thought, “these guys are crazy!” Teahupoʻo is barley surf-able let alone bodysurf-able. The turbulent waves break onto a reef with only about a foot of water over it. Shooting in the water was a painful experience. I had been freezing in the water before, I had been slammed by huge waves, I had even been slammed into the sand. But shooting here was the gnarliest experience ever: I was raked over the reef, stabbed by coral, and spent far too much time tucking into a ball trying to avoid getting my head smashed in. Though it was treacherous work and I ended up with staph infection in my leg, I was able to create a body of work that I’m super stoked about.
Skiing in British Columbia
Coming into this shoot, I could count the number of times I’d been skiing on one hand. Trying to get awesome images on an expedition marked by long stretches of postholing and fumbling to get my skis back on during the middle of a snowstorm was definitely a challenge. I love being light and nimble while I shoot so I can run over to a new angle. This was something that I definitely couldn’t do on the British Columbia shoot. If I saw a rad shot 100 yards up the hill, it was quite the mission to get there—and once I did, I usually only had one chance to get the shot.
Windy Iceland Beach
Iceland is basically made up of volcanic sand and when the wind picks up (which it does just about every day) it shoots the sand through the air at about 70 mph. The windblown projectiles pelt everything—including a freezing dude from Central California—and sandblast the beach into beautiful misery. The wind is great for offshore conditions like this, but horrible for anyone who has to be there!
This is what it looked like hanging in space 3,000 feet over the Yosemite valley floor as I shot Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson climbing the final pitches of the Dawn Wall. This was my first time being on-rope while shooting climbing—and it was from one of the largest pieces of granite in the world. My heart was pounding and my legs went numb from hanging for so long. The wind stopped during the final pitches, and you could hear every hoot and holler from El Capitan meadow, where a crowd had gathered. Some might call it the very best sports stadium in the world. It was terrifying but very few vantages in the valley give you this kind of perspective.
Attend Chris Burkard’s adventure photography course March 28–29 at Clymb HQ in Portland, OR. Space is extremely limited and going fast. Don’t miss out!
This exclusive event is brought to you by The Clymb in partnership with Chris’s sponsors. In addition to experiencing the photography workshop of a lifetime, attendees will receive gift bags loaded with some of the best adventure swag in the world.