Canyoneering – by Bill Sharpsteen

Bill SharpsteenBill Sharpsteen is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. His first book project, Dirty Water: One Man’s Fight to Clean Up One of the World’s Most Polluted Bays was released in 2010, and his next book, The Docks, about the Port of Los Angeles was published in 2011, both by University of California Press. His editorial photographs have appeared in Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Emmy, Transpacific, Westways, Washington Journey and Buzzworn. His popular moonlit landscapes have been published in Los Angeles Times, Westways (the article won the Lowell Thomas Award, Society of American Travel Writers, for best illustrated article), Outdoor Photographer and Photo Techniques. His articles have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Washington Post, TV Guide, Entrepreneur, Photo Techniques, Outdoor Photographer, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Westways, Washington Journey, Emmy, Buzzworm, Seattle Weekly, Visio and Transpacific. Preferring to cover a wide variety of subjects, Sharpsteen has written about such topics as business, television, the environment, personalities, travel and entertainment.
Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek Canyon, Zion National Park

Canyoneering is a great, wonderful, beautiful, adventurous kind of sport. Well, I call it a sport. It’s athletic, at the very least, and requires a certain nerve. After all, it involves dropping into a mountain canyon where you rappel or climb down all sorts of unpredictable obstacles. And after that first rappel which can be anywhere from a few feet to 300 feet, you’re absolutely committed to continue down, no turning around. There are sometimes gushing waterfalls, slippery cliffs and deep pools that add extra elements of risk and surprise, not to mention beauty.

Pine Creek Canyon

Pine Creek Canyon, Zion National Park

Trouble is, photographing a canyoneering trip is probably the most challenging thing I’ve done. It starts with impossible contrasts in light—the bottom of the canyons are usually pretty dark while the upper reaches of the rock and the sky are bright. Often, I can tighten up the composition so I’m just shooting in the shade, but not always. Other times, I’ll do a hand-held five-frame bracket and blend the best of the exposures in Photoshop. And the shade itself is so dark, I have to crank up the ISO to noise-producing heights to get a fast enough shutter speed for the action.

Telephone Canyon

Telephone Canyon, Zion National Park

I usually have the heaviest pack of my friends because not only do I carry a rope plus the usual survival gear you need for a remote place, and then wear a harness loaded down with hardware, I normally bring that wonderful brick of a camera, the Canon 1Dx, along with three Canon lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. If we’re in a wet canyon, most of this is protected in double or even triple dry sacks. On occasion, I’ll also bring a tripod and flash with PocketWizard remotes. Maybe I could get away with a smaller camera, but the 1Dx is a tank and given the abuse my equipment—and body—suffers during a typical trip, I’m afraid I might be busting gear right and left if I have anything else.

Hades Canyon

Hades Canyon, Death Valley National Park

There are other considerations besides the mechanical ones. In order to finish a canyon before it gets dark requires a fluid coordination of setting anchors, rappelling, pulling down ropes, down-climbing, setting up the next anchor and so on. I can’t always ask for even 10 minutes to get into position for a shot. When I have that kind of time, decent angles are hard to find. I discovered when I first got into canyoneering that all I shot was either from the top of a rappel looking down at the person on the rope, or up at them from the bottom. That’s because most of the rappels are in narrow gouges in the rock formed by running water and it’s physically impossible to get any other angle but down or up. Occasionally, I’ve been able to set up a second rope on a stout anchor, go down, say, five feet, lock off on the rope and shoot but that’s rare.

Typhon Canyon

Typhon Canyon, Death Valley National Park

My latest photos are from Inconceivable Canyon in Death Valley National Park. It was named for a line in the movie Princess Bride as are the other canyons in the area. The rappels were long, the biggest being 280 feet, and the so-called down-climbs challenging. It took all day and into the early evening to finish. It was also fun and a blast to photograph. That part never gets old.

Inconceivable Canyon

Inconceivable Canyon, Death Valley National Park

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