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The Elusive, Essential Feeling

The illustrious Fred Beckey [Photo] Randy Wenzel

The day is done. In the darkness, bruised and battered hands react unconsciously and follow the familiar Braille trail of the desert pinstripes scratched in the fender, door and quarter panel of my car. It’s been a long while since I’ve felt boxes of slide film jostling around my cooler. At first, the empty space was a shock. Now I fill it with a case of small batch micro brew. Sitting on the tailgate, I contemplate, much the same as always, the images I’ve seen: the dance of the juniper shadows across the desert floor; the subtle arc of the rope stretching for the cliff top; a meal of hummus, carrots and a shared sandwich. Laughter echoes as clouds drift by. I think about that elusive “feeling,” the sensation that sometimes seems as luminous and sudden as an enchanting over-the-shoulder gaze–and that at other times slips away, quiet and unannounced. I wonder if any of my photos have captured it. It’s one of those things that you can see, witness or even partake in, but that somehow fades when subdued and confined within a digital sensor.

Has the advance of technology mechanized and removed some of the sense of creating art? The climbing life, the essence of climbing–wordsmiths strive to wrestle it as well, but even though people often say that a picture is worth a thousand words, I think that writers have an advantage: it’s still easier to get lost within paragraphs of dreamy, hypnotic prose–and harder to slip away from reality with a quick glance, the flip of pixels. While a photograph documents a moment in time, the image has to be purely magical to capture that feeling in time. Even as the subtractive color of the day diffuses into night, it’s still hard to pull off a clean shot. The feeling remains–it’s who we are as climbers. And yet, it’s shy, especially when a camera closely intrudes. Even while we’re shooting from afar, somehow it knows, and most often we’re just left with digital dust. Only now and then, we catch glimmers of that radiant vision, always pristine and new, stretching out before us like a thin layer of fresh snowfall, sparkling and melting beneath the rising sun, leaving a sheen of fleeting, reflected light.–Andrew Burr

[The title is a reference to Doug Robinson’s essay “The Climber as Visionary,” collected in A Night on the Ground, a Day in the Open.–Ed.]