Is adventure photography worth the risk?

A man standing in front of a giant tree trunk, looking up.

Climber, world traveler, photographer, and author of Alaska Rock Climbing Guide Kelsey Gray is well-known for doing heart-pounding stunts like cliff jumping—stunts that most of us will only ever enjoy in his photographs. So we had to ask the burning question: Why do you bring the camera, and is it really worth the risk?

My first foray into climbing was back sometime around 2002, when I took an indoor rock-climbing course at the Alaska Rock Gym through the University of Anchorage Alaska. Before that time, I was purely a gaming nerd who had gained almost 65 lbs. after high school, eating cheeseburgers and pizza. With the occasional challenge of who can drink the most ketchup or eat the most salt packets, those were some very unhealthy years. 

During a routine doctor visit (also partially due to the emotional issues that come with being overweight and with an astronomical blood pressure), my doctor said that if I didn’t get off the computer and fix my blood pressure, I would probably have a stroke by 30. I was 20, and that didn’t leave me much time.

After the indoor course, I enrolled in the outdoor course and found that to be even better. Soon after, I began climbing outdoors with a friend from Era Aviation, where we both worked. Later that year, I began climbing with John Borland, who would introduce me to many areas around Hatcher Pass and become a great climbing partner and friend.

Enter: Photography.

Sometime during my first few years of climbing, I became more interested in hiking peaks. My uncle, Dano Michaud, had dragged me unwillingly up a peak called Harp Mountain and the 1,000+ ft. glissade (natural slide down the snow) hooked me. That summer I climbed peak after peak and soon realized that explaining the beauty of the areas was simply not enough. I needed to show it.

My very first camera was a small point-and-shoot with no screen and not enough megapixels to warrant labeling it on the front. I’m pretty sure it came free with a printer, which was also terrible. After a few trips, I realized I needed a better camera. I upgraded to a Fuji Finepix F700, which worked for me for a long time. I then moved on to a Fuji Finepix S9000 before finally making the jump to SLR with the Canon 20D. After the 20D, I moved on to the Canon 50D (which was later stolen from my car), and finally to my current camera: the Canon 7D.


During my years of climbing, I have learned some important lessons about myself, and how I view life. I am never more comfortable than when dangling from a cliff with the sun setting and the wilderness expanding in my view. I’ve often said that the journey is not the summit but in the adventure, which I’m pretty sure is a mashup of others’ quotes, but I can’t discount the great feeling of having made it as high as I can go without actually flying into the air. When I reach the top of a peak or climb and look out over the expanse, I have a ritual that I try to do as often as possible.

It is as follows:

  1. Close your eyes and wait for at least 30 seconds. Let all the emotions, feelings, failures, and successes wash into you. Reject nothing.
  2. Open your eyes and stare directly ahead. Everything washes away, and I can’t help but feel that I was not meant to have a wall in front of me. Cubicles were not meant for us.

Help or hinder?

There are times when I won't bring my camera climbing, and I usually regret it. The hairy times when the sheep dung really hits the fan are when the camera seems to really come into use, if not for just recording the trip for my own memory. The worst time to have a camera attached to you is when jammed into an off-width. This is the climber term for anything that you can’t wedge your body into but is too big to use a single hand or fist to climb. It’s probably the most uncomfortable situation most humans will ever find themselves in. A 60m off-width can feel like you’ve just run a marathon, sprinting, while holding a log over your head. (If you’re curious about just what an off-width has to offer, then Google for the video, Boogie Til You Poop.) Add climbing gear to your harness, and it becomes worse; add a camera, and you’ll pray it doesn’t shatter.

It is not easy to bring a camera as large as a Canon 7D up a climb, especially with consideration of the lens size. I usually stick with the kit lens that comes with the 7D: the 18–135mm. It’s not the best lens, but it is light and easy to carry. I would upgrade to a better lens, except I’m always spending all my money on traveling. I like to carry it in a waist pack that I often clip to my harness, just in case it comes off. I know others who use backpacks, but I don’t like having to take it off to get my camera out. That is my general kit for all adventures. Not much, but just enough so I don’t feel burdened by it. 

The camera is there for my use to record everything I wish to keep for myself or show to others, so I’ve had to take a rather lenient stance on its value. If I consider it gold, then I’ll never bring it to the truly dangerous adventures. There are times I almost have to convince myself that my camera is already gone before I bring it, then I just try and make sure it stays in one piece. This allows me to continue to bring it to the most dangerous situations.


Worth the risk?

There are others in climbing who are much more advanced in climbing photography than I. I’ve often marveled at their ability to get paid to do the things I’m paying for! But with everything comes risks, such as the photographer who was with Johnny Copp and Micah Dash, two amazing alpinists who died in an avalanche, their photographer (Wade Johnson) by their side. 

I’ve often had to decide just what it is I want to do; how far do I take this hobby that has become a driving force in life? I’m still figuring that part out. I have found that half the reason I travel is to take photographs. If I were to lose my camera today, it would probably take quite a lot of self-reflection to pull myself from the loss, even if I have the illusion that the loss is already imminent.

Like many other climbers, I am driven too heavily by emotions. I would love to say that most of my traveling began as a desire to see the world and experience new things. The truth is that many of my travels have been fueled by escape, the desire to escape the emotions that come with a loss, whether it is a relationship or the death of a loved one. Over time it has had to change as those emotions were hidden, or in my current case I found someone who truly makes me happy in life. Previously, I spent much of the time traveling the world alone, a few of the trips included others. Now I try to share it with others, those who I travel with and those who I get to show through the photographs I take.