It was 1998 and I was standing in the Camp 4 parking lot with all my gear thrown on a tarp, sorting for a trip up El Cap when a skinny old guy with dazzling white hair and a goofy smile approached and asked if I wanted to look at his nuts.
He winked at the double entendre and said in a voice with the slightest Jimmy Stewart warble, “Actually they’re called Sentinel Nuts. I make them with a straight taper to balance security and removability. Hi, I’m Tom Frost.”
He stuck his hand out and I shook it with reverence. Tom Frost! This was the guy on the cover of Royal Robbin’s Basic Rockcraft, my bible when I was learning to climb. He’d partnered with Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard and bagged the first ascents of the Salathé and North America Wall in the 1960s. In 1972, with Chouinard, he’d founded Great Pacific Iron Works (now Black Diamond Equipment and Patagonia Inc.) and invented hardware still in use. Together, Frost and Chouinard are responsible for creating much of the gear as well as the techniques that today define climbing.
Heck, yes, I wanted to see his nuts. I promptly bought a set of them for my climb.
Tom Frost is one of climbing’s living legends, a Stanford-educated engineer who has excelled as a climber, inventor and businessman. After parting ways with Patagonia, Frost continued creating, founding Frostworks, a climbing gear company, and Chimera, a manufacturer of specialized light modifiers that have made Frost’s name familiar to modern filmmakers and still photographers. The genesis of Frost’s photo legacy came much earlier, however, starting with his famous—and not so famous—images of the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.
Next, Corey Rich (himself one of climbing’s most accomplished photographers) recounts a recent—and revelatory—meeting with climbing’s original lensman.
I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. As owner of a picture agency, I spend much of my time reviewing images by the top 100-plus outdoor adventure photographers in the world, many of them climbing photographers. I live, eat and breathe adventure photography. So it’s rare that I come across a photographer who really blows me away with his or her raw talent or entirely new way of seeing the world. So rare, in fact, that in my 21 years in the industry, it has happened only once.
We are living in a very unique time where some of the pioneers of our sport and culture are still alive and accessible. Having seen a handful of Tom Frost’s stunning black-and-white photos from Camp 4 and the walls high above Yosemite Valley, I had the sneaking suspicion that many more existed. If this were indeed the case, I felt this collection deserved to be archived.
I started a dialog with Tom about his photographs, detailing my thoughts and ideas for the archive, which would make them available to future generations in a searchable online database. Eventually, I made the four-hour drive through the Sierra foothills to Frost’s home in Oakdale, California. Tom and his wife, Joyce, welcomed me, fed me and wanted to hear all about my work, interests, adventures and love life.
After a few hours of catching up, it was time to get to work. With loupe in hand, ready to edit, Tom led me to his desk, where he had the light table ready. His engineering background was apparent in the shelves lined with film-filled binders, the negatives and contact sheets meticulously organized and numbered, arranged by date, each binder paired with a glossary of the contents and a set of pristine contact sheets. I have met very few photographers, even professionals—people actually making a living from their photography—that were as organized as Tom Frost.
I grabbed binder number one, roll number one, and began looking at the contact sheets, occasionally checking the negative to see if, in fact, the image was sharp. Within roll number one, arranged in several rows of five frames apiece, a few images were marked with a grease pencil. Over the years, Tom had selected three or four images per roll to be printed. Today, these shots have become iconic photographs, images that have come to define the golden age of climbing in Yosemite. In between these images, I found other fantastic moments, which were, in my opinion, even better than what had been previously published. I began to uncover rolls and rolls of unique images that were just unbelievable. There were no repetitive motor-driven sequences, shot in the hopes that one of the frames would capture the right moment in focus. Tom shot a single frame per scenario, perfectly lit and composed, capturing a wonderful, decisive moment, defining the character and spirit of the early days in Yosemite. His work showed a wildly impressive level of technical proficiency and an obvious understanding of journalistic significance.
As I made my way through the images, page after page, roll after roll, I became increasingly excited. I’d opened a time capsule, a long-lost manuscript penned by the original hard men of our sport, seen by no one but Tom. Within this history lesson, it became clear that Tom had not only documented his adventurous era, but also established the benchmark for what climbing photography is, and what it would look like for the next 50 years. Both technically and logistically, with his well-crafted use of light and composition and his ability to get himself into places to capture key moments, Tom was shooting then the same way today’s climbing photographers shoot on El Cap, or on any big wall in the world. I was astounded, and I remember thinking that Tom must have spent quite a bit of time refining his technique and training his eye before he took to the walls of Yosemite.
Time passed quickly and Tom decided we should break for lunch. Though totally engrossed in the images, I reluctantly agreed. Over burritos, a passion both Tom and I also share, the conversation turned to business. Having started several successful companies, Tom, not surprisingly, has the presence of a CEO. He’s an idea guy, focused on the big picture, and he functions as though society’s rules weren’t written for him. He has realized his successes by looking at life through a different set of lenses than most of us.
Still, my true interest for the day lay in his photography background, and about midway through lunch I asked Tom, “How long have you been shooting? I started on roll one today, but that’s obviously just your climbing archive. Tell me about your photography experience before that.”
Tom’s response to my question was initially one of confusion, so I clarified myself, asking again, “What had you shot before this?”
Tom said simply, with the same deadpan factual tone an engineer uses to deliver any information, “That binder you started with today—number one—that was the beginning.”
I would have fallen out of my chair, except for the fact we were sitting in a booth. This was truly where it had begun. Tom had not only pioneered Yosemite big wall climbing but at the same time, pioneered adventure photography.
Most people spend a lifetime trying to master the art and craft of photography, but Tom’s keen eye and raw talent were obvious in the very first frame. Never before or since have I met a photographer whose gift for storytelling was at such a high level straight out of the gate.
He recounted the story. In 1960, Tom Frost stood in Camp 4 with Chuck Pratt and Royal Robbins, preparing for what would be the second ascent of the Nose on El Capitan. Realizing its potential historical significance, Bill Furror stopped by and handed his Leica to Tom with the words, “Take this up with you. You’ll want it.” To become familiar with the camera, Tom took his very first photo, the now iconic image of Royal and Chuck sorting pitons on the picnic table as Bill looks on.
Hearing Tom recount this story and realizing the relative absence of blurry or incorrectly exposed frames, it struck me: He is possibly the most talented, unsung hero of adventure photography.
Tom has said, “I was no photographer or photojournalist. I was just a climber that carried a camera.” Yet all of the hot shot climbing photographers over the last 30 years, from Galen Rowell to Greg Epperson, Brian Bailey, Jim Thornburg, Keith Ladzinski, Tim Kemple, Andrew Burr and myself included—we’ve all been unknowingly following in the footsteps of Tom Frost.
Corey Rich is a member of the Visual Journalism Advisory Board at Brooks Institute, co-founder of the National Geographic Adventure Photography Workshop, and member of the Rowell Legacy Committee. In addition to running his own business, Corey Rich Productions, he is co-owner of Aurora Photos, Aurora Select and Aurora Novus.