Cheating Death for a Photograph: Volume Three


Our series on Cheating Death for a Photograph, Volumes One and Two, focused, respectively, on listening to your inner voice and keeping your balance. In Volume Three, photographers Todd Vorenkamp and Michael Clark share stories of photographic misadventures in which maintaining composure was central to coming out unscathed. From an imprudent stumble amid disused industrial remains in the pitch black of night, to an unexpected encounter with a fraying rope while ascending a precarious rock face, keeping calm under extreme circumstances is an admirable trait both these photographers share.

Above photograph © Michael Clark

Todd Vorenkamp: The Hole

Corrugated fiberglass sheets cover windows inside the desolate industrial plant where Vorenkamp photographed. Photograph © Todd Vorenkamp

For my Master’s thesis project, I spent 18 months photographing in and around an abandoned pulp mill, spending two to six hours per night wandering in the darkness, several nights a week.

The mill was as dark as a raven’s wing at midnight, but my photos do not do justice to the extreme darkness of the entire location. Only a few lights remained on, since the mill had closed the year before (2008) and it got darker and darker over the duration of my project.

I would walk around with two flashlights and a headlamp, a key tool that left my hands free to carry my gear and tripod. The mill was deserted, except for some raccoons, owls, and cats, and one security guard who would patrol every hour or so in a white pickup truck.

One night, while exploring a new area, I noticed a large sheet of what looked like aluminum siding between me and my next photograph. Foolishly lazy, I decided to walk across this bare sheet of metal instead of trying to circumnavigate it through the brush, mud, and industrial debris.

I stepped on the sheet and, as the weight of my second boot hit the surface, it opened up like a frozen pond in late spring. Instead of metal, I had stepped on a sheet of thin corrugated fiberglass covering a hole in the ground. What happened over the next few seconds, I cannot recall.

A sign indicating the Washed Dregs Tank takes on an ominous meaning after a tumble into a hole containing an indeterminate dirty liquid. Photograph © Todd Vorenkamp

I can tell you that after some commotion and an undetermined short period of time, I found myself on the ground next to where I had stepped onto the sheet, which now had a man-sized hole in it. My right leg was completely soaked from foot to upper thigh, while my left leg was bone dry. My camera bag and tripod were resting on the ground next to where I lay, dry and intact.

I honestly cannot explain how only one leg and not both managed to fall through the hole, nor can I tell you how quick my reaction time was to save my gear from plunging into the wet darkness. After extracting my leg, I shined my headlamp into the hole. I cannot say how deep it was, nor how much water it contained, but I am pretty sure I didn’t touch the bottom. I cannot even say if it was water—this was a polluted industrial site, after all. Whatever the liquid, it was disgustingly dirty—my right pant leg was proof of that.

Although adrenaline was coursing through my body, I got cold. The temperature that night was just over 50°F and I was partially wet. Should I be walking around taking photos with my right leg soaking in something not so clean? My night was over. It was time to trek back to the car, remove my pants (not good for staying warm, but helpful for keeping the muck off the driver’s seat), and head home to shower and do laundry.

Had I fallen all the way in, who knows if I could have gotten out. I have no idea how deep the hole was or how much liquid it contained, nor if there was a ladder or some way in which to extricate myself. I certainly could have yelled for help in hopes the security guard would pass on his rounds with the window down and radio off, but there was no pavement for him to patrol in that area. My cell phone would have been inoperable, as well. I always file a “float plan” (for more on float plans, read the B&H Explora article 8 Tips for Safety and Etiquette When Photographing at Night), so people knew I was at the mill and when I should be returning, but I’m sure I would not have been found there before succumbing to hypothermia or drowning.

Moral of the story? Walk on steady ground whenever possible, and don’t take shortcuts across fiberglass sheets.

Michael Clark: The Wakeup Call

Eric Sutton on the 5.12 second pitch of the Yellow Wall on Kayyam in the Cathedral Spires of Custer State Park, South Dakota. Photograph © Michael Clark

The climbers and I started hiking in the dark at 5:00 a.m. This was the third day of a Climbing magazine assignment in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Larry Shaffer and Cheryl Mayer had been recommended as the traditional climbing masters of the Needles, and they didn’t disappoint. Larry soloed the short first pitch of East Gruesome Spire, as I moved into position to photograph higher up in the gulley. It was freezing cold and the wind was howling. I was shaking so violently I could barely keep the camera steady. My plan was to shoot East Gruesome Spire from the side at first light, as the climbers ascended, and then jumar* to the top of East Gruesome to shoot across at the Eye Tooth. Although only rated 5.7, the Eye Tooth was spectacularly exposed.

I started the climb around 8:30 a.m. My 60-meter static rope hung free from the gently overhanging wall for the first 160'. I wanted to get in position quickly, so the light wouldn’t get too harsh on the Eye Tooth. Thirty feet from the top I looked up to see my rope, 12' above, bent over a large quartz crystal pointing straight out from the wall. My first reaction was to push off the wall and get the rope off the crystal. As I leaned out, I noticed my rope seemed strangely thin where it ran over the crystal. I was looking at frayed core material. From my perspective, it appeared I was hanging from 1/3 of the rope’s sheath! I wasn’t panicked. I was stunned. One third of a sheath couldn’t hold me for more than a few seconds; it was sobering to think that my life would be over so quickly. I could already see my body falling away from the wall and I anticipated how it would feel.

Gravity would engage instantaneously and my 35-lb camera pack would act as ballast. Upon impact 180' below, the pack would break my back and slam my head and feet onto the granite slabs. I would have 2 seconds at most, and would be looking at the blue sky the entire time. I could hear the dull thud of my landing. I prayed as never before, certain that this was my time to die.

I tried to call up to the climbers, who were still on top, but had to forcibly clear my throat just to speak. When I finally yelled, asking them to lower a rope and put me on belay as quickly as possible, it was with noticeable urgency. Larry said, “Give me a moment; this could take a little time.” With a cracking voice, I shouted back, “Lower the rope NOW!”

Clark’s partially severed static line after a very close call at South Dakota’s Cathedral Spires. Photograph © Michael Clark

As Larry’s face popped over the top, he immediately understood the situation. I can’t remember how long it took to get the rope down to me, but I held as still as I could, waiting for my rope to break. It felt like 2 or 3 minutes before the rope end dropped in front of my face. I made the fastest tie-in of my life, at the same time concentrating on my breathing to calm myself.

Once secured, I jugged up and past the cut. When I got to the cut and saw the rope up close, I realized that some of the core was still intact, but I just kept going. I would later find out that I was hanging from three of the core’s 7 strands.

After reaching the top, Larry and Cheryl looked at me, waiting for a reaction. My nervous comments gave away how I felt. Little else was said. Then they moved ahead with the plan, rappelling their ropes to start up the Eye Tooth.

I knew I had to keep it together and concentrate on taking photographs as a diversion. I started to get excited about the images, which forced me to think about composition, exposure, and focus instead of what had just happened. When it came time to rappel, I was gripped. My faith in ropes had just taken a serious beating. I checked the anchors at least 5 times before leaning back over the edge. Once on the ground I felt a huge release.

After such a close call, the next few days were intense. Flowers looked brighter, the sky bluer and life seemed surreal. I realized that every moment from then on was a gift. I no longer felt invincible. And death didn’t seem as distant as before, it could come at any moment. To this day, I still get nervous when I hear rope rubbing on rock. But in retrospect, it has become a blessing. Every breath is a gift. Someday we will all die. I don’t know if I’m ready, but I am getting prepared.

*For those not acquainted with climbing techniques, jumaring, also known as jugging, is slang for ascending a fixed rope. The climber clamps mechanical ascenders onto the rope that slide upwards and lock with a camming device. Climbing photographers use this technique so they can get into position, freeing their hands to manipulate a camera.

Do you have a story (or and image) to share about cheating death for a photograph? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.

To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names below.

Todd Vorenkamp
Michael Clark

In case you missed them, click to read the companion articles in this series, Cheating Death for a Photograph: Volume One and Cheating Death for a Photograph: Volume Two.


I recently had a very close call in Costa Rica photographing in Tamarindo.  I was walking along an inlet and waded waist high into the middle of the inlet to take photos of a boat in the middle of the water, when a local gestured to me that I may want to get out of the water, and fast.  I did so, and then spotted a huge alligator eating its lunch behind a nearby boat close to the shore.  Next I noticed the sign warning people not to go into the water because of alligators.  Let's just say my wife was NOT happy to hear the story when I met her back at the resort later in the day.  

Hi Peter, thanks so much for writing in and sharing your close call! While not photo related, your encounter reminds me of the recent tragic news story about a tiny toddler getting snatched by an alligator while wading in ankle deep water at a Walt Disney World resort. Whereever one wanders, it's important to be aware of one's surroundings and pay attention to posted signs or other situational alerts. Additionally, the value of gathering first hand insights from locals, from safety warnings to photo tips, can not be underestimated. Safe travels, happy shooting and thanks for reading the Explora blog!