Rock climbing in Chile, photography and responsible travel.
Through the lens of a climbing photographer.
Posted on Wed 10 Nov 2021 · Community
October 18, 2021
A structural engineer by training, Cris Posadas first took up climbing on a trip to Thailand at the age of 26. A few years later, he took the decision to dedicate himself to climbing and adventure photography full-time, founding Gamantri, an international brand aiming to promote conservation and respectful practices among climbers and travel enthusiasts. We sat down with Cris to discuss his journey from structural engineer to professional photographer, the amazing array of climbing areas in Chile and some of his most memorable shoots to date.
Benito Blanco climbing in Cueva de las Constelaciones in Valle de Los Condores, Chile
Can you start by telling me a little more about your story? How did you get into climbing and photography?
I first became interested in travelling and photography as a kid. Growing up, my parents didn’t have many resources to travel around. My grandparents had, however, travelled by boat from Argentina to Europe, and my grandmother would always teach me about the world and different cultures in a very interactive way. So I became very interested in travelling visually and intellectually, without ever being able to leave Argentina.
After graduating from high school and studying several art forms, I chose to train and work as a civil engineer. This opened up many opportunities for me, and gave me the economic possibility to travel and invest in camera equipment. Finally, at the age of 26, my mother bought me a ticket to Europe as a graduation present, and I set out with the plan of spending over a year travelling. I landed at my uncle’s house in Madrid – who is a professional graphic designer and photography expert – and asked him to teach me everything he could about photography. For the next two years I travelled around the world taking photos, and returned regularly to my uncle’s in Madrid to polish my craft. He taught me everything from theory and techniques, to printing and digital editing.
Cris' uncle's office in Madrid.
My story with regards to how I got into rock climbing is a little more unexpected. I was born next to the beach in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and didn’t even see a proper mountain before the age of 21. My first experience climbing, though, was in Tonsai, Thailand, right before I moved to Chile. I was sitting on the beach when I saw these crazy people hanging off the cliffs from ropes. I was immediately super intrigued. Luckily, I met a couple of climbers at the hostel where I was staying who offered to teach me the ropes. The picture below is my first climbing photo, taken that day. I’d change a lot about this picture now, but it’s definitely one of my favourites because it will always be my first climbing photo.
Cris' first ever climbing photo taken back in 2015
What motivated you to leave engineering and dedicate yourself to climbing photography full-time?
After moving to Chile, driven by love and a sense of wonder, I worked for a few years in a company that does underwater robotic services. This allowed me to travel a lot throughout Latin America and pursue my passions of climbing and photography in my free time. However, I eventually got tired of engineering – I was fed up with being stuck between institutional interests and the workers' needs. At the same time, a lot of things were changing in my personal life, and I decided I needed a radical change. I knew I wanted to climb for the rest of my days, and to keep travelling the world. How could I make a living from this? And then it hit me: climbing photography.
That’s an amazing story. I was wondering – what do you think it takes to become a great climbing photographer?
In my opinion, a great climbing photographer is someone who is able to master a huge variety of skills, who is brave enough to head into challenging situations and extreme environments, and who is able to combine these things into a particular form of artistic expression. To be a great climbing photographer you of course need to have an excellent understanding of photographic theory, equipment and techniques – but this alone is not enough. You also need the athletic ability and technical skills to get to these incredible places in the first place. There are many unique places where just being there is an art form. But then being there with the right equipment, photography knowledge, creative capacity, and being able to come back down with that data and process it in a creative way to tell a story – that is the ultimate challenge… Putting all these skills together is incredibly difficult, but there are some people – Renan Otzurk springs to mind – who constantly take it to a new level.
All the climbing gear required for the first ascent of a trad multipitch in Alto El Loa. The
photography gear is not displayed but included an static 65m rope, the camera with 3 lenses, atripod and the fixed rope gear set (Jumar, gri gri, ladder, etc).
What have been some of your most memorable shoots to date?
This is a really hard question to answer! It's so incredibly relative. For me a picture is so much more than just a powerful image. There is a context, a story behind it, a technical skill, a way of looking that changes constantly. It’s normal to be constantly evolving as a photographer and creating better images and stories over time, but there are still some magical moments which are really difficult to recreate.
Composition-wise, the photo above is one of the best pictures I have ever taken. Back in 2015 I was travelling the world, camera in hand, trying to work out how to apply all the academic photographic skills my uncle had taught me. I went to Nepal for a few months following the Kathmandu earthquake with the NGO All Hands to lead a team of rubble clearers. This photo was taken in the Kathmandu valley from a moving van: I noticed this perfect, almost radioactive, green landscape and a woman wearing this red clothing’. So I pulled out my camera and took three shots, super fast. This is my favourite because I caught her smiling.
The Living Root Bridges of Nongriat
The next picture was taken in Nongriat, a village in the Meghalaya State in North-East India. This region sits just below the Himalayas and as a result is one of the most humid places on earth. They actually hold the world record for the most rainfall in 24 hours – 104 centimetres. London holds an average of 69 centimetres per YEAR, to give you a rough idea!
What you see is a deep and vast jungle filled with some of the most weird plants and animals I’ve ever seen. There are rivers and waterfalls everywhere, and so the local communities had to figure out a way to cross from one area to the next. Look at the top bridge in the picture and you’ll notice that roots are hanging from it, just feeding from the condensation in the air. People figured out that they could actually guide the roots to make bridges across the rivers, a process which took about 3 or 4 generations. The root bridge pictured is the most famous in the area as it has two levels (and a third under construction). It’s said to be over 180 years old, with all the roots coming from a single tree.
The Sadhu in Varanasi
This third photo was taken during one of these magical moments in the life of a photographer when everything happens the way it has to.
Varanasi is regarded by many as the spiritual capital of India and, as a result, is a place where you can find these incredible religious personalities. Unfortunately, this has triggered a really awkward and unpleasant side to photography, where people go and poke their cameras in people’s faces in a really disgusting, culturally insensitive way. As a photographer, it makes me very uncomfortable. I do take portraits, but I try to find that moment where there is a form of connection with the person before pulling the camera out.
I was walking on the shore of the Ganges river very early one morning, when this Sadhu appeared out of nowhere standing next to a wall. I was pretty far away – at least 20 or 30 meters – but I stopped to try and make out his expression, to see if he might be comfortable having his portrait taken. The moment he saw me trying to take a picture without being too obvious he sort of laughed, looked at me and smiled, then looked straight at the camera as if to say ‘ok, I’m going to give you this one’. So I took the picture in one shot, then passed by to thank him. Over time, I kept looking at the picture and realised how lucky I got with the composition. All the colours that the Sadhu is wearing are reflected in the wall behind him. It looks like it was created on a set – no colour edition needed!
Those are some incredible shots and truly memorable stories! I am, however, also keen to talk about some of the amazing rock climbing crags in Chile where you are now based. Can you tell us a bit more?
Chile is a 4,200km-long country hugging the second tallest mountain range in the world. It is a country where you’ll find solid glaciers in the South, and the driest desert in the world in the North. It has this peculiar geography which means you can be skiing one morning, then surfing two hours later. Why would any outdoor enthusiast not want to come here?
Valle de los Condores after the snow.
For climbers, there are some really incredible crags. I actually still haven’t visited some of the most iconic ones, such as Cerro Castillo and Cochamó. Cochamó is basically the big sister of El-Capitan – you have this incredible 1,600m remote granite wall, and loads more routes in the surrounding area.
The iconic granite walls of Cochamó. Photo taken by Benjamín Zamora (@zamorabenja).
Ojo de Opache, a climbing area in Northern Chile, close to the Atacama desert.
In the North of the country you have areas like Socaire and Alto El Loa, where you’ll find ravines full of cracks – from finger crack to chimneys – which have yet to see First Ascents. Then, in the Central region you’ll find areas like Torrecillas (located in the mountaineering mecca of Cajón del Maipo). After Tonsai, Torrecillas is one of the weirdest places I’ve climbed in. You have this very peculiar type of volcanic rock (toba) which forms massive melted-cheese style caves and holds. It's like climbing on Mars! You can find these incredible multi-pitches, trad, sport, mixed climbing – you name it.
The “Alfalfal” crag in Cajón del Maipo. Head here for some incredible trad climbing.
The fifth pitch of a multipitch climb in Torrecillas, Cajón del Maipo.
In Central Chile you also have Valle de los Condores, with these beautifully shaped hexagonal basalt columns. La Carcel is probably the most famous area here, but there’s tonnes to get your teeth dug into, including some excellent bouldering.
Chile is so vast, I don’t think that anyone can sum up what characterises the climbing here. There’s just too much variety!
Alonso Lara climbing on Huasamaco wall, Valle de los Condores.
I love that description, and can’t wait to get the chance to visit!
I have one final question. A lot of your work aims to promote sustainable practices and responsible travel. I’m curious to learn what these terms mean to you, and how you use photography to achieve these aims.
A ‘sustainable practice’ is traditionally described as one that you can keep doing for a long period of time without causing irreversible damage. For example, if we’re talking about ‘sustainable climbing’, we’re talking of actions we can take to maintain climbing areas and communities for years to come. However, I personally believe that simply minimising the damage we do is no longer sufficient – if we continue like this we will reach a crisis point in a matter of years. It is crucial to shift the focus instead to restoring the natural environment and generating a positive impact on the places we visit.
The term ‘responsible travel’ is harder to define. I actually believe that you cannot define this term solely as a traveller – what ‘responsible travel’ entails is defined by the local people. It means listening to the locals, being respectful of their needs and wants, and being open to cultures different to your own.
One of Cris' Fauna pictures - Two Vicuñas kissing each other.
I strongly believe that nature is crucial to both human health and the health of the planet, and that our primary goal should be to restore it as much as we can. I dedicate a lot of my free time to promoting good behaviour towards nature and instructing people in this matter through climbing. For example, I recently participated in an ongoing campaign with Patagonia and Andescalada (a Chilean climbing NGO) to try to save the Maipo River from a project to build a massive power plant nearby. I’ve also organised a photography and cleaning event with two other climbing photographers, Andres Tiznado and Nicolas Romero Raggi, and intend to do more. It was truly awesome.
Cris installing a 'Save the Maipo Sign' during the Patagonia event. Photo taken by Benjamín Zamora.
The 'Save the Maipo' sign prior to being installed on the wall.
You’re probably wondering where photography comes into all this! Photography is a powerful communication tool. I can spend two hours trying to explain what Torrecillas looks and feels like, but you will never really know until you go there. A good picture or video, however, can bridge this gap and give you a better understanding of these places. Photography can take a simple moment and freeze it for the rest of time, so you can then share it with people who would otherwise have no notion of what that moment is like. A photo can tell a story; it can help build a sense of community, a sense of responsibility for issues we might otherwise feel disconnected from. It can act as a powerful call to action.
* * *
A huge thank you to Cris for his time and incredible photos. Make sure you check out the rest of his work on Instagram @gamantri and on his website (www.gamantri.com).
Unless otherwise specified, all photos in this blog post are © Cris Posadas / Gamantri.
Top image caption: Andy Tiznado making the first ascent of “El flash” in Alto El Loa.