This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The idea to shoot an ascent of the Totem Pole, a stone tower in Tasmania, came to adventure photographer Krystle Wright in a dream. Years later, as she dangled from a line she’d rigged across nearby rocks, with a drone lighting the scene from above, she finally got her shot.
Three months out
An unseen route: Jutting from the waters along the Tasman Peninsula, the Totem Pole is one of the world’s most dramatic column climbs. The sea stack is often photographed from the more accessible north side; Wright wanted to capture a southern ascent along a route called the Sorcerer. Climber Mayan Smith-Gobat would have to descend the neighboring rock face and swing herself across a channel on a rope to grab a handhold. Wright, Smith-Gobat, and a film crew plotted for months how to complete and document the climb.
One week out
Essential packing list: Supplies for rock climbing, swimming, and photography filled two bags. The stormy Tasmanian weather required backup down jackets.
- Flippers (“a very unique accessory to a climbing harness”)
- Drone with remote-operated flash
- Nearly 700 feet of rope
- Dry bag for crossing the channel with camera equipment
- Dry clothes to change into after swimming
- The only thing missing, says Wright, was “sanity.”
Ready to shoot: After two days of trials and setup, Wright drove to the peninsula, hiked two hours on a trail, rappelled a 330-foot cliff, tied a rope around her waist, jumped into the ocean, swam across the channel, and climbed up the other side. Clipping herself into a harness, she hung from a tightrope as Smith-Gobat scrambled up the Totem Pole. At the “blue hour”—around 5:30 p.m.—Wright radioed the drone operator. When a flash from the drone overhead illuminated the rock, she pressed the shutter.
If any of us had fallen in, it was a guaranteed fatality with those conditions.
By the numbers
Height of Totem Pole, in feet
Average rainy days in September
Year the rock was first climbed