A Guide to Documenting
Big Wall Climbs
Documenting a big wall climb can feel daunting, having to take care of yourself all while trying to focus on your climbers and take video of the action over many days on the wall. The success or failure of your documentary project hinges directly on your ability to be quick on the wall and efficient in your movements so that you are faster than the climbing team. There can be an overwhelming number of logistics to do so and the planning can feel cumbersome, so it’s important to focus extra attention on preparation, that way, you’ll have everything dialed on the ground and when you are on the wall, you won't have to stress. With these simple tips, you will be in a great place to capture the moment.

How do I document big wall climbs?

  • Climb big walls before the shoot.
  • Plan your shoot and your big wall expedition.
  • Find a rigger for rope management.
  • Get above or to the side of the climbers.
  • Interview your subjects as often as you can.
  • When your subject falls or works on a pitch, shoot a 2nd angle.
  • Capture everything. Never stop rolling.
  • Take care of yourself and double check everything all the time.
  • Don't stop rolling once you finish the objective.
Close-up of Miranda Oakley reaching for a hold
Climb big walls before the shoot.
You should be well-versed in rope management and jugging and have shot plenty of single-pitch roped climbing before tackling a big wall documentary. You have to keep yourself and your party safe first, and then document second.
Plan your shoot and your big wall expedition.
This is the most important part of the shoot. You will need to be prepared and experienced enough from a personal safety standpoint to even be able to think about pulling this off. Being versed in rope management, having shot plenty of single pitch roped climbing, and being competent at jugging is a good starting point before even imagining setting foot on a big wall, much less documenting in the vertical world. You have to keep yourself and your party safe first, and then document second. Once you have the safety side covered, you will need to strategize with your subjects about how many days you anticipate being on the wall and make sure you have a good plan for rigging and hauling the amount of food, water, clothing, and gear you will need for the expedition.

This will also dictate your camera equipment and your logistics for your shoot. For example: you will need to prepare enough media and battery power for a long expedition. With your subject, plan the entire project from start to finish. Envision the approach, the climb, the descent and all the little details that the climbers will be experiencing on the wall so that you are prepared with a vision and strategy for the shoot. Be ready for a long time on the wall and a lot of down time, which you can make good use of by shooting interviews, prepping gear and rigging for the next pitches, and eating meals.

But even the most planned shoots come with a ton of unexpected scenarios for both yourself and your subjects. You can’t plan what will happen, but you can always expect the unexpected.
Two climbers getting ready for their next climb at the base
Two climbers walking on the approach
Pack a complete kit for a long shoot.
Pack light and strategically for the camera kit you plan to bring on the wall. You will need a plan for extra batteries (or a way to charge), extra memory cards to archive the terabytes of footage you capture, and extras like mics, lenses, bags to carry your equipment in, and of course your own personal kit for rigging, jugging, and shooting from a rope. (Pro tip: Don’t forget a belay seat for long days spent hanging from the rope capturing climbing action.)

It’s a good idea to have a solid tethering system for all of your key camera equipment and pack so that you dont lose anything while you are in the daily shuffle of commuting on the wall. Using auto-locking carabiners is helpful for key equipment so that you don't accidentally open a gate and lose some gear.
Find a rigger for rope management.
Become an expert at rope management, hauling, jugging a rope, and managing your gear. If you have a good friend that you trust or enough cash to pay for a rigger, your life will be drastically improved as the filmmaker. Having someone around who is fast and efficient (and safe) at rope rigging to help haul, fix ropes and generally dangle around ready to help out at a moment’s notice will give you a way better shot at capturing the rad climbing action you came there for.
Cody coiling the rope before a climb
distance shot of two climbers on a big wall
Get above or to the side of the climbers.
In tandem with your rigger OR your climbing subjects, figure out a way to get above your climbers. This can mean coming in from the top of the wall and fixing your ropes down to the climbers and then jugging out ahead of them; or it could mean organizing with them to get a rope put up above key pitches so that you can be above them while shooting. If you can get creative and set up a rope on the side of the climbing action, that can be great as well. Give your viewers something new to experience on big walls that have been shot a lot. Get a creative angle from the side, from above, or from a long lens position off the wall that will help contextualize the challenge.
Interview your subjects as often as you can.
Whenever your climbers get to a belay or are chatting with their partners about the next pitch, keep rolling and prompt them with questions that will give you key information about the day, the time, the location, and the current struggle. Don't get into full interview mode, you can do this on the ground after, just try and get some simple sound bites about how the expedition is going and the challenges that were just overcome or lie ahead. This will become your narrative as you edit your big wall expedition film later. This is always a good thing to have in your back pocket because your subjects will be the most emotional in these raw and authentic belay and anchor moments.
Miranda climbing in the distance in Palenstine
Shot of Miranda looking down at her fellow climber while belaying
When your subject falls or works on a pitch, shoot a 2nd angle.
A good way to bring your viewer in on the action is to have multiple angles of a difficult pitch. If your climber subject falls, quickly rig a top down or side angle on the subject and reposition yourself for a completely new angle. If you have a second shooter for your documentary coverage, it can be a good idea to position one of you at the anchor so that when the send does occur, you are in position for the anchor celebration and interview. When the climber tries the pitch again, you have a second or even third angle on the climbing action that helps give the viewers more context and also your edit and cuts will be easier to work with. This will speed up your pitch coverage in the edit and allow you to cut out the chaling up, resting, down moments of the climbing by cutting to a new angle.
Keep your subjects in the same clothes for continuity.
If you climbers are trying pitches over and over and they are having difficulty with a portion of the climb, make sure they stay in the same outfit so that you have continuity throughout the coverage of that pitch. You can also capture video of the climber taking off or adding layers to show that they change, otherwise your coverage of that portion of the climb will feel disconnected if the outfit changes. You can often get away with gear and shoes changing mid pitch coverage, but not usually clothing. The viewer will notice.
Two climbers getting ready to repel off their climb at the top of the rock face
A climber adjusting his climbing shoes
Take care of yourself and double check everything all the time.
Safety is really important and shooting can take your focus off the real danger of the moment. Double check yourself often and your rigger and subjects. Nothing ruins a documentary quicker than someone getting hurt and getting to the top of the wall or the bottom of the wall safely is the number one priority. When you have been up at dawn and sometimes climbing and filming into the night, staying focused on safety can be a real challenge. Don’t let your guard down until you lay down in your portaledge for the night.
Capture everything. Never stop rolling.
When things go sideways for your climbers, don’t stop recording, this is when the quality of your documentary will go through the roof. You are looking for drama, challenges, and overcoming obstacles to help bring your viewers into the experience more. When the weather gets bad, the pitch is proving to be a struggle, or someone starts bleeding, keep the camera rolling.
Two climbers in the sun at the top of their climb
Two climbers tying off the top of their climb
Don't stop rolling once you finish the objective.
So your climbers have achieved or failed on their objective...this is not the time to shut off the camera and take a breather. Keep rolling because oftentimes, there are some really exciting things that happen off the wall that help provide resolution to your capture. Also, give your climbers a rest for a day or so after the ascent so that they can recharge and reflect on the accomplishment and then sit them down for interviews and chat with them about what happened. Get a blow by blow of the expedition and then circle back and chat about why it all matters and what they learned from the expedition. This will be key for your edit and provide you with a ton of material to edit to.
Your role as documentarian will feel exhausting and time consuming but for a good climbing documentary, you need all of this content to make a good film. Don’t hesitate to ask your subjects to do things for you that you know will help you out a ton in the edit like extra takes, a better line, or some more interview time. It goes a long way.

Just get out there and try it! You won’t be flawless on your first attempt at documenting a big wall, you will have difficulties hauling, jugging and rigging, you will experience long days and tons of down time spent sitting in a belay chair waiting. But ultimately, whatever you capture can be made into something great if you capture emotion and try-hard on the wall. Take creative risks and treat the mountain like a subject in addition to your climbers, that's what you are documenting after all, the climber vs. the mountain and the beauty of this interaction.
Genieve midway up a climb in rural Utah
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