Stories Behind the Images: Beth Rodden

Does pregnancy end a professional climbers career? Beth Rodden wrote about that in a New York Times op-ed piece, and Corey Rich wrote about Beth's pregnancy in his forthcoming book Stories Behind the Images. Read Corey's story here.
Mountaineers Books Mountaineers Books
June 26, 2019

In a June 18 essay I'm a Climber, and a Mother, and Doing Great, Thank Youin The New York Times, professional climber Beth Rodden talked about the birth of her son and the fears she had about how the decision to become a mother would impact her climbing career. It's a moving piece. A new book by the photographer Corey Rich releasing in September includes a story about Beth and her pregnancy. Usually we wouldn't release an excerpt for a book that is a few months from publication, but because this is so complementary to Beth's article (and written long before it), we thought we'd make an exception. 

This excerpt is a good example of the images and stories that are the subject of Corey's book. Corey is not only one of the nation's most recognized action-sport photographers, he is also a very engaging writer. His book is titled Stories Behind the Images: Lessons from a Life in Adventure Photography and will be in stores on September 1. It is also available for pre-order now on this website.

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Screen grabs of how Nikon used Corey's images on their website.

THE BEST MOMENTS OF MY career have always involved the times when business, sport, and lifestyle come together—always in some unique way that makes going to work fun. Getting to “do what you love” is another way of describing this unique intersection. But there’s a fourth ingredient involved in creating a successful career. And that is found in the value and depth of the personal connections you make while in pursuit of your passion.

In the summer of 2013, the phone rang. I was holding my six-week-old daughter, Leila, while Marina got some much-needed sleep. “Hello, this is Corey,” I said, speaking softly into the phone, so as not to wake my baby.

It was Nikon’s ad agency in New York City. They asked if I was interested in being involved in an online brand-building project that would inspire people to go out and take pictures. The “Nikon Experience” would be an immersive website featuring still photographs and audio recordings from myself and two fellow Nikon shooters, Troy House and Taylor Glenn.

Of course I said yes.

I was given a blank slate in terms of subject matter, so I decided to shoot rock climbing in the Luther Spires, a stunning, craggy location near my home in Lake Tahoe. As with every great opportunity, I needed to deliver.

When the stakes get this high, I prefer not to work with some random model vetted by an agency. I want—and really, need—someone whom I trust and know will be professional, work hard, and deliver. And if that person just so happens to be one of my best friends in the world, all the better.

I called up Beth Rodden. At age eighteen, Beth became the youngest female to climb a 5.14a with her ascent of To Bolt or Not to Be at Smith Rock, Oregon. Back then, she was winning all the national climbing competitions year after year while also working on free-climbing El Cap with her then-partner Tommy Caldwell. Ultimately, she’d go on to establish the first ascent of one of the hardest single-pitch trad climbs in the world: Meltdown (5.14c) in Yosemite.

But soon she became excited when she realized that this Nikon Experience Project would be her first professional gig as a pregnant woman. 

“This Nikon Experience project is a big deal,” I explained to Beth. “I want to eliminate the unknowns.”

Beth, Tommy, and I became close friends in Yosemite, up on the walls of El Cap. I would hang off a single rope shooting pictures while Beth and Tommy climbed—2,000 feet of air beneath our feet. Over the years, we three spent many nights sleeping on portaledges and many days traveling the world in pursuit of new adventures. Until I met my wife, Beth was maybe the only woman I could call a close friend. I always appreciated the unique perspective she provided in my life, especially when I was contemplating my own relationships.

It turns out that there are a lot of parallels between the life of a professional climber and that of a professional adventure photographer. There is no course you can take at school that teaches you how to do either. There is no manual for turning passion into a career. To pioneer a way of living is a rather audacious thing, rife with loneliness, uncertainty, and sacrifice. Yet Tommy, Beth, and I, in one another, found friendship and support as we all worked to make our passions into careers.

“I’d love to work on this project, Corey,” Beth said. “But there’s something I have to tell you . . . I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, but, um . . . Randy and I are pregnant!”

“Holy shit! That’s awesome! Wow! Congrats!” I said. Leila, who was still nestled in the crook of my arm, woke up, fidgeted, and looked up at me. “Looks like Leila is going to have a new little friend soon!” The idea that we’d all be able to raise our families together suddenly seemed very exciting.

“But please don’t tell anyone yet,” Beth said. “I still haven’t told my sponsors.”

She admitted she was worried about how becoming a mom would affect her career as a professional athlete. I assured her that it was all going to be fine. She still worried. But soon she became excited when she realized that this Nikon Experience project would be her first professional gig as a pregnant woman.

When the shoot day arrived, we were a large group. Among the many friends and associates from Nikon’s New York headquarters and ad agency was Mike Corrado, a top dog in product marketing and leader of the Nikon Ambassador team (we call him “Lead Ambassador”). He is one of my favorite people in the world. In addition to being an excellent photographer with decades of experience, Mike is also a brash, loud-mouth New Yorker who never lets an opportunity go by to make fun of me. But behind it all, he’s got a heart of gold.

It was total chaos, with some fun moments as the group of city folks got a taste for real mountains and the effects of altitude as they hiked up the steep climbers’ trail to the Luther Spires.

On that day, Beth wasn’t showing yet, but she was suffering from bouts of morning sickness.

Beth whispered to me: “Corey, just so you know, I might have to occasionally lower off the route, walk around the corner, and puke.”

I chuckled. Despite being pregnant and battling waves of nausea, Beth complained the least, hiked at an athletic pace, and by far climbed harder than everyone else there.

There was a lot of pressure to produce. But we kept Beth’s pregnancy a secret from everyone quite well.

We shot all day. I took a moment to smile in acknowledgement of where I was. I was right at that intersection of business, sport, and lifestyle—clearly, I was doing what I loved. I pinched myself and went back to work.

 Screen grabs of how Nikon used Corey's images on their website.

Moments before the “golden hour” of light began, the Nikon crew hiked back down the trail in order to reach the car before dark. But Beth and I stayed out to continue shooting—just like old times. I never even had to tell Beth that we’d be shooting till well past dark. From nearly fifteen years of working together, she already knew.

With the group’s departure, it was suddenly quite peaceful. There were only a few of us: me, Beth, her belayer (Kat Elliot), my assistant (Bryan Liscinsky), and Mike Corrado, who’d never miss the opportunity to keep the energy high. We were out in the mountains in a stunning location, breathing crisp air and bathing in golden light.

I was right at that intersection of business, sport, and lifestyle — clearly I was doing what I loved.

While some people measure success in terms of dollars earned, photographs captured, videos produced, awards won, or recognition gained, I realized that the true measure of success is the quality of friendships made. Doing what I love was incredible, but it could be topped—by getting to share that experience with one of my best friends. This was what it was all about—and what it has always been about.

Today, when Beth and I get together, we sit back and watch our kids play. We sit there reliving all the fun times we’ve spent together up on walls, and wonder if our kids are going to grow up and become climbing partners and friends. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I do hope they find the friends and network to create a lifestyle of their own choosing, whatever that may be. I like to think that Beth and I have been decent role models in that regard.

PHOTO AT TOP:  Beth Rodden - Luther Spires, Lake Tahoe, California; 70–200mm lens / F/4 / 1/400 SECOND / ISO 400. By Corey Rich.