Reaching new heights: Students capture their adventures through film and photography

Lily Baldwin

Sophomore Niklas Korn rappels down a steep cliff.
Sophomore Niklas Korn rappels down a steep cliff.

Before sophomore Harrison Segal began rock climbing, he assumed the activity was “something for people with a death wish.” He can’t believe that he and his friends, a

group that calls themselves the California Climbers, are now the ones spending their spare time hanging off the side of a cliff for fun.

The climbing group consists of sophomores Segal, Niklas Korn, Charlie Werner and Luca Traverso, who are not only close friends, but thrill-seekers who collaborate in documenting their adventures through video and photography. These projects are posted online and admired by over 2,000 viewers, but for these daring friends, it’s not about the glory; it’s about the feeling of fulfilment they have after facing their fears, connecting with nature and communicating the beauty of it all.

Finding his grip, sophomore Charlie Werner smiles as he makes his way up a rock.
Finding his grip, sophomore Charlie Werner smiles as he makes his way up a rock.

Werner and Korn, who first met while attending Hall Middle School, were the original group members to begin climbing together almost four years ago. About a year ago Segal joined, with Traverso following a few months later. The group has conquered climbs all over the Bay Area, spending most of their time on the rocks of Mount Tam and Ring Mountain. In addition, they also highline, which is similar to tightrope walking, but on a loose line over steep heights. The activity challenges one’s balance and focus, and while those walking across are connected to the line, the walk is still a huge feat. Sometimes the group members find themselves sitting in trees for up to eight hours at a time, climbing and highlining 15 feet above the ground.

“At the moment, my goal is to get across the slack line, but the end goal is to do this between two rocks. With the highlining aspect, the idea is to get outdoors and up high,” Werner said. The group trains for long hours in order to work their way up to the goals they’ve set for themselves, such as scaling the steepest and largest rocks in the country. The climbers plan on visiting Yosemite National Park this summer to take on some of the world’s most thrilling and beautiful walls.

“[Yosemite is] the mecca for climbing on the planet. That’s our goal, to climb there,” Korn said. Korn has long been passionate about climbing, and when he and Werner began talking about their interests, he noticed a shared love for the outdoors. Spending much of his time on the mountain, Korn has become very well trained in climbing technique and safety.

“I’ve been climbing the longest; I kind of roped everybody into it, no pun intended. I started getting serious about climbing four years ago and started going to the gym regularly, then started to climb outside,” Korn said.

The film aspect came into play when Werner, who can often be spotted around campus filming for Redwood TV, realized that he could combine his two passions of filmmaking and exploring the outdoors into something beautifully unique. Not only does he love the process of filming his climbs, but Werner also takes gratification in the end result of his projects.

“Filmmaking is a way for me to be creative because I can’t draw, I can’t sing, I can’t write. In the end, it’s all about making a connection with the viewer, whoever’s watching. It’s a way to communicate with someone beyond just talking to them,” Werner said.

While Werner and Segal are the more technically inclined of the group when it comes to filming, Korn is the one who finds his true passion within the mountain. A member of Marin Search and Rescue, Korn is the most trained and experienced of the quartet, and says he feels a “connection with the wall” when he climbs. For Korn, the climb is more than just a challenge, it’s a mental journey.

“Climbing is mostly mental. I mean, you talk to any climber and they’ll tell you it’s 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical,” Korn said.

Traverso knows better than anyone how the mental aspect can affect the climb, as he faces his phobia of heights every time he rigs up to scale the rocks. While for some that fear may be overwhelming, Traverso says confronting his doubts head-on have helped to reduce the fear.

Sophomore Harrison Segal nears the top of his climb.
Sophomore Harrison Segal nears the top of his climb.

“It’s helped me get over [my phobia] a little bit, but it’s still a factor,” Traverso said.

These climbers don’t let a little fear get in their way; they embrace it and use it to fuel themselves to reach the top. The group has come a long way from climbing trees in their backyards, and their confidence has built up to a new high over time. Steep drops from tall heights used to scare the boys away from taking such risks. But after extensive training and practice, ‘fear’ has become just another word for ‘thrill’ for the California Climbers. According to Segal, the feeling of adrenaline yet being calm and in control is something he’s never felt before climbing. It’s a thrilling feeling the group has been chasing ever since they scaled their first rock. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t stay safe.

“You always know in the back of your mind that there’s a possibility of something going wrong and you know what you need to do in case that happens, and you always keep it there. But at least for me, I always have fun and I’m actually strangely at peace when I climb. It’s really relaxing,” Korn said. While a career in climbing seems impractical for Korn, he hopes to pursue this peaceful feeling the rest of his life by continuing to climb as a hobby.

“I would love to be a professional climber, but is it realistic? Maybe not. But I’m going to be climbing until I physically can’t,” Korn said.

While climbing is an activity the group hopes to stick with for as long as possible, Segal is more focused on delving deeper into the world of filmography, whether that includes nature or not.

“I’d want to go into film or photography. I’d rather go into film, but either one would be awesome. There are climbing photographers, and production companies, which would be awesome. But then you’d need to be a world class climber and then a world class film maker as well to even be able to do that. You have to keep up with the athlete, with the professional climbers, and you have to carry around 20 pounds of camera gear,” Segal said.

Werner and Segal co-run a production company called First Ascent Productions that they hope will grow as they begin to make more films. They hope to put most of their projects on their First Ascent Productions Youtube channel, but for now they showcase most of their work on their group Instagram, @Californiaclimbers. The account has over 2,700 followers.

Traverso, the newest addition to the crew, finds that he enjoys communicating the beauty of the Bay Area more than anything else. The fact that he is a part of spreading the word about climbing, even if he isn’t the cameraman, is what leaves Traverso feeling so satisfied.

Sophomore Niklas Korn hauls his gear as he climbs.
Sophomore Niklas Korn hauls his gear as he climbs.

“I’m not behind the camera as often, but I think one of the cool things about shooting this is that rock climbing isn’t the biggest [sport]. Not a lot of people know about it, and especially not a lot of people know that you can do it around here on actual rock. So I think showing people what you can do around here in the Bay Area, especially outdoors, like highlining and rock climbing, is really fun,” Traverso said.

The outdoorsmen aspire to spread their love of climbing to anyone and everyone who’s interested. They hope to start a climbing club next year for those who love adventuring and pushing themselves physically while surrounded by nature. However, they don’t recommend attempting to climb without some preliminary training, and would love to personally introduce anyone interested to the world of climbing.

“Climbing is amazing, but it’s inherently dangerous so you want to be careful. But if it’s someone who’s looking solely for an athletic or physical benefit, I think there are few sports that top rock climbing. You get the cardio as if you were running miles, you get the muscle work as if you were lifting weights, and you get the mental benefits of yoga, all at the same time – it’s amazing,” Korn said.

Communicating to the public what climbing feels and looks like is what drives the making of their films and photos, and for these climbers, even affecting one person is extremely gratifying. The ability to make steep, challenging climbs appear so easy while hauling camera equipment and braving a potential fall with every step is not a common skill. What’s even more rare is the passion and professionalism behind what these students do, along with their pure love not only for reaching the top, but for reaching out to people.