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Chris Vultaggio talks climbing and sports photography

Chris Vultaggio is an athlete who endeavours to create visuals that inspire and alight viewers with a sense of possibility. Chris has been on the Himalayas, knife-edge ridgelines in BC, and the steep mountain faces of the Alps.

He has also photographed on assignment worldwide, maintaining a client base of Fortune 500 companies, and has had his work featured by National Geographic and other publications.

We caught up with Chris to talk about Climbing, his passion for sports photography and more!

Chris Vultaggio holding a camera as he is on a rock face
Source: Supplied

Kinza Tahir: Tell us about yourself, your likes and interests outside of the sports world.

Chris Vultaggio: One of the reasons I was so drawn to being an athlete was expression. As a child I was frustrated by team sports – I wasn’t any good. And as such sports were a begrudged part of my young life; it wasn’t until I discovered the then ‘alternative’ sports like BMX and skateboarding that I uncovered a prowess for physical expression.

This led to a few seasons racing downhill mountain biking, some globetrotting as a snowboarder, and eventually to climbing.

But outside of the realm of sport I still craved that expression, and as a child, I picked up music by way of guitar. I still play and find that music, like climbing and photography, are wonderful combinations of right/left brain activities that seem to suit me.

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How do you see climbing growing as a sport in the US?

As one that is fraught with concern. I recently just wrapped up a film project entitled “Conserve,”  which was supported by Patagonia and takes a hard look at the impact climbing has had throughout the years.

I think it is wonderful that more people are getting to experience the outdoors, and in such an amazing way, but with the growing numbers comes a growing list of ways we are over-using our lands.

Chris Vultaggio takes a photo mid air hanging from a rope
Source: Supplied

With the number of climbing gyms exponentially growing coupled with recent public visibility of climbing media, our user group is at an all-time high. National and local organisations are doing their best to help curb the impacts, but the problem of people getting into the outdoors without the proper education is starting to become worse and worse.

For example, I live in one of the most popular climbing areas in the US, and just this year we have had a recent string of accidents, including a fatality, that were purely due to new climbers getting in over their heads. And as mentioned the impact to the outdoors is rapidly growing.

These two factors can be linked directly to a lack of education. In part, this is due to the number of new climbers overwhelming the number of older climbers.

These older climbers hold the community mentorship roles, who have traditionally provided both the safety and stewardship information needed to broker new climbers from the gyms to the outdoors.

But folks are taking notice and ownership. As a board member of our local climbing coalition, we’ve worked with local guides to help get the right information out there.

Climbing gyms are starting to take ownership of their role in increasing the volume of climbers in the outdoors and we are seeing gym-based programs designed to help ease the gym-to-crag impact level.

On a global scale brands like Patagonia are doing the right thing to help raise awareness and protect our lands from all threats, including our own government in the US.

Two climbers on a rockface with their ropes
Source: Supplied

Tell us about your journey as a photographer and founding Vultaggio Studios.

I began as writer, and didn’t really discover photography until late in my undergraduate at university. By then it was too late to change my degree, and with only a handful of photography classes under my belt I cast off into the world taking every opportunity I could to learn the craft.

This included working weddings, school graduations, family photography, photojournalism, studio work; then I eventually landed a full-time gig as a corporate photographer.

There I had a wonderful journey of learning, and quit the day my retirement account vested to start my own business.

All the time on the side I was developing as a climber and eventually took my craft to the mountains.

In all I suppose the evolution of climbing is a wonderful thing; more people involved will hopefully lead to a greater force in valuing and protecting our great American open spaces. By opening these eyes to our public lands hopefully more Americans will consider these natural resources and use their voices and votes in a way that supports conservation.

Can you tell us about the team behind Vultaggio Studios and their roles?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked with some of the best in the industry, and have had the chance to learn from them as well. One of my main partners, Michael Grey, has been a longtime friend and handles the Producer role at the company.

I’ve had the chance to mentor and subsequentially employ some great talent in the photo world, including Sarah Harris and Stacy Permlutter. Jim Lasher and I have been working together for decades, and aside from being a technical whiz he is a total Swiss-army knife; he can run the sound, camera, still photos, or handle my most valued client relationships.

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The master behind our lighting is Andrew Claycomb – one of the best DP’s I’ve ever worked with.

And Alexis Krauss, my fiancé and partner-in-everything, is my guiding light when it comes to editing. She’s a master at storytelling; she fine-tunes my work and without her all my films would be way too long!

Climber on a mountain with a lush green set of forest in the background
Source: Supplied

How do you think sports photography has evolved over the years?

Just look at the recent Stanley Cup coverage to see just how photography has advanced. You had an entire major-league international sports tournament played, with in-person coverage limited to great distances, but still, photographers were able to get the job done even without being there.

Things like remote cameras and live-time feedback from systems are a huge advancement in technology.

On the consumer side with the advent of mobile phone camera technology suddenly everyone is capable of being a photographer. My original digital camera cost $15,000 USD for just the camera body and was just 2 megapixels! The current iPhone has 12, and films in 4k. So suddenly the tools are in everyone’s hands, all the time.

Of course, you need the skill set to back up the gear, but it’s an interesting place where the storytelling field is levelled. This puts pressure on the pros to work even harder to stand out, a good thing I think.

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How has the client base changed since you joined the market?

My main business is still supported by Fortune 500 companies – and am thankful for the partnerships and friendships I’ve had with my clients. Most of which with whom I have career-long relationships. It’s just as international as it’s always been, thankfully.

Adventure work for me is a mix of income and passion – fortunately I can put the work into the larger projects and then still have time to devote myself to adventure work. This keeps me fresh and excited to have a camera in my hands.

Who is your favourite athlete of all time?

Lately I’ve been working with the Young Women Who Crush a lot, as both a photographer, filmmaker, and mentor. The organisation was co-founded by my partner Alexis Krauss, and focuses on introducing young women from the city to climbing.

Most of these young women have never experienced the mountains, never seen the vast green spaces, and certainly never tied into a rope before. Watching their journeys of facing a number of diversity fronts that I’ll never face – racism, classism, religious discrimination, sexism – has eclipsed my prior definition of inspiration.

To see a young woman in hijab climbing hard, outdoors, in stark contrast to her family’s traditions – is far more impressive than some climber cranking on 5.15.

That said, I am grateful for the chance to have worked with many pro athletes, most of whom have been supportive and gracious.

Adventure work for me is a mix of income and passion – fortunately I can put the work into the larger projects and then still have time to devote myself to adventure work. This keeps me fresh and excited to have a camera in my hands.

Climbing is now an Olympic sport. How do you believe climbing will grow after this?

Although cancelled this year, when the Olympics do happen it will certainly expand the reaches of the sport. But likely as a gateway to the experience, and contributing to the evolution of gym-climbing as an independent part of climbing.

To paraphrase a friend, initially, it was outdoors-people getting into climbing, now it is climbers getting into the outdoors. The Olympics will only increase interest – see my answer above to handling the growing numbers of climbers.

Which athlete do you look forward to working with and why?

I’ve worked with Lynn Hill on a film project for the Access Fund, but never had the chance to work with her climbing. It’d be an honour to do so; I feel she’s such a visionary for the sport, and she has wonderful ties to my home climbing area in the Gunks.

How important is the mental aspect of climbing? How should an athlete develop confidence and overcome barriers?

I feel I could take an entire issue of Sportageous to answer this question.

Climbing is far more mental than physical, something I have worked my entire climbing career to understand. As humans, we have triggers in our brains to fire off a cadre of fight-or-flight hormones when things get scary. Which is exactly what our brains sense when we are hundreds or thousands of feet off the ground.

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A mountain under the sky
Source: Supplied

It’s controlling this response that makes you a better climber.

So many times in my life I’ve been called an “adrenaline junkie,” but climbing couldn’t be further from the truth. Climbing hard requires poise and balance. Focus. Ability to keep your breath under control and your legs from involuntarily shaking you off that cliff or frozen waterfall to which you’re delicately clinging by your fingertips or icepicks.

Adrenaline has no place in this equation.

Add in the challenge of mastering negative self-talk, navigating failure, the conscious and simultaneous control of muscle groups – all in an exposed vertical arena where you can die – and it can be a wonderful opportunity in mastery. Mastering the physical, emotional, and mental bounds of humanity and learning to push your comfort zone to new limits.

And once learned, this mastery and can translate it to other daily challenges in life and make you a more well rounded human.

Developing this confidence takes years, and is a cocktail of surety and caution. Too little confidence and your development will be stunted; too much is a recipe for disaster.

Chris Vultaggio on a rock face with rope and equipment
Chris Vultaggio climbing a route. Source: Supplied

Mentors are a great resource for learning to parlay this mental match, and Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way” should be on the required reading list for anyone looking to push their game.

What has been the highlight of your career and why?

Thus far I think landing my first magazine cover on Climbing. I had been published a few times before then, but something about a cover byline really stands out.

Never allow yourself to be limited. Just because you may not have the resources available doesn’t mean you can’t learn the craft: you don’t need El Capitan in your backyard to become a good climbing photographer.

Romanian photographer Vernon Trent says it best: “amateurs worry about equipment, professionals worry about money, masters worry about light.”

How do you think climbing has evolved in the US over the years? How do you believe the perception of climbing has elevated?

Climbing has gone from an outlier sport reserved for the outdoors set to something that is nearly a household term. People know who Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin are. When Free Solo hit the general public I wasn’t sure how I felt about climbing being in the public lexicon and I joked it was time for me to take up wingsuit jumping.

In all I suppose the evolution is a wonderful thing; more people involved will hopefully lead to a greater force in valuing and protecting our great American open spaces. By opening these eyes to our public lands hopefully more Americans will consider these natural resources and use their voices and votes in a way that supports conservation.

The average climber has evolved from a dirtbag living under a bridge in Yosemite to weekend warriors taking to the crags in their Sprinters.

Chris Vultaggio hangs off a boulder. Source: Supplied

What would you say to athletes who want to diversify their careers such as yourself?

Never allow yourself to be limited. Just because you may not have the resources available doesn’t mean you can’t learn the craft: you don’t need El Capitan in your backyard to become a good climbing photographer.

Romanian photographer Vernon Trent says it best: “amateurs worry about equipment, professionals worry about money, masters worry about light.”

The opportunities to learn what matters exist for everyone – and for me that always begins with studying the light. Too often photographers or camera ops show up and start spraying the room with their cameras – without even taking a moment to stop and study what the light is doing.

I often equate photography to big wave surfing; you’ll never see a surfer arrive at a big break and just jump in the water. Instead she will drop her board and study the ocean, learning the rhythm of the water. I think it’s the same for photography.

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What is your favourite expedition or place you’ve visited?

A few years ago I led a private photo expedition through Siberia and Mongolia. As a recent adventure, this sticks out in my mind as a wonderful opportunity to make images in a wild and remote place, working within a distant culture among some wonderful people. Filming indigenous eagle hunters at sunrise is an experience that’s hard to beat.

In 2012 I was part of an expedition that went to the Himalaya to climb Ama Dablam. We were largely unsupported and it was my first major blend of remote climbing/culture/photography, and shooting at 6000m gave a new definition to work for your images. We didn’t summit, but I think that trip taught me more about myself than any other experience.


Follow Chris Vultaggio on Instagram or visit his website here.
For more SportsBiz and SportsTech content, visit Sportageous.
You can follow Kinza Tahir on Twitter here.

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