Forbidden Fruits: An Interview With Photographer Rich Crowder

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In Louder Than Eleven’s newest short film Forbidden Fruits: First Ascents in Colombia, Ben Spannuth, Rich Crowder, and Chris Van Leuven head to Florian, Colombia for hard FA’s and beautiful limestone tufas. They battle ten hour bus rides, rope snatchers, and language barriers all in the search for new lines in one of Colombia’s most remote climbing areas. I had the chance to catch up with trip photographer/videographer Rich Crowder to find out a little more about about their trip:

First a little background, what made you guys want to go to Florian, or Colombia in general?

Well, I work with the production company Louder Than Eleven, and they went down there and made a bouldering film about two years ago. During their trip they met a guy named Mateo, whose like the new age godfather of rock climbing down there. He’s not old school because he’s probably only like thirty years old, but he does a lot of sport climbing and bouldering developing down there. We had actually planned on a big expedition with them to climb some big wall in another area but that fell through last year. I was still pretty psyched to go to Colombia and as we were planning that big wall expedition, a guy named Chris Van Leuven our writer on the trip, had actually climbed there and was looking to go back, so he was asking to come with us. And since the big wall thing didn’t happen, Chris and I were like, shit, lets go to Colombia anyway and do something else. It was kind of like the typical small world of climbing an “everyone get together and lets go climbing thing.”

Rich Crowder photographer/videographer/interviewee

Rich Crowder photographer/videographer/interviewee. Photo by Rich Crowder

How was the climbing there? Specifically in Florian?

Well, any limestone-stalactite type tufa is going to be…well it isn’t going to be Fontainebleau…I really can’t say because I’ve never climbed on stalactites before, this was my first time, and same with Ben Spannuth and Chris Van Leuven. None of us really knew what to expect, but yeah it was a fairly fragile area. It was so unreal, it’s like a totally different sport too, we got on this one 13a that was just huge handlebar jugs the entire way, but you’re kind of just lost in this forest of stalactites. You do a couple feet-first moves, and then turn around, then get your feet again and turn around, it was pretty crazy.

So, how many days were spent putting up routes in the La Ventana Cave?

I think we went in there one day when we first got there. We were on a pretty short trip overall and we really wanted to spend one week or ten days in Florian. So we went in when we got there and just looked around with Ben, who is probably the best climber in Colombia. He knew we had the opportunity to find the hardest longest, craziest route, and we just picked this obvious arête and just went for it. There were a couple options but Ben had the vision that it would go all the way through the horizontal roof, but once you get up to the horizontal stuff, it got really fragile, so he just put in anchors before that. It was still a really long route, [laughs]. The video actually doesn’t show it well at all, mainly because we were in the middle of the jungle with two cameras and a tri-pod with me trying to make a video and take photographs, all at the same time. I’m more of a photographer so the video was kind of secondary to me, it was really just whatever I could get on a tripod while I was shooting photos.

Ben Spannuth putting up Macho Man 5.13+

Ben Spannuth putting up Macho Man 5.13+. Photo by Rich Crowder.

Well the video came out great anyway, so nice work!

[Laughs] Thanks, I appreciate it, so yeah, he put up Macho Man in one day. It was one super-long, epic day on the rope. And then literally the next day, he sent it. It was really a two day process.

So tell me a little about the second cave you guys found?

So the town of Florian is across a huge valley, probably like two thousand feet, and there’s a little cave that I found after I took a picture of it while I was photographing a beautiful mountain. So I took a photo and zoomed in to the middle of it, and was like “oh, there are stalactites coming out next to this waterfall.” It looked like this ridiculously cool cave right it the middle of a 2,000 foot face. So we just tried to figure out how to get there really. We rapped the first day in the wrong spot, and then we spent a long time jungle bashing trying to get across this river that was extremely dangerous. All the locals kept saying “oh, there’s only been one time people have gone across this waterfall,” and its ended up being because a ten-year-old boy slipped and died and got washed off the waterfall so they had to go recover his body. It was really crazy because it’s a very small town and all the teenage boys would come out and hang with us. They would come and watch us climb the cave and it was all the boy’s friends you know, a few years after they had grown up. So we went off and they were like “oh my god you guys are completely crazy.” Then we actually had to come back up, and that was kind of like our failure day, we rapped off in a different spot, just jungle bashed, four rope lengths down, and then all of the sudden we were on top of this cave. We put in some anchors and the next day we came back, found the coolest line in the entire cave and just one day later Ben climbs it.

So what happened with the whole getting stranded thing?

Yeah, so that was on the second day, it was just Ben and I. I wanted to get some videos of him bolting, well, the plan was really just to make sure he was safe, he needed somebody with him, so I was just down there making sure he didn’t die. Chris, stayed in town, and he knew exactly where we were going because we had been there the day before, or… he hadn’t been, but he knew how to get there. And essentially I came back up early after Ben was all situated to try and take some photos, and the rope was gone, so then I spent another two hours getting back to Ben. When I finally got there, I was like “yo, our rope is gone.” I was kind of freaking out, and he looked at me and was like “oh, well the roof isn’t finished yet, can I keep bolting? It was early afternoon, and I was like “ well, I guess so,” I don’t really think he was processing the information because he was just on lead, bolting, you know, just getting after it. So he kept bolting, and I kind of sat there for a little while, then went back up and started yelling for people [laughs], and nobody came obviously. Then I went back down, and Ben was never really too worried. He had a full huge battery left in his drill and like thirty bolts, and a removable bolt so we kind of joked that our real rescue plan, like self rescue plan [laughs], would be to bolt our way out of there…which sounds ridiculous, but I have a plus-three ape index and I’m 6’ 3”, so I’ve got a pretty big span, so I figured I could just put in a removable bolt, and pull up on that, put in a real bolt and then pull up on that removable bolt, and if we would have done that, we probably would have made it, because we were only stuck on the last repel (out of the four that it took them to get to the second cave). So we were never really that worried. We just hunkered in, and had some water, had some food, conserved our light and just sat there for a few hours and then sure enough a couple hours later, Chris “Mr. Yosemite Legend” throws us down a rope after we call him. [laughs] And they were all expecting us to be dead. The other Colombian climbers were like “oh my god we have to go rescue them, this is going to be the craziest rescue ever, we have to prepare for bodies” and blah blah blah, but Chris was never worried, and we were never worried so… it wasn’t such a perfect ending, which is maybe why we left a lot of it kind of vague in the video, because he really just threw down the rope and we were totally fine.

Ben sending Gringos Verados 5.13

Ben making his way though the tufa jungle on Gringos Varados 5.13. Photo by Rich Crowder.

I loved the name of the climb Gringos Varados, that’s great.

Yeah, well this town, they don’t really have white people visiting there. Maybe one other white person had been there before, but the majority of the town, especially the kids, had never seen foreigners so everywhere we went people were looking at us. It was your classic rural village experience. So for them to see us go off this waterfall, with rope, helmets, Gri Gris and stuff, they just thought we were totally crazy, especially climbing up too. They’d seen people climbing before, like the local Colombians who started climbing there maybe like a year ago, but never foreigners.

Do you plan on going back ever?

Probably not, but personally I travel really for work, so unless it’s a work opportunity I really just go where work takes me. I probably wouldn’t just because Florian is really a hassle to get to, its a lot of crazy bus rides, and its really in the middle of nowhere. Even the Colombians were all psyched because they were like “oh we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re in the true jungle now,” and that was kind of scary to hear from the actual locals that lived there. The climbing out there was pretty on par for other areas around it, but it was really more about the people and the culture, that’s why you would go to Colombia, if you want to have a climbing trip that you’ll never forget, then definitely go to Colombia.