words and photos by Shani Leead ::

A few years ago, if you asked if I would scramble to the top of a rock formation, I would have looked at you like you were nuts. I’m terrified of heights, specifically if it entails a life-threatening level of exposure. I am also clumsy and leave most physical activity with bruises.

But on a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I pushed myself to face situations that scare me.

Chalk it up to a love for photography. I took courses in high school but slowly drifted away from photography as sports and school took over. In college, I grappled with what I wanted to do with my life and how to know if I was choosing the right path. The answer came with my first smartphone. It had a pretty decent camera and it went with me everywhere. I was taking pictures again and wanting to share my captures as sharing platforms, like Instagram, were becoming popular.

With my upgrade to a DSLR, photography was once again part of my life.

At that time, my social circle was filling with climbers and surfers. I wanted to document their stories through my camera. But outdoor sports were new to me and my friends’ adventurous lifestyle was way out of my comfort zone.

But as I would learn through an upcoming climbing trip, fear can be part of adventure.


The climbing mecca

California’s Joshua Tree National Park, a high desert climbing mecca with a seemingly endless number of routes, is a favorite amongst my friends. Camera in tow, I was tagging along for the weekend; it was going to be the first time I climbed outdoors.

Our first stop was Cyclops Rock. Though my friends picked an easier route for me to try (“The Eye”), there was a part of me that wanted to stay at the bottom and watch everyone else attempt the climb. The braver part of me, however, wanted to be a part of this story. As I climbed the sandpapery monzogranite rock, my body shook — both from the chill of the rock and from my fear of falling. The texture tore at my skin and my faith wavered in my climbing gear.

I didn’t make it to the top.

My hands were too cold. My skin was too soft. And I was too scared. But I had done it: I had chosen to put a harness around my waist, a helmet on my head, chalk on my hands, and climb up a tall rock wall.

Endless views

But I still wanted to see the view from the top. While my friends climbed The Eye on the frontside, I scrambled up the backside of the rock, feeling my intimidation increase as I gained elevation and exposure.

My friend was silhouetted in The Eye’s namesake, an opening of a small cave at the top of the climb.

I captured the shot, then climbed to the very top of the rocks, above the cave. The view from the top thrilled me, but so did the fact that I had worked through my fears to get there.

After I descended, we went to check the message board, a tool climbers use to communicate in the park, since it lacks cell service. A message on the board indicated that our friend was with a group of highliners at a campsite nearby.

Breaking the ice

Conversations sparked by the topic of photography is my favorite part of being a photographer. I’ve always struggled with shyness and social anxiety; it takes me an extra minute to break the ice with new people.

But my camera makes it easy to approach people or for others to start conversations with me: I can ask to photograph a person or their dog; others might ask me about my camera or my career. Photography opens the door for conversation and human connection.