Published: September 2008
Capturing Midnight Lightning
ADVENTURE photographer Corey Rich and world-class climber Tommy Caldwell team up on Midnight Lightning, the most famous boulder problem on Earth, to unlock the 3-D power of Microsoft Live Lab's new Photosynth.

"For most climbers, Yosemite is the best place on Earth," says 30-year-old Tommy Caldwell, one of the most accomplished rock climbers on the planet. "The rock is perfect, the walls are big, and the place has so much history." As park visitors flock to the Sierra Nevada's granite giants, they also pay their respects to renowned Midnight Lightning, located on the massive Columbia Boulder at Camp 4.

Midnight Lightning's Legacy
"Camp 4 and Midnight Lightning are tremendously important to the cultural history of Yosemite National Park," notes Yosemite park ranger Scott Gediman. "Not only do they represent the origin of the sport of rock climbing, they serve as magnets for visitors from all over the world."

Located on the northeast face, the boulder problem was believed unclimbable until Ron Kauk claimed the first ascent in 1978. "When Midnight Lightning was established, it was the hardest problem on the planet," says Contributing Photographer Corey Rich, who is also a climber. "And it could not be ignored: Anytime you sat on a bench, walked to the restrooms, or peeked out of your tent, it was there." Today, every great contemporary climber—including Yosemite legend Lynn Hill, who was the first woman to make the ascent in 1998—has touched those holds.

Rated a V8, Midnight Lightning may not be the hardest problem (ratings cap at V15), but it's nothing to scoff at. "Climbing Midnight Lightning is equivalent to running a 4.5-minute mile," notes Rich. "To this day, only a small percentage of climbers will ever be able to savor the view from the top."

Until now, that is. With the help of Microsoft Live Lab’s new Photosynth, a Web tool that stitches together related images to create 3-D models of places, anyone—climber or not—can get a glimpse of victory.

Next: The Assignment, How Photosynth Works
The Assignment
To see how Photosynth works, we recruited top action photographer Corey Rich to find an iconic adventure landmark that he could shoot from any angle. Midnight Lightning was the perfect choice, but shooting it presented new challenges. "To work in the realm of 3-D, I approached the boulder almost as if a track had been laid down around it, moving very methodically as to not miss anything," recalls Rich. "I also had to keep in mind the details, being sure to capture the key holds of the boulder problem. Most important, I wanted to show a sequence of Tommy’s climb from several angles."

For Rich to capture some 3,500 frames, Caldwell climbed the route about a dozen times in 90-degree temperatures—not ideal. With bouldering, grip is everything, as there are no ropes and only foam crash pads to cushion falls. "In cool weather, I find Midnight Lightning pretty easy," recalls Caldwell, who first climbed it a decade ago. "But for the shoot, it was hard. I failed as many times as I succeeded." Still, the sport has a magic all its own, especially for the Lance Armstrong of rock climbing. "The energy surrounding bouldering can be amazing," says Caldwell. "The problem-solving, the physical and mental challenges—they all make for an incredible experience."

How It Works: Photosynth Highlights
- See 360-degree views of the Columbia Boulder
- Learn how to climb Midnight Lightning by examining key holds
- Use the navigation arrows to zoom in, out, up, and down
- Press the “play” button to automate the navigation of the synth
- View each of the 500 images individually

Next: About the Photographer
About the Photographer
Adventure and lifestyle photographer Corey Rich has traveled the world on assignment for many of the best editorial and commercial clients in the industry. He is a Contributing Photographer for National Geographic ADVENTURE magazine. Himself a climber, adventurer, and photojournalist, Rich has photographed a wide array of assignments, including rock climbing in Mexico, surfing in Panama, freight-train hopping in the American West, ultra-marathon racing in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, and snowboarding in Papua New Guinea. Additionally, Rich is on the Board of Directors for The Access Fund, he is Vice President of Aurora Photos and has to his credit, the coffee table book, My Favorite Place: Great Athletes In The Great Outdoors. Corey lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.