For 15 years, Ulla Lohmann was haunted by an image. Taken by adventure photographer Simon Carter in 1995, it showed “a weird, very fragile-looking pillar of rock in the middle of the ocean”. That rock is the Totem Pole, a 65m sea stack that juts precariously out of the water at Cape Hauy, Tasmania.
Perched at the south-eastern tip of the Tasman Peninsula, it is a place Ulla describes as “completely the end of the world”. A last dagger of land before the wide, wild ocean south to Antarctica.
This sheer splinter of rock is one of climbing’s most intriguing challenges – and one of photography’s most interesting prizes. For German expedition photographer Ulla, it became an obsession. One to scale and to shoot. To conquer and to capture. “It screamed adventure to me,” she says. “The remoteness, the isolation, the challenge of the climb.”
The attraction was not simply that of a hard climb, however. Ulla’s professional instincts drew her to the Totem Pole, too.
“For years, I looked at maps and photographs, and I dreamed of one day doing it. So when I got the chance, I had to take it.”
Ulla prepared obsessively. As a photographer, she turned to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – a camera that combines versatility, performance and tough engineering.
“There’s no place for a reshoot,” she says. “Out there in the wild I cannot be precious with my equipment. I need one camera that can do a lot of things.”
The uncompromising image quality and advanced focusing and metering of the 5D Mark IV means there’s no need to fiddle around to find the right settings – and its robust weather-sealed body is essential in challenging environments.
“As a photographer, you’re in these rough conditions and you’re struggling with your own limits,” she says. “At the same time you have to get the camera out and take great shots. The 5D Mark IV pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Physically, Ulla pushed her own boundaries in her preparations for the Totem Pole, tackling climbing walls, cliffs and long Alpine ascents with husband Basti… until, finally, she was ready for the realisation of a dream. From the very start of the ascent, however, the Totem Pole was utterly unforgiving.
Reached only by an abseil from the Tasman Peninsula cliffs, the base of the rock is slashed and smashed by waves, slapped by spray and wind – and with no obvious footholds, no clear handholds.
“You look at it and think: I cannot go up there,” she remembers. “You’re very close to the ocean, the waves are pounding, the winds are strong and at the beginning everything is completely slick. There’s no friction and it’s very difficult to climb. You’re wet and every time the waves hit you get wetter and that makes it even harder.”
Despite this, she did manage to get purchase on the treacherous rock, seeking out the hidden crevices, the tiny cracks, any flaw or irregularity to gain hold. As Ulla inched her way up the spike, the hours dragged on, the light began to fade… and disaster struck.
Basti, who had been leading the climb, slipped, injuring his foot. As they assessed the damage, Ulla felt her dream begin to slide away.
“My arms were tight and my hands were bleeding – I was just holding on at that stage,” she says. “Even following Basti I could barely do it, but I knew I would never make it on my own. What’s more, we had to do the last, most dangerous bit of the climb at dusk. But I was not going to give up – you can always do more than you think.”
With Basti’s foot bandaged, they made one last push for the top. Finally, bruised, bloodied, with limbs on fire, Ulla reached the summit and – at the end of a decade-and-a-half of obsession – got the shot she had dreamed of.
“I looked down and saw this very harsh ocean, then looked up and saw the wide sky above and I suddenly felt very free,” she says. “I achieved my dream. I made it happen. After that struggle, all of a sudden I was on top.
“The German word for passion is Leidenschaft. It means ‘creation through suffering’. Reaching the edge of my limits is what makes me really feel alive. I love pushing my boundaries – and the Totem Pole really did that.”
The Totem Pole, by Ulla Lohmann. Ceonquered. Captured. Celebrated.