I first learned about Leor Pantilat the way one learns about lots of things these days: while sitting on my couch and scrolling through Instagram. As an avid hiker and backpacker with decades of mileage in the wilds of California, I recognized the general features of the images he posted—the scoured granite of the Sierra Nevada and Trinity Alps, the poppy-littered ridges of the Coast Ranges, and the fern-strewn gorges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. But the vantages themselves were unfamiliar—rugged, even otherworldly.
Pantilat never revealed where his images were taken, and he rarely appeared in them. “I get flack sometimes,” he told me on the phone. “But some of these places are just way too sensitive to disclose to everyone.”
Years ago, Pantilat was a top-tier trail racer. For a while, he held the fastest known times on more than a dozen routes in California and Washington, including the John Muir Trail, the Lost Coast Trail, and the Sierra High Route, a grueling 200-mile traverse of the Sierra crest. Between 2008 and 2013, he won 36 of the 49 races he entered.
A typical training week consisted of 65 to 80 miles on the trail. “It also meant that I was constantly dealing with injuries—Achilles strains, IT-band soreness, you name it,” Pantilat said. Then, after placing third in a 50K in 2013, he gave up the racing scene. “I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun anymore. I felt like I was moving too quickly through all of these amazing places. I was going too fast to let it all sink in.”
These days, the 38-year-old, who works as a corporate attorney in San Carlos, California, goes at a relatively slower pace, mostly off-trail, seeking out and photographing destinations far from the weekend crowds. Rather than the longest distances or the biggest climbs, he’s after elegant routes to the most out-of-the-way places on the map. “It could be a canyon or a hanging valley, someplace that looks totally isolated,” Pantilat said. He meticulously pores over maps, looking for patterns in the contour lines that indicate deep gorges, towering cliffs, ragged spires, and other severe landscapes that, to his eye, are places of scenic grandeur. “You can tell a lot about how beautiful a place is going to be,” he said, “just by looking carefully at a topo map.”
Several years ago, Pantilat set out to find and document as many unnamed waterfalls in central California’s Big Sur as he could. To date he has found more than 150, from small pour-offs to towering 100-foot cascades. He calls it the Big Sur Waterfall Project. Getting to many of these places requires a host of skills, from bouldering to route finding through complex terrain. It also demands supreme endurance, strength, and, occasionally, a measure of luck. It entails hours of careful preparation, research, and conversations with people who intimately know the Big Sur backcountry. “I don’t claim to have discovered any of these waterfalls,” he told me. “Indigenous people were living, hunting, and gathering in what is today the Ventana Wilderness for millennia before us. But I don’t doubt that I’m the first person to see some of these places in a long, long time.”
Against my better judgment, I asked to join him for a day. He said it was possible on one condition: that I didn’t reveal our destination. I agreed. To ease his mind—or perhaps my own—about my ability, I mentioned that in years past I had done some strenuous canyoneering in Utah. Pantilat seemed unimpressed. “There are ticks and leg-breaking obstacles,” he said. “A lot of the hikes are not really what most people would call fun.”