Before the days of Sprinter Vans, I spent a few seasons living in Yosemite in a Coleman children’s tent that I got from Walmart for $19.98. The packaging had a picture of a crosseyed kindergartner sitting inside and holding a purple dinosaur. I bought the tent because its shape most resembled the iconic Bibler I-Tent, the extreme shelter that often appeared in climbing magazines pitched on some impossible Himalayan ridge. I seam-sealed the kids’ tent on my parents’ front porch, and loaded it up into a rusting Nissan Sentra alongside a crate of climbing guidebooks and literature, knock-off Czech cams, and a red Petzl Ecrin helmet that sported a “Hey Fuck Face” sticker parodying The North Face logo. Then, I headed west to Yosemite.
I’d climbed in Yosemite several times before, during summer breaks from college. I climbed with strangers who held no discernible climbing experience whatsoever. I pawed my way up south-facing slabs in August, getting so dehydrated and scorched on the granite frying pan that I literally began to hallucinate.
This trip, though, I was gonna dig in, climb some big shit. I’d just graduated, and as most of my peers headed off to medical and law school, I, with not a lot of money, no health insurance, and no girlfriend, went into a kids’ tent in the woods.
These were the days when the Huber brothers still frequented the Valley, camping in the dirt alongside all the gumbies like me. Bridwell, Bachar, and Kauk all still occasionally showed up, too—and all those myths and legends spun by my favorite climbing writer John Long ossified into a type of bone-hard truth.
Back then—and it’s not as if this was all that long ago—the celebrities of the climbing world were the ones who were truly pushing the sport and taking real risk for little reward. They were real honest-to-god dirtbags. It was guys like Dean Potter, who floated in torn Prana rags and walked barefoot among the colossal ponderosa like a native spirit, one moment bounding clear across slack lines in the back of Camp 4; the next moment, gone, off on some other crazy shit.
My dirtbag fantasy came to an unexpected end when I got an opportunity to take a desk job working for a climbing magazine, and I spent the next decade covering the sport of climbing as it grew and grew. When I first started writing about climbing, I had a big middle finger to give to all the old bald fucks who protested the direction the sport was taking. Lamenting bygone days is an unflattering habit, one I promised myself I’d avoid, the way one avoids Jim Beyer routes, when I reached an age when it’s appropriate to start behaving in such a surly manner.
Thankfully, I’m not yet bald, but I am feeling rather surly when I look around and see the state of climbing, with its increasing focus on marketing and morphing just-above-average millennial climbers into narcissistic brand ambassadors who are famous on social media but don’t appear to actually do anything substantial on the rock. Or, more likely, perhaps, they’ve done one or two hard route of some debatable grade, then ride that achievement for as long and as far as they can.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
In a recent Instagram, Alex Puccio penned an interesting rant that began, albeit cryptically, with “Dear publicity and Media …”
She goes on:
“There’s something that really bothers me. I’m pretty frustrated with what it takes to be at the top level of our sport. I feel like I’m a pretty honest climber and person and I will never be ok with taking a higher grade for a climb just to get more recognition and publicity just to be more “famous” in our sport. People will always have their opinions and the sad thing is that when climbers take the inflated grade just to “look cooler” they might get crap from other professional climbers or climbers that are immersed in the sport, but to the majority that doesn’t know any better they look “bad ass”! Sure I could have said I’ve done another V14 or more V13s and even flashed a V12, but that’s not me and I wouldn’t have been honest to myself and to the media. …”
Dear publicity and Media, there’s something that really bothers me. I’m pretty frustrated with what it takes to be at the top level of our sport. I feel like I’m a pretty honest climber and person and I will never be ok with taking a higher grade for a climb just to get more recognition and publicity just to be more “famous” in our sport. People will always have their opinions and the sad thing is that when climbers take the inflated grade just to “look cooler” they might get crap from other professional climbers or climbers that are immersed in the sport, but to the majority that doesn’t know any better they look “bad a**”! Sure I could have said I’v done another V14 or more V13’s and even flashed a V12, but that’s not me and I wouldn’t have been honest to myself and to the media. I will never be one of those climbers to do that just to get ahead! And actually some of the climbs that have been the toughest for me have not been V14 or even V13. There are quiet a few V12’s that I have done that were physically and mentally the hardest for me because of the massive moves and slopy holds. I like to seek out the “non girly” or “non shortie” climbs because I like a challenge! I don’t want to be defined by my gender and height and no one will tell me what I can and can’t do! And I won’t just go seek out a climb with a big number attached to it just because it’s my style and it would be easier for me. A climb has to inspire me for me to want to try my hardest on it and have fun working it, otherwise it’s meaningless. I will always keep pushing myself, but honestly!!! I’m also want to add that im very thankful for my sponsors that support what I value as an athlete, person and climber! ? @scarpana @petzl_official @frictionlabs @sendclimbing ? by: @joelzerr
As I haven’t been following the bouldering scene all that closely lately, I’m not really sure what—or, rather, who—set off the Pooch on her social-media tirade, but I do think that her frustration is probably warranted, and speaks to a wider problem with climbing media. In the last 10-20 years, a lot has changed in terms of how climbing media is created, disseminated, and interpreted. Climbing news—the legendary “Hot Flashes” of the 1990s—used to be sent in by parcel, only to appear in print months later alongside a well-researched article that gave the ascent a proper context within the history of the sport.
When I first started working at Rock and Ice, compiling the Breaking News department for the print magazine was one of my first jobs. Within a few years, however, we ended up getting rid of this department and moving it online, which of course made the most sense as printed news (whose value is, by definition, its timeliness) couldn’t compete with the internet. Still, there were a few years when actual writers and journalists were the ones breaking stories, only doing it online.
Now even that has changed. Today, climbers are the ones breaking their own news stories on social media. And of course, often times, there is erroneous information in these guerrilla social-media blitzes, but they get passed on as the rock-solid truth. One recent example that comes to mind is when Ashima Shiraishi posted last September the news that climbing is definitely going to be in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her post was liked 3,900 times and shared 450 times. I even got calls from editors of major magazines asking me to do a story on this breaking development.
The problem is that Ashima was slightly mistaken; no big deal; she’s 14, and the press release she probably read was indeed confusing. Climbing isn’t officially an Olympic sport yet. I learned that through a very quick email to the IFSC, who promptly informed me that, “Sport Climbing was officially proposed as a new sport for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games by the Tokyo 2020 Additional Event Programme Panel. The final decision will be announced at the 129th IOC Session in Rio in August 2016. Until then, the IFSC will continue to work with the Athletes and the National Federations to reinforce and improve its organization to prove the solidity of this choice.”
Not only is this not surprising, but it’s hardly the worst example of the fact that Facebook has “swallowed everything,” according to this must-read article. It’s hard to even look at Facebook anymore because my feed—probably like everyone else’s—is filled with the most dubious and utter bullshit, about everything from climbing to this most-bizarre election cycle.
But the issue is much deeper than simply presenting, however innocently, wrong/misinformed information on social media—whether that’s about climbing in the Olympics, or about an over-inflated grade on a boulder problem. What’s crazy is just how many companies in the climbing/outdoor world are out there encouraging, supporting, and empowering climbers of a rather wide range of skill, vision, and ability to be their own brand ambassadors.
This perhaps explains why Puccio, who actually is at the top level of our sport, is frustrated with what it takes to be up there alongside her.
It begs the question: what does it take to be a top-level climber? In climbing, there is no World Series or Super Bowl, (though perhaps, if climbing actually makes it into the Olympics, that will change). For a long time, the climbers who were cutting edge were the ones who went out and made names for themselves by actually pushing the limits—through new routes and first ascents. Media and sponsorships followed as a result, but the climbing really was their primary focus.
I can’t help but think back to those days in Yosemite, when the Huber brothers, despite all their celebrity, despite all their leather pants, were also the guys putting up the hardest routes on El Cap by day, and sleeping in the dirt alongside everyone else in Camp 4 by night. It’s not as though I believe that in order to be a real, core climber, you have to be a dirty-ass hippie dirtbag—that’s just nostalgia talking. But the fact is, there was a certain dedication, a certain prioritization, that you saw in climbers who obviously were there for the love of the sport, whether they were practicing it at the highest levels (like the Hubers, Potter, etc.), or whether they were just broke idiots with political science degrees from expensive universities sleeping in kids’ tents (like me). It seems that level of sacrifice for the love of the sport is getting rarer—especially for some well-sponsored climbers.
Today, it seems like the paradigm has flip-flopped. It’s as if the more media you can create, the more sponsorships you will get, and then, therefore, the more you might be considered a top-level climber. There are only two people in the world who have climbed at a 5.15c level, but there are a shit-ton of people who are at a “5.15c level,” so to speak, in terms of their self-promotion and social-media savviness.
One way media companies are learning to survive in this new world order is to put out advertorial content or native advertising, which basically means presenting a sponsored idea for a story as an actual piece of journalism. In other words, corporate marketing interests are turning journalists into advertisers.
Likewise, companies are turning some of the best climbers in the world into their own marketing mouthpieces. And that has trickled down to everyone else, too. I’ve seen people who aren’t even sponsored by companies tagging those companies in their Instagram photos. Unless you’re getting paid or being given free gear, why would anyone do this? Have we really become so oblivious to the fact that we’re all being trampled into a single file vision of what climbing should look like?
The actual climbing side of climbing is truly beginning to feel secondary to the marketing of it.
Today’s breed of sponsored climbers, with their with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, don’t actually need to even send routes anymore, let alone establish first ascents or envision new creative ways to approach the mountains—the way Dean Potter (and many many others) did.
It would seem that the only expectations of what it takes to be a “professional” climber these days is having a vibrant and robust social-media campaign, one in which they post random photos of themselves preparing to climb, training to climb, or just posing down on a route they may or may not one day send—alongside, of course, all the attendant hashtags and sponsor mentions, and maybe a cliched quote or maxim of inspiration, or two. That’s more than enough to justify their existences on their sponsors’ payrolls.
As Puccio pointed out, there is also a problem of grade inflation—and perhaps even taking advantage of the often circumstantial “first female ascent”—in order to make what are otherwise average ascents seem much greater or more important than they are.
What’s also concerning is that these ascents are often later reported, almost verbatim and without any further historical context to hold one accountable for accuracy, on many climbing magazines’ and climbing-media websites.
I’m too old and surly to comment on whether or not this is a “good” direction for the sport. But it certainly seems that that anti-establishment view that drove me into a kids’ tent with a Hey Fuck Face sticker on my helmet is being replaced with something else, something very corporate and something that, at least to me, feels inauthentic.
What do you think?