Is cutting-edge climbing taking a back seat to celebrity, marketing, and social media?
I’m incredibly relieved. This has been an important process in my climbing career and clipping the anchor of “Perfecto Mundo”, my first 9b+ as well as getting the FA was an incredible experience. Thank you to @chris_sharma for bolting this thing and the good sessions over the last couple of weeks and big thanks to my good friend @steghiso for belaying me on the send, for being a big source of motivation and a great inspiration to me. And last but not least thank you @ken_etzel for being up there every day with me and capturing all this. @patagonia_climb @patagoniaeurope @patagonia @redbullgermany @goretexeu @tenayaclimbing @sterlingrope @dmm_wales @entreprisesclimbing @cafekraft_nuernberg @frictionlabs @fazabrushes @multicamper_adventure #stylefirst #carrotsforpower
Alex Megos recently freed Perfecto Mundo (5.15c) in Maragalef, Spain, for its first ascent.
Jonathan Siegrist just got the third ascent of Jumbo Love (5.15b), at Clark Mountain, California.
And Babsi Zangerl sent Speed Integrale (9a), at Voralpsee, Switzerland, her first of the grade.
You may have noticed these badass headlines in your Instagram feed. Maybe you stopped long enough to actually skim through the caption, though your eyes likely glazed over by the time you reach the inevitable graph of hashtags and @’s. You probably double-tapped the photo. Like. You probably learned little about the history of the route or gleaned anything of its significance. It was a pretty photo—one of the hundreds you likely saw that afternoon. By the next day, you probably forgot all about it.
Do you ever feel as though any of the really dope climbing that’s happening just kind of gets drowned out by the overabundance of bullshit on Instagram? Travel, training, selfies. Mind-numbing captions containing platitudes about “the process” and “journey.” Self-absorbed struggles with fear, doubt, and self-confidence. People speaking out. People speaking up. Everyone making token nods to the latest cause.
All of these common social-media narratives fall under the umbrella of providing our so-called fans/audience with something that’s supposed to resemble inspiration. With so much “inspiration” on climbing Insta, I’m often left wondering if anyone is actually inspired by anything anymore.
There are exponentially more strong climbers than ever before, but it seems as though far fewer of them—barring the obvious exceptions such as the aforementioned Megos, Siegrist, Zangerl, as well others such as Ondra, Honnold, Caldwell, Claassen, Sharma, Graham, Kinder, Kiersch, Davis, Rodden, Woods, Robinson, Hayes, Harrington, Hong, Hukkataival, etc.—are showing much interest in pushing aesthetics and difficulty in climbing.
The standard for being a professional climber once demanded pushing climbing progression in creative and interesting ways. Now, professional climbers are expected to be both visionaries and standard setters, as well as make time to create an endless supply of photo and video assets, attend events, and manage a constant and robust social media feed.
Why bother doing anything groundbreaking?
Question is, are these additional demands coming at the expense of top climbers’ abilities, if not desires, to push limits? If sponsors and the public are happy simply to see a new pretty photo once a day, with all of the appropriate hashtags and mentions, why bother doing anything groundbreaking?
The expectations that top climbers must be both world-class athletes and media machines ironically may be a self-defeating expectation in that all of that content just begins to feel … the same.
Perhaps this explains why the general climbing population seems to care more about the latest drama from Boulder, or about arguing who—among a community of people with seemingly all the free time in the world to travel and climb rocks—is the most privileged. People seem to be much more interested in following the climbers making mountains out of molehills than the climbers who are quietly sending mountains—not to mention, those who are doing it in such a way that reflects humility and respect for our sport’s history.
If top climbers are more incentivized to carve out their presence in climbing via social media than they are to actually pursue ground-breaking and visionary ascents, that is a problem the climbing world should recognize.
If this sounds the rantings of a washed-up old fart, that’s fair. But it’s not just I who rants gently into the good night.
“Getting recognized as a climber wasn’t as simple as being the only person to get to the top of the Women’s Finals Route in the gym,” says one longtime professional female climber, who would prefer to remain anonymous since our discourse is so toxic these days that expressing even a mildly controversial opinion opens one up to a headache that isn’t even worth it.
“The only way you used to get noticed by the public or by sponsors was if you were doing something to take the sport to a new level,” she continues. “A first ascent or a significant first female ascent of a route that was hard for the grade. You had to get in a climbing magazine, too, or appear on the cover to be recognized for that ascent. Now I hear people grumble because someone can make a pretty picture, write an inspirational caption, have enough followers, and perhaps that is good enough to make them a ‘prolific climber.’”
Being prolific in climbing is getting cheap
Indeed, being prolific in climbing is getting cheap. With a savvy understanding of how to pull the levers of social media, the right person, with the right image, and just enough climbing skills to lend one the necessary air of legitimacy, can be pretty darn successful without actually ever doing anything very significant.
At one point not so long ago, self-respecting climbers would be mortified, not to mention shunned by peers, to see an image of themselves in a magazine on a route they had not yet sent. Climbers today have no such concerns—perhaps because actual achievement is secondary to image, likes, spray.
With social media, the official record of climbing history has been snatched from the hands of magazine editors by the individual climbers, who act both as their own PR machines as well as the definitive news sources for their own ascents.
This has proven problematic insofar as inaccuracies are common, history is forgotten, and context is almost always omitted.
Magazines used to hold the keys to the castle when it came to making professional careers, which somehow helped prevent turning every climbing trip into another marketing campaign. Further, claims of groundbreaking ascents were researched by journalists, verified, and given appropriate context within the pages of the magazine.
Today there is virtually no such fact-checking or historical context. Reports of free big-walls, months later, through whispers and rumors, have been revealed to be less than what was stated: pitches either top roped or left undone by half the team; dubious belays or anchors points fabricated to break up the cruxes.
None of this seemingly matters anymore, though. The content was created—enough of it to fill a season’s worth of ads and social media. Climbing is becoming a game where it pays to spray.
Parts of the outdoor industry have tacitly encouraged this newfound self-glorification. Brands are less interested in supporting climbers who aren’t willing to turn their passions into daily ads and mini commercials on social media. Climbers who are truly passionate about route development and giving back to the community are less valuable than those who are “good ambassadors” for a brand—whatever that means. But what values are these ambassadors really representing?
Climbing hard is hard. This used to be the price of admission to being a professional climber. Social media lowered the bar by creating climbing celebrities who seem to be far more interested in being in front of cameras than on the sharp end of a difficult new route.
Does it matter? Maybe not. Perhaps most of us will just continue to double-tap, like, share, comment, and scroll on.